Dwane Casey was fired by the Toronto Raptors on Friday, and for the next 48 hours expect the outrage from the coaching ranks to kick into overdrive. The conference finals coaches will weigh in, Rick Carlisle, too, and somewhere, someone will track down a Van Gundy.
And it will be justified. All Casey did in seven seasons was win 57.3 percent of his games, rack up three consecutive 50-plus-win seasons and make the playoffs five straight times. This year may have been his finest: The offense stale, Casey overhauled it, successfully, while incorporating a revamped bench filled with young bodies. The free-flowing, 3-point shooting Raptors were the NBA’s second-most efficient team; Toronto’s 59 wins were the most in franchise history.
Ultimately, Casey was fired for what he couldn’t do: beat LeBron James.
Call it unfair, and it is. The Philadelphia 76ers drop a game or two down the stretch, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the No. 3 seed, and we probably aren’t here. Casey is preparing for the conference finals — the Raps were 3-1 against Philadelphia in the regular season — and we’re writing about James’ continued dominance of the Celtics. That is if LeBron were strong enough to beat back Boston’s Improbable Team.
Instead, it’s three strikes against James and you’re out, and the NBA’s likely Coach of the Year is packing up his office. Casey didn’t cover himself with glory in the conference semifinals; a coach’s job is to instill confidence in his players, and the top-seeded Raptors often played timidly. Cleveland’s offense isn’t exactly a Rubik’s Cube of complexity, yet Casey’s defense — the strength of his teams through the years — surrendered 118.5 points per game, including a whopping 128 in the second-round Game 4 eliminator.
“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement. “As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level. We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organization, we thank him, and we wish him nothing but the best in the future. He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”
Still, is it Casey’s fault Toronto missed four potential game-winners in the paint in the final seconds of Game 1? Win the first game of the series, gain some confidence, maybe don’t get bulldozed by 18 in Game 2. Was Casey unable to force the ball out of James’ hand in the waning seconds of Game 3? Casey took the heat for LeBron’s game-winner — but made it clear he ordered his team to trap, and force him to give it up.
“Our goal in the timeout was to trap him and make someone else beat us,” Casey said after Game 3. “He split the trap and went 100 miles an hour down the floor and lost them. We just didn’t execute. It was probably my fault that I didn’t make it clear that we wanted to trap him and get the ball out of his hands. We had it started in the backcourt, and, for whatever reason, we let him out of the trap.”
James owns a nice piece of real estate in the Raptors’ heads, Casey couldn’t evict him, and now he’s gone. He didn’t want to lose his job, but he’ll collect $6 million from the Raptors next season, more from TV and be the NBA’s hottest coaching property next spring. If he wanted back in right away, Casey, 61, could be in the mix for openings in Milwaukee, Detroit or Orlando.
Toronto will move forward, and Ujiri will get to do something he has yet to do as Raptors GM: hire a coach. Ujiri and Casey have become intertwined over the years, but Ujiri inherited Casey, and there’s been a long-held, league-wide belief that Ujiri’s desire to hire his own coach (as any new exec would want to do) has been foiled by Casey’s, well, winning. It’s clear Ujiri favors Toronto’s new offense, which is why Mike Budenholzer, a proponent of a pass-happy, 3-point attack, is a candidate, as could be Nick Nurse, a popular Casey assistant who helped design Toronto’s retooled system.
An aside: There’s more than a little irony in the possibility that the Raptors could replace the coach LeBron destroyed (Casey) with the one (Budenholzer) that James used to torment.
Pat Riley had Michael Jordan, Rick Adelman had Kobe and Shaq, Casey has James. But Riley went on to win a championship in Miami, and Adelman had a successful stint in Houston. They bounced back. Casey will, too.
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