Dwane Casey has been carrying around a contract in his briefcase for the past few months, signed by all the Toronto Raptors and the team’s staff.
The contract, just two or three lines long and something that “wouldn’t hold up in court,” Casey said laughing, was a pledge of commitment. Its headline: “I’m all in.”
Perhaps no one was more committed than Casey to the Raptors’ success this season, and on Tuesday, the 57-year-old coach was rewarded with a new three-year contract. The announcement came two days after Toronto’s season ended, but a couple of months after GM Masai Ujiri first approached the coach to get a new deal done.
“Coach Casey was really classy because he said to me and he said to the players, ‘Let’s leave this and concentrate on the season, this is our chance to prove ourselves,“’ Ujiri said, recounting his initial contract talks with Casey back in March.
“He said, ‘If I’ve preached that to the players, then I owe it to them to continue this and we’ll talk about (contract negotiations) after the season.’ I really give him credit for that.”
Casey led a young Raptors team to a remarkable and unexpected season that included a franchise-record 48 wins, an Atlantic Division title, and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Toronto pushed the vastly experienced Brooklyn Nets to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs, losing Game 7 by just a point.
Casey said he drew up his “I’m all in” pledge right after the February all-star break. In their next game, the Raptors recorded a big 103-93 win at Washington.
“(It was about) committing to the process. Leaving their egos at the door,” said Casey, who said he might have the contract framed. “Each player dedicated themselves, gave themselves to the season, and also as far as I’m concerned to the future. Because this year was just a start of what we want to grow and develop with Masai as our leader and also the guys that are coming back here.”
Kyle Lowry was the first player to jump up and sign the pledge, said Casey.
Retaining Lowry, the point guard whose teammates say was their heart and soul this season, will be one of the Raptors’ top priorities in the coming weeks — the 28-year-old becomes a free agent on July 1. Lowry spoke glowingly in exit interviews a day earlier about his love for his teammates and the city, and Ujiri sounded, on Tuesday, as if the feeling was mutual.
“It’s very important (to re-sign Lowry) in terms of continuity,” Ujiri said. “Kyle has had a phenomenal year. I thought Kyle was a huge, huge key to our season. For me, negotiating is easy if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here.
“He’s grown tremendously, to be coached and to work with,” Ujiri continued. “His teammates, everybody has said that. We’re proud of him. And so we’ll go through that process, but we’re optimistic stuff will happen.”
Lowry and his teammates praised Casey in season-ending media interviews, noting the consistency of his message.
For his part, Casey said he never considered testing the market. Ujiri made a commitment to the coach when the season began, and Casey said it was only fair he reciprocate.
Casey’s job status was uncertain when the season began. He was hired by Bryan Colangelo, and Ujiri had just replaced Colangelo as GM.
“Masai could have made any decision when he first took over the job last spring.” Casey said. “He was true to his word, he gave all of us a platform to go out and prove and show, even the players, what you can do. And he was true to his word. That’s all you can ask for in this business is an opportunity.
“It would be so disingenuous to even go out and put your foot in the market and think that was a possibility, so I didn’t even give it a second thought. My heart is here, my mind is here.”
The Raptors thrived after the seven-player deal last December that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. Casey, who is almost fatherly in the way he communicates with his team, worked four new players into the roster, and from that point forward Toronto had the best mark in the Eastern Conference at 41-22.
Casey and Ujiri were proud of the team’s performance in the playoffs. They squared off against a Nets team that was built for success right now, whereas the Raptors are very much a work in progress.
Casey was named head coach in June 2011, shortly after he helped guide the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA title. When asked which season — the championship in Dallas, or this Raptors campaign — was more satisfying, he said this one.
“It’s far more gratifying watching kids grow, watching development ... watching guys go through Game 6, when our compete level in the first half was probably one of the lowest we had all year, and then turn it around and put ourselves in a position to win the game,” Casey said.
Casey said the biggest mistake the team can make now is be complacent, so improvement is the focus of the off-season. He pointed out how sophomore centre Jonas Valanciunas will work with NBA legend and former Raptor Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer.
The coach said, for his part, he’ll do what he does every off-season and examine tape of every game, looking for what they did wrong, what they could have done better.
Both Casey and Ujiri spoke again about the incredible fan support in Toronto, noting that support helps when they’re trying to sell the city to free agents. Casey called it easily the best in the NBA and compared it to the 1996 NBA finals. He was with the Seattle SuperSonics that year, bowing in the final series to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“KeyArena was rocking, loud. The Finals in ‘96, I thought that was loud,” Casey said. “That didn’t compare to the Air Canada Centre on Sunday when Deron Williams was shooting his free throws (in the dying seconds). You could just hear it vibrating. The official had to lean over to me and whisper in my ear, which I felt kinda creepy ... but you couldn’t hear yourself talk. That’s a home-court advantage, it’s second to none in the league.”
Ujiri mentioned his predecessor at the end of Tuesday’s 45-minute news conference at Air Canada Centre.
“I think Bryan Colangelo did an unbelievable job here,” he said. “He hired Dwane Casey. The starting five were picked by Bryan Colangelo as young players. I think the guy did an unbelievable job. He was a boss here, my boss and a mentor. He needs to be given some credit.”
Casey was named NBA Eastern Conference coach of the month in December. The Raptors finished in the Top 10 in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.450) and points allowed (98.0), and also posted a franchise-best 22 road wins.