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?

Comments (14)

  1. I’m with the belief that the Raptors are destined for further mediocrity, even with Casey. Of course, it really depends on what they do to their roster from now to the draft, and obviously until we find out where they select, and who they take with that pick.

    Now, that’s not to say they won’t make the playoffs in the next few years. But, I also don’t see them being any better than when they had Bosh and went 47-35. They have some really nice pieces, but nothing that is a franchise changer.. (yet).

    IMO, I would have traded Bargnani and Calderon by now (especially seeing their current value), and really rebuild the team from the ground up, even if it meant a longer rebuild. I think it would have been worth it, long term anyways if it meant having better, and younger players.

    Is the current rebuild, and, what could be 5 years of not making the playoffs, really worth it, only to get back to the level they were 5 years ago? I don’t think so. Love having Casey as the coach, but I just don’t see a contending team right now.

    • You’re definitely not alone in that thinking. A lot of people want a full tear down and more committed “tank,” so to speak. This team has the potential to be in playoff contention as early as next season, but that obviously doesn’t mean the rebuild was successful, as the Bosh years showed us.

      • That’s exactly it. I definitely think they could be in the playoffs sooner rather than later. But even with the current group, and with Valanciunas, it’s tough to see them being any better than they were with Bosh. Losing in the first round of the playoffs year after year wouldn’t be a successful rebuild IMO.

        I could be wrong, only time will tell, but as is, I doubt they would stand a chance versus the good, young teams in the eastern conference like Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, Orlando/Brooklyn (with Howard/Williams), maybe even New York now too in a 7 game playoff series.

        I love the young pieces they have in Davis, DeRozan, Valanciunas, the Johnson’s, and Bayless. But assuming they don’t get Anthony Davis, they may want to reconsider Calderon and Bargnani as part of “the core” if they truly want to see deep playoff runs.

  2. The points per game allowed isn’t as relevant as the Raptors have a slower pace this year.
    The efficiency metric is more insightful and certainly still shows a big improvement.

    Points in the paint FG% is can also be misleading. Their “no easy baskets” philosophy has them more aggressively forcing tougher shots – but at the expense of more fouls.
    The Raptors are league worse in FT/FGA ratio. They “allowed” 996 free throw attempts (again worst in league) were opponents shoot an effective 75% (obviously ~ league avg). San Antonio, for example, have only “allowed” 693 FTA.

    Not always the best trade off – opponents shoot a higher percentage at the line than in the paint and you have (usually) your bigs in foul trouble earlier.

  3. First of all, there is no such thing as defense being “too good.” And why would you want to tear the whole thing down when you the team you have have not accomplished anything. You only tear things down once things have run their course or the players get too old. You don’t have that case w/ the Raptors. The majority of the team is 25 years ond and under. Tearing the team down is completely unnecearry. for more on what I think about the raptors, just follow this link:

    http://jtshoopsblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/jts-hoops-blogs-nbas-2012-worst-to_05.html

    Cheers

    • JT, in case you didn’t realize, this post is meant in a slapstick kind of way. I’m praising the job Casey and his staff have done with the defensive development of these players, not actually stating that I’m disappