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The Toronto Raptors entered the 2018 NBA playoffs firmly believing they were capable of winning the NBA championship. They exited the postseason on Monday night having been thoroughly disabused of that notion, yet again, by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who weathered the storm of a Game 1 in which they led for zero seconds of the first four quarters to steal home-court advantage before burying the East’s No. 1 seed beneath a hail of heart-breaking shots that culminated in a Monday night blowout.
The Raptors have now bowed out three straight years to LeBron and company, and have been swept out of the postseason by Cleveland two years running. Toronto feels broken, destroyed, at an impasse — like something needs to change if the Raptors are going to be able to enter next season with a reason to believe once again. And since team president Masai Ujiri can’t just bank on LeBron leaving the conference, and since Toronto has locked in its veteran core to very expensive contracts through the next two seasons, attention has turned from the players who have fallen to Cleveland in 10 straight playoff games to the coach who has presided over those failures. From Josh Lewenberg of TSN:
With his team fresh off another disappointing postseason exit, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has some hard decisions to make over the coming months. Head coach Dwane Casey is expected to be the first domino to fall.
The evaluation period is ongoing but, according to sources, the Raptors are strongly leaning towards making a coaching change.
Lewenberg’s report — backed by Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun — comes on the heels of one from Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that “executives around the league anticipate that the Raptors will make a coaching change, though there are no guarantees after Toronto’s success this regular season.”
The case for keeping Casey
Ah, yes, that success. Casey has been the coach responsible for the longest and greatest stretch of sustained success in Raptors history, a run of four division titles in five years and three straight 50-win seasons during which Toronto transformed from an also-ran after Chris Bosh’s defection to a second-round mainstay. Casey helped turn DeRozan and Lowry into perennial All-Stars, and if you don’t believe me, just ask them:
"I been with Case 7 years. He put the trust in me, he believed in me, he let me be a 21-year-old kid, going out there, play freely. A lot of my success, all of my success, I've gotta credit to Case." – DeRozan
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) May 8, 2018
Lowry on Casey: "I've been able to be who I've become with him. I always believe in him. I believe he's one of the best coaches out there."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) May 8, 2018
Casey has helped guide the development of all those bright young things who became the backbone of the best season in franchise history. When it looked like the Raptors’ best chance at winning came by putting the ball in the hands of his All-Star backcourt as much as possible for as long as possible, he did that. When it became evident after last year’s sweep that change was in order, he did that, too.
At Ujiri’s prompting, Casey went all-in on altering his approach and the team’s fundamental identity to emphasize increased ball and player movement, a quicker pace, more 3-point shooting. He democratized Toronto’s offensive environment, creating a world in which reserves stood shoulder-to-shoulder with stars, with everybody expected to read, react, make the right play and let many hands make light work. Lowry played fewer minutes. DeRozan passed more. Nearly everybody else did more, and did it better.
It worked, to the tune of 59 wins and the No. 1 seed. It worked, to the tune of an actual Game 1 win at home and finishing out the Wizards on the road. It worked, to the tune of holding double-digit leads against the Cavs in all four quarters of Game 1 and never trailing until the start of overtime.
And then, y’know, it didn’t work. But for an unthinkable number of missed great looks late in Game 1 and a ludicrous running leaning bank shot in the final second of Game 3, the entire world looks different today; maybe the Raptors are even playing tomorrow.
They’re not, though, and thus, the dark clouds gather. If a storm’s going to come to wash Casey out after seven years on the bench, though, it’s worth remembering what else might get washed away with the stain.
As Raptors weigh future with Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, belief is they have a preference for having an experienced head coach at helm of 59-win team coming off five straight post-season appearances. Decision likely to be made sooner rather than later.
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) May 8, 2018
The case for moving on from Casey
Despite that success, though, it’s possible the Raptors’ braintrust comes away from a third straight undressing at LeBron’s hands feeling like the current iteration has run its course … and that, quiet as its kept, Casey’s club looked less like a potential champion near season’s end than its win total and seeding would indicate.
The Raptors ended the regular season as one of only four teams to rank in the top 10 in the league in points scored and allowed per possession, alongside the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. But they showed signs of slippage on the defensive end late in the season, falling to the middle of the NBA pack in defensive efficiency over their final 15 games.
