Every day this NBA season, Bryan Colangelo and the rest of the Toronto Raptors organization would receive a motivational saying via text message from coach Dwane Casey.
The words, Colangelo said, spoke volumes about the man he'd hired to change the culture of the Raptors and turn around the flailing franchise.
“I learned a little bit about Dwane every day,” the Raptors president and GM said at his season-ending news conference. “For the first week I thought I was special, I thought I was the only guy getting these texts, turns out everybody was getting them.
“It was inspirational, it was a thought-provoking idea every day. I learned a little bit about his tenacity and his unwillingness to accept anything less than the best, he took every possible moment — good and bad — to use as a teaching moment.”
The Raptors missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, capping their 23-43 campaign with a victory over the New Jersey Nets on Thursday night that left them 11th in the East and tied with Golden State for seventh-last in the league.
But the Warriors won the tie-breaker Friday, meaning they'll have better odds than Toronto for a high draft pick in the May 30 lottery.
But Colangelo and Casey insist the team is headed in the right direction, and the coach was rewarded for his first year at the Raptors' helm with a contract extension.
Colangelo said the former Dallas Mavericks assistant, hired by Toronto last summer for his defensive know-how, had to bite the bullet a few times this season as the Raptors focused more on building than winning. This season's aim was to develop the young players, and gain flexibility to add talent for next year.
“It all fell in line with the plan,” Colangelo said. “. . . It was to change the culture of the team, get to the point where we learned how to win, get to the point where we do not accept losing, get to the point where we target nothing but winning.”
There was plenty of losing in yet another season with no playoff appearance. But the GM called it “purposeful losing.”
“There's losing purposely and losing with purpose, and if we did lose an abundance of games this year, we did so on the basis that there were positive steps and growth happening and we're going to be better off in the long run,” he said.
Colangelo and Casey vowed next year will be a different story. The goal is the post-season.
“I'm raring to go,” Colangelo said on gearing up for next season. “Last night (season-finale) could not have come soon enough.”
There was a silver lining to this season. Casey said as far as statistics went: “Defensively we were off the charts.”
The Raptors began the season near the bottom of the league in defence, but finished around the middle of the pack. Andrea Bargnani, the team's leading scorer, played the best defence of his career.
Colangelo joked that Casey pocketed some extra cash, bonuses for meeting defensive targets.
“I think the secret to next year is putting some offensive performance bonuses into play,” he said.
The loss of Bargnani was a big blow to the team. He missed 35 games with a calf injury, of which the Raptors won just 10.
The next few months will be busy for Colangelo and staff. The team will have a decent pick in the NBA draft June 28 and some money to spend when the free agency signing period opens July 1.
The team is in dire need of shooters, Colangelo said.
Toronto also has Lithuanian centre Jonas Valanciunas waiting in the wings. Toronto took him fifth in last year's draft but left the 19-year-old in Europe for another season of development.
“If he comes in as the president of Lithuania, I'll be nervous, but he literally has that kind of status in Lithuania,” Colangelo said. “It's a fairly small country, I think there's three million people, 2.9 million of them are basketball fans, they treat it like a religion and he has elevated himself to very important status in that community, athletically, politically, everything.”
As far as attracting free agents, Casey gave what amounted to his own public service announcement on behalf of the city.
“All the stuff people say about free agency with Toronto being another country and you'll have tax problems — all of that is crap,” Casey said. “This city is one of the finest cities. It's a top five city in North America. For any free agent who doesn't think this is a special situation, they are sadly mistaken.”
Casey and Colangelo are looking forward to actually spending the off-season working with players. Last year's NBA lockout prevented any contact. By the time it ended, training camp was shortened, the Raptors played just two pre-season games before a hectic, jam-packed 66-game schedule. Every game this season was a practice in itself, Colangelo said. Not an ideal learning environment for a new coach of a young team — DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis are 22, Jerryd Bayless is 23, Amir Johnson is 24, and Bargnani is 26.
“We've got young players that are going to improve their basketball games, improve physically. . . mature as basketball players. The best part is we have some continuity now.
“We feel like we've got everything lined up, we're poised with all the tools in front of us to make this team substantially better,” he added.
Casey said his entire coaching staff will remain intact for next season.