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Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has a 57-91 record in two seasons. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has a 57-91 record in two seasons. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeff Blair

Fresh start starts at the top for coach Casey and Raptors Add to ...

One of the good things about being Tim Leiweke is you can go to the top when it comes to due diligence. So getting early indications that the dysfunctional relationship between Bryan Colangelo and Dwane Casey was more than just rumour, the new head of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., called Mark Cuban.

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Nobody can’t like Dwane Casey. If you do, you have some pretty serious flaws as a human being. But what about as a coach?

“Mark said: ‘If you don’t want him, I’ll take him,’” Leiweke said, in recalling the conversation with the Dallas Mavericks owner. “Mark’s a good friend. You hear that from him ... well, I put a lot of stock in what he says.”

It’s no surprise that Cuban would feel that way about Casey, who is entering what seems to be a much more blissful third season as Toronto Raptors head coach. After all, Casey was the defensive coach on Cuban’s 2010-11 NBA championship team and it was Cuban who pitched Casey to Colangelo when the erstwhile general manager of the Raptors was looking for a head coach.

Yet with the regular season now just days away, Leiweke, new general manager Masai Ujiri and Casey all realize the situation is seen by some as a new management team hanging on to a potential scapegoat should the season go pear-shaped, or as a team preparing to strip down, not wanting to bring in a new coach until the slate has been wiped clean.

Leiweke says there is no mystery about how Ujiri and MLSE are approaching this Raptors season: see where the team is in the new year, and go from there.

Yes, the next NBA draft is tantalizingly deep and highlighted by Toronto-born Andrew Wiggins.

Yes, a lot of teams are tanking for a juicy draft lottery spot and – yes – when Ujiri was Denver Nuggets GM he traded franchise player Carmelo Anthony at the trade deadline. He favours the bold move.

“The direction we go is a decision the players will make for us,” Leiweke said. “So, let’s see where we are after two months.”

Less clear is what the Raptors have in Casey, who has put together a 57-91 record in two seasons. Year 1 was a revelation, as a marshmallow-soft team developed a pronounced defensive identity. But in Year 2, Casey opened it up, later acknowledging that, in his words, “the pendulum swung too far to the left.”

What also became obvious to observers was that the relationship between Casey and Colangelo had swung even farther left. A political animal, Colangelo cultivated a bosom-buddy friendship with general partner Larry Tanenbaum, while knowing that MLSE was looking for a new major domo.

Yet just as MLSE’s two other owners, Rogers Communications and mostly BCE Inc., tired of Brian Burke’s bully-boy approach at the board level, so too did Colangelo become tiresome.

The story is told – denied by some, supported sotto voce by others – that BCE’s chief executive officer George Cope, a former basketball player at Western, in particular felt a kinship with Casey. There were reports that Colangelo tried to fire Casey and interfered with the day-to-day working of the coaching staff. Colangelo, who had thrown Casey and the staff under the bus when with the Raptors looking at a 4-18 record he made his now infamous statement that it was “not a talent issue,” has denied he made any such move. Not everybody believes him.

“It’s very evident that coach Casey is a different guy, now,” said Leiweke, suggesting he is not of a mind to revisit the issue. “He’s more engaged. More assured. More confident. He’s in a better place, because the environment’s better.”

The proof will be in the regular-season pudding. Sports Illustrated picked the Raptors to finish eighth and ESPN sees them tied for seventh in an Eastern Conference that is a jumble after the top three or four spots.

There have been things to like in the pre-season – such as Rudy Gay’s added muscle, DeMar DeRozan’s bold statement that he “just doesn’t feel like anybody can guard me,” and that he has added a post game to his repertoire; Kyle Lowry’s lost weight – and things to worry about (the second unit, a lack of depth behind Lowry).

But perhaps the magic words are “contract year” as Gay, Lowry and Casey are all playing and coaching for their next deal.

As the Raptors prepared for their final home exhibition game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Amir Johnson said there was a different atmosphere during training camp. “I just feel that, as a team, we’re all on the same page this year,” he said. “Things are more relaxed. More stable. I think everybody would tell you that the vibe is more relaxed … I mean, what would you call it, A.G.?”

“Synergy,” teammate Aaron Gray responded. “I’d call it synergy.”

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