Most troublingly, as noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Toronto struggled most against elite offenses — to be expected, perhaps (they’re elite offenses, after all), but a dangerous sign when you’re on a path to line up against a team featuring LeBron James flanked by shooters:
Have noted how Raptors have been best at taking care of business, but after Ls to 2 top-10 offenses (CLE & LAC) last week, here's something…
Only the Cavs have been worse defensively vs. league's top-10 offenses. pic.twitter.com/JmoAq3qRZY
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 26, 2018
One of the Raptors’ other key strengths throughout the season — the five-man bench unit of guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, veteran shooter C.J. Miles, and young bigs Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl — underwent a similar late-season slide. Before the All-Star break, that unit was the most dominant big-minutes lineup in the NBA, blowing opponents’ doors off by an obscene 31.1 points per 100 possessions in 172 minutes. After the break, though, things leveled off: they outscored opponents by 2.3 points-per-100, still good for an all-bench unit, but only 20th among 31 lineups to log at least 100 post-break minutes.
Even as the Raptors were proclaiming their confidence in their ability to go all the way, their strengths were beginning to slide. And while Casey saw it — “We’re playing for something special. To do that, you’ve got to play as close to as many 48-minute games as you possibly can from here until the end of June,” he said after a come-from-behind win over the Brooklyn Nets in March — he couldn’t stop it.
Casey couldn’t get the Raptors’ defense up to snuff in the postseason, giving up 106.7 points-per-100 (ninth out of 16 playoff teams, third-worst out of Round 1 winners) to the Washington Wizards before the floodgates opened in the semifinals against LeBron and the Cavs. And while a right shoulder injury to VanVleet on the eve of the postseason limited how often and how effectively he could turn to the bench lineup in the playoffs, Casey struggled to find consistently workable non-starting-five lineups in either series.
To that end, Casey’s rotation choices against Cleveland will be picked over all summer. On one hand, it’s nearly impossible to match up with Cleveland when they go small with Kevin Love at center, LeBron at power forward, and shooters spacing the floor at the other three spots. On the other, Casey’s juggling in an attempt to find answers left Toronto more vulnerable to mismatches — stuff like DeMar DeRozan and C.J. Miles guarding Love in the post, or sending early double-team help at LeBron and Love that the Cavs picked apart repeatedly to find open shots all over the court.
Tasked with trying to find ways to match up with Cleveland’s small-ball lineups without giving away the store, Casey never turned to his most versatile defensive forward pairing — rookie OG Anunoby and second-year man Siakam, who saw one total minute of shared floor time in the four-game sweep. Tasked with trying to keep the Raptors within striking distance as the Cavs held a small lead late in the second quarter of Game 2, Casey dusted off Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, who had scarcely played since early April, for what wound up being a disastrous stretch that turned a four-point deficit into a 16-point halftime hole out of which Toronto would never climb.
Where Toronto turns from here
Casey’s not the reason the Raptors didn’t beat the Cavaliers. But if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment ownership and Ujiri believe Toronto needs more than just a “culture reset” after this loss — something that more effectively shakes the team in hopes of restoring the spirit it lost along the way — well, it figures to be pretty tough to find deals that would offload the $64.3 million owed to Lowry (now age 32) over the next two years, the $83.2 million owed to the 28-year-old DeRozan over the next three, or the $44.9 million owed to Ibaka (who seemed to deteriorate as if he’d drank from the wrong grail against Cleveland) over the next two while returning something like commensurate talent/value that would allow the Raptors to remain in contention for deep playoff runs.
Faced with those kinds of logistical tangles, it’s a lot easier to just fire the coach, under the auspices of finding “a new direction and a different voice” to get the team to the next level. (Especially when you’ve already got three pretty attractive and in-demand candidates — assistant Nick Nurse, widely credited with the Raptors’ offensive overhaul; Rex Kalamian, a respected assistant going back to his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder; and Jerry Stackhouse, an NBA name that rings out who’s also opened eyes with his work coaching the Raptors 905 G-League team — already in-house.) It might not be right, or feel very good, but it’s easier. Now, we wait to find out if Ujiri’s ready to take that step and, if so, whether it’s the one the Raptors really need to finally reach their brass ring.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly claimed the Raptors had won five straight division titles. The Boston Celtics won the Atlantic Division in the 2016-17 season; the Raptors have won four in five years. We regret the error.
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