Casey’s first two seasons in Toronto were tough. There was the NBA lockout-shortened season that ended with a 23-43 record and some disheartening lopsided losses. The Raptors spent roughly 80 per cent of their practice time on defence, mainly teaching fundamentals such as footwork, stance and rotations. In 2012-13, the team was 34-48 and general manager Bryan Colangelo lost his job. New GM Masai Ujiri took the post as Casey entered a contract year, with no talk from the team about renewing him.
Just over a month into their 2013-14 season, Casey walked into his team’s locker room to a lot of concerned faces during a road trip to Los Angeles, just after Ujiri had a made a seven-player trade that shipped its biggest-name player, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings. Was the team being stripped down, or would the trade actually help? Casey himself didn’t know. But he wasn’t throwing in the towel.
“One thing players understand is consistency, and trading a player can really upset the apple cart, so I saw a lot of sad faces,” Casey said. “The only thing we as coaches could do was keep developing players as we had been doing. Nobody knew which way we were going to go, but we sure didn’t know we were going to become a playoff team. We got John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, who were veterans, and young Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, who are basketball junkies, and they really wanted to fit in. We found that they all really wanted to please.”
The Eastern Conference was uncharacteristically weak this season, and Casey’s team capitalized. After the trade, the Raptors had the best success rate in the East. They improved on many fronts: an all-star season for DeRozan, a dramatic turnaround for point guard Kyle Lowry, and a coming out for Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas once opportunity knocked with the departure of Gay.
“I think they’ve finally got what Casey has been preaching all along,” said Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel while in town recently to play the Raptors. “It’s a matter of growing up and staying within a system and letting a coach put his imprint on a team, and having the system play out. You’re seeing the rewards of that now.”
Casey says he’s a night owl, usually watching film until 3 a.m., as he knows there is still defensive tuning to do for the postseason and further steps needed to develop the Raptors into a perennial playoff team. He and wife Brenda have two small kids – six-year-old Justine and two-year-old Zachary. He calls them “the human alarm clocks” as they typically wake him by 7 a.m., and he cherishes the early morning time he spends with them.
“I’ll never forget my daughter was three years old when we had the parade in the streets of Dallas,” Casey said. “So when we first got here to Toronto, she said, ‘Daddy, are we going to have a gold trophy parade here too?’ and I said, ‘Sweetie, that’s going to take time, you don’t just win that trophy every year.’”
As the playoffs begin, Casey has warned his young, inexperienced squad that “it’s a totally different thing.” He will draw on a lifetime of lessons in diligence as he navigates the postseason and, after that, the lingering question of his own future in Toronto.
“I look back and see what life could have been if I hadn’t applied myself in basketball, and I’m really thankful for every experience I’ve had,” Casey said. “There’s not a moment I don’t appreciate my life.”