While it seems ludicrous to say that the head coach of a 12-25 team is doing “too good” of a job, in the case of Dwane Casey’s first year in Toronto, it may very well be true.
I’ve heard a lot of Raptors fans joking around about how the Raptors might have hired Casey “a year too early.” Obviously, most Raps fans are pleased with Casey’s performance, and those making that joke are paying the coach a compliment, conceding that with Dwane at the helm, the Raptors may have given up a chance at the worst record in the league or even one of the three worst records in the league and the subsequent draft lottery percentages those futile positions bring.
The Raptors currently sit tied with the Sacramento Kings for the sixth and seventh worst records in the league – obviously not impressive, but still ahead of the expectations of a bottom three record that many Raptors fans and NBA pundits came into the season with. While I still maintain that the Raps will finish with around 20 wins and a record that sees them land anywhere from fourth to eighth from the bottom, I will admit that the team is a couple of games ahead of where I thought they’d be at this point in the season.
Some will point to the fact that Bryan Colangelo hasn’t really torn this thing down to build from the ground up, as in its truest sense, that would mean trading Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon for younger assets and draft picks. That argument has some validity to it, but at the end of the day, the primary reason the Raptors are minutely over-achieving is all about the defensive culture change Dwane Casey has instituted in his first season on the job.
At the beginning of the season, I would look at defensive statistics because in such a small sample, it was comical to me to see how much the Raptors had “improved.” I just as well assumed that as the season wore on and reality hit, Toronto’s defence would surely come crashing back to earth. But that hasn’t happened, and if anything, the Raptors’ defence is only getting meaner, stingier and just plain better.
After 37 games, which would be nearly half the season in a traditional NBA schedule, the improvements Casey has made are staggering.
The Raptors allowed 105.4 points per game (good for 26th in the NBA) in 2010-2011. They allow just 93.5 points (10th) this season.
Raptors opponents shot over 48 per cent from the field last season (29th in the NBA), including 37.6 per cent from three-point range. This season, the Raps are holding opponents to 43 per cent (9th in the NBA), including 34 per cent from deep.
The Raptors had a historically poor defensive efficiency in both the 2009-2010 season and the 2010-2011 season. They finished dead last in the NBA both years, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions. This season, the Raptors are a middle of the pack team in terms of defensive efficiency, sitting 16th in the NBA at 100.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. No team has made such a leap from last place in this statistical category since the Lakers went from 30th in 2004-05 to 15th in 2005-06.
Perhaps most impressive of all is how Casey and his staff have transformed Toronto’s interior defence. After allowing a league worst 47.4 points in the paint per game last season, the Raptors have skyrocketed to the top of the league, now allowing just 35.7 points in the paint. Just last night, the Raps held the Warriors to a measly 28 points in the paint. And it’s not like the Raptors are simply stacking the middle and allowing a ton of open jump shots or allowing teams to shoot high percentages from outside the paint (9th in field goal percentage allowed, tied for 12th in three-point percentage allowed).
In the last nine seasons, the biggest jump from dead last in P.I.P. allowed one season to the next was Memphis’ jump from the 2007-08 season to the 2008-09 season. The Grizzlies improved their points in the paint allowed by about five per game, and jumped from 30th to 23rd. Again, the Raptors have improved their points in the paint allowed by nearly 12 per game, and have jumped from 30th to first. Not to mention, Casey has steered this magical defensive turnaround with 10 of the same players from last year’s roster and just five new additions. Of those five additions, only Aaron Gray (who averages about 17 minutes per game) and Jamaal Magloire (in very small samples) have made any significant contributions to the interior defence.
A famous saying says “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit, no matter how much mayonnaise you bring to the table.” It turns out that all along, it wasn’t mayonnaise that the Raptors’ chicken shit defence needed, but rather just a little Dwane Casey seasoning.
The question is, will Casey’s defensive wizardry allow the Raptors to achieve greatness in the future without the need for extraordinary talent, or will it simply doom the Raptors’ draft choices over the next couple of seasons and ensure sustained mediocrity in Toronto?