TORONTO – Let’s call him “Coach A.” Coach A has been in City B for seven years. He inherited a team that was 22-60. By his third season, it was 48-34. He has made the playoffs for four straight seasons, advanced to a conference final and, entering the All-Star break, his team is sitting atop his conference.
A coach with those credentials should be among the highest paid, with airtight job security, right?
Right — except if you’re Dwane Casey, and you are coaching in Toronto.
Casey is headed to Los Angeles this weekend to coach Team LeBron in the All-Star Game. It’s an honor he never aspired to — Casey was an assistant on All-Star staffs in 1996 and ’98, which was good enough for him. Asked about going to L.A., Casey cites only two things: being the first Raptors coach to coach an All-Star team, and the fact that coaching it probably means your team is winning.
“I really never thought about [being the All-Star coach],” Casey told Yahoo Sports. “The only thing I think about is doing the boring things every day to win. That’s what I worry about. That’s why I’m probably boring as a coach.”
Boring, perhaps. Successful, definitely. Toronto is 41-16 entering the All-Star break, with a two-game cushion over Boston for the top spot. The Raps are riding a seven-game winning streak, have won nine of their last 10 and own the best home record (24-4) in the NBA.
Credit often — and rightfully — begins with the stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who will join Casey in L.A. Serge Ibaka is having a fine two-way season, while Toronto’s unheralded bench (Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam) has emerged as one of the best in basketball. Casey? There is often a perception that Casey is just along for the ride.
Think about it: When is Casey not on the hot seat? “My butt is burning from being on the hot seat every year,” Casey said, laughing. His offenses — ranked in the top 10 the last four seasons — have been deemed too simplistic and it often felt like the Raptors were one early playoff exit from GM Masai Ujiri — who inherited Casey when he took the job in 2013 — letting Casey go.
“Honestly though, I don’t feel that way,” Casey said. “I’m coaching to win, and I don’t worry about all that outside crap. I know what we’re doing here, I’m proud of what we’re doing here. Ownership, they are supportive. A lot of [the hot-seat talk] is hopefully media driven because I think people appreciate what we’re working with, developing players and getting better every year.
“If Masai walked in tomorrow and [fired me], I understand that is the job. I’m not looking over me, behind me, whatever. Because I know I can fish. I know how to fish. I know I can coach. I know the game. I’ve been in the game a long time. Masai and I are a lot alike in the fact that we have in common that we want to win. We want to develop and work hard. Those common denominators have kept us together.”
Together, and thriving. Cleveland has sent Toronto home the last two postseasons, but this season the Raptors believe they have a team built to better compete. Casey overhauled his offense last summer, dumping an isolation-heavy, 3-point averse style for a more free-flowing offense that has the Raptors ranked in the top 10 in 3-pointers attempted (32.4 per game) and made (11.6) this season. After the team moved off several pricey veterans last summer, the young players Casey has spent years developing have capably stepped in.
“Dwane is incredible,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Not only have they tweaked some of the things they are doing on offense, but they have become more switch-oriented [on defense]. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, it’s obvious they are exceptionally well coached. But when you go even further and see how well the young players are playing, it’s a testament to the players but it’s also a testament to the environment.”
Casey knows the challenge in front of him. Regular-season success is meaningless if it doesn’t come with a postseason payoff. “The next step we take is the hardest step we take — going good to great with the same group,” Casey said. And he understands that when a team is together for awhile, a coach’s voice can become stale. Nowadays, Casey delegates more, empowering assistant coach Nick Nurse to run the offensive drills in practice, and Rex Kalamian to run the defense. He’s formed a leadership council — headed by Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka — that he discusses everything from travel plans to practice times with.
“Early in my coaching career, I was doing everything,” Casey said. “You can’t do that and keep it fresh. If you say the same thing over and over again, it’s going to get stale.”
Casey is excited about coaching the All-Star Game. He remembers marveling at Kobe Bryant, then still a teenager, waving Karl Malone out of the post in 1998. “The moxie, the nerve to wave out a great player,” Casey said. “That showed me that Kobe was going to be great.” Casey says he has two goals: that nobody gets hurt and that his team plays to win. “The All-Star Games have deteriorated,” Casey said. “Michael Jordan wanted to win at tiddlywinks. That’s the competitive spirit I want our team to have. We owe it to the junior high coaches, the high school coaches, the AAU coaches to be an example. To always play the right way.”
Next week Casey will be back in Toronto, trying to drive the Raptors to new heights. There may come a day when Casey isn’t feeling quite so much pressure. That day isn’t here yet.
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