The easy, cynical approach is to say that Masai Ujiri decided to honour the final year of Dwane Casey’s contract as Toronto Raptors head coach because Casey is a tailor-made scapegoat should the 2013-14 regular season go all pear-shaped.
Casey and Ujiri, the Raptors’ president and general manager of basketball operations, are aware of the perception. The salve for Casey – if he needs it – is that under Tim Leiweke, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment doesn’t seem scared to wield the axe or have time for dainty political games.
Leiweke, MLSE’s president and chief operating officer, had pushed Ujiri’s predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, into the land of make-work projects. Colangelo hasn’t been heard from since.
Casey confirmed there will be changes to his coaching staff, and some of the low-hanging fruit has been pruned – a numbers guy here, a numbers guy there, and scout Alvin Williams. Spare the tears. This is what bad teams ought to do. Ujiri and Leiweke are not the Visigoths portrayed in some corners of the media, but neither do they seem like gentlemen searching for scapegoats. More likely they’re interested in trying to figure out what levers to pull to put themselves in position for Andrew Wiggins, the LeBron James of Canada, should he elect to come out for the 2014 draft.
Far from being a scapegoat, it appears Ujiri views Casey, rightly, as the type of defensive mind that can build the foundation of a contending team. Players on run-and-gun teams make a lot of money because of the weight of their statistics, and that is not a cost-effective way for a market such as Toronto to do business. Casey came to Toronto with a résumé that stressed defence, and immediately turned the strike-season Raptors into a tough defensive group only to have it undone last season by a panicky Colangelo. You think the Raptors need an identity? They had one until Colangelo overreached.
Casey, whose Raptors record is 57-91 (.385) over two seasons, including the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, did not want to fight old battles, but he did acknowledge that: “Somehow, some way, the word ‘playoffs’ hit us last year … and put us out of whack.
“As an organization, we wanted to get better offensively, but put too much time in on the offensive side.” Then Casey caught himself. “No, that’s not right. We put in the time we needed offensively, but at the same time, took a step back defensively. We will get back to that. I promise that. We will get back to a defensive-first mentality.”
It was telling that not once on Thursday was Andrea Bargnani’s name mentioned. Kyle Lowry’s name came up only when Casey was asked, and that was not the case with Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and, perhaps surprisingly, Rudy Gay, the latter of whom recently met with Ujiri and Casey over dinner.
“Our core guys can score,” Casey said, dismissing the notion that the existing roster can’t be coached to get the balance right. “Jonas has shown he can be a dominant scorer in the paint. DeMar is a scorer. Rudy is a scorer. We have to surround those guys with tough players.
“But,” Casey added, “right, wrong or indifferent, he [DeRozan] and Rudy are going to be guarding the other teams’ best perimeter players. So they will have to be our best players defensively as well as offensively.”
Gay has had corrective surgery for his vision and has put on muscle, according to Casey, who suggested Gay was not up to the physical challenge of being a go-to guy following his trade to the Raptors after being a “second or third option” with the Memphis Grizzlies.
This season was a waste, and now it’s up to others to decide whether the Raptors tank in an attempt to get into the draft lottery. Nobody knows where it’s going, and a few deep breaths will be needed, but the new guy got this move right.