For the Raptors to move forward, they need to fire the best coach they've ever had
Team president Masai Ujiri has made no guarantees about Dwane Casey's future
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri came into his end-of-season press conference fired up.
Never a man to act rashly, Ujiri repeatedly emphasized the need to evaluate everything before making any major franchise decisions.
"Going from last year to this year, we're happy with the jump we made," said Ujiri. "We are absolutely disappointed with the ending of the season."
On Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers blew out the Raptors in Game 4 to complete a second-round sweep of Toronto for the second consecutive year. On Tuesday, reports surfaced that the club was strongly leaning toward parting ways with head coach Dwane Casey. On Wednesday, Casey was named the NBA's coach of the year by his peers.
So, what happens next?
'I always believe in him'
The Raptors completed their most successful regular season in franchise history in 2017-18, winning 59 games and earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
With Casey at the helm, the Raptors improved their record in each of the past seven years except for one (2016-17). The team made the playoffs in five straight seasons. It's easily the best run in franchise history.
Casey, 61, oversaw the development of almost every player on the roster. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan became all-stars under Casey's tutelage and both players voiced support for Casey after the season ended.
"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," said Lowry.
DeRozan added: "I've been with Case seven years. He put the trust in me, he believed in me, he let me be a 21-year-old kid going out there, playing freely. A lot of my success, all of my success, I've gotta credit to Case."
Nothing but love for Coach. <a href="https://t.co/jFCj1kjYPg">pic.twitter.com/jFCj1kjYPg</a>—@Raptors
Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby — all drafted outside of the lottery, or in VanVleet's case, not drafted at all — have improved significantly from their first games as a Raptor.
There is no questioning Casey's player-development and regular-season coaching skills. But for four of the past five post-seasons, the Raptors have disappointed. Three players — DeRozan, Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas — have been present for each run. Casey, too.
'It's not doomsday'
Under Ujiri, Toronto has strived to become a basketball program along the lines of Gregg Popovich's Spurs. Stability is success. The logo on the front is bigger than the name on the back.
With that in mind, Ujiri viewed the freshest playoff disappointment through a widened lens.
"To me, it's not doomsday. Where our program is, it's not doomsday. What these guys have done will remain in history… I think we have to respect that," said the Raptors president.
Ujiri dismissed the notion of tanking and called it his job to improve the team from here.
He made no assurances, though, about Casey's job.
For various reasons, none of the Raptors players are particularly desirable assets. Lowry is a 32-year-old point guard owed north of $60 million US over the next two years. After a horrible playoff showing, Serge Ibaka still has two years and $45 million left on his contract.
It would be hard to receive fair value for DeRozan. He's proven that he's an all-star, but not a superstar. Maybe there's a market for Valanciunas, but the league is moving away from lumbering centres like the Raptors' Lithuanian.
That leaves one significant change to be made: fire the most successful head coach in franchise history.
How do you weigh an outstanding regular season against a frustrating post-season? Is it possible Casey becomes a worse coach after Game 82?
"I don't think we were out-coached. Twenty-three has a lot to do with it, to making the adjustments to how we play him. I thought we had a sound game plan in each game," said Casey.
Twenty-three is LeBron James, and 23 may be the biggest point in Casey's favour. Maybe there's nothing any coach could've done against one of the greatest of all time.
Then again, an inferior Pacers squad pushed James' Cavaliers to seven games in the first round. In fact, a missed goaltending call against the Pacers in Game 5 may have ended the Cavaliers' season.
It was obvious that Toronto matched up poorly against Cleveland. It was also obvious there was more Casey could've done.
For the first three games, Casey had Valanciunas, a slow defender, matched up with Kevin Love, naturally a power forward, at centre. Love took full advantage of the speed disparity, and besides a bad Game 1, he roasted Valanciunas.
Casey finally adjusted in Game 4 by bringing Valanciunas off the bench to match up against Canadian Tristan Thompson — a player who lacks Love's agility and three-point range.
Valanciunas was the team's leading scorer that game.
There was also the costly defensive decision to let James switch off Anunoby and onto C.J. Miles, a worse defender, in the fateful final possessions of Game 3.
"There's adjustments you look back and wish you could have made in certain situations, I know some of the obvious ones are there. But there's always things you can look at and say, 'Oh, I could have done it here,' but that's in every game," said Casey.
There seem to be a lot of regrets for Casey each year. Hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes foresight needs to be just as sharp.
The Raptors can run it back for another year with the same coaches and same core players and hope James uses free agency to lock up his twilight years in a sunnier city out West, out of the Raptors' way.
Still, there will be burgeoning dynasties in Philadelphia and Boston to be dealt with.
Casey's Raptors have been very good for a long time. A majority of the head coaches in the NBA think Casey was the best of the bunch in the regular season. If there was ever a time to become great, it was this season as the No. 1 seed.
It didn't happen, and so change is in order. It's time for Dwane Casey's tenure as Raptors head coach to end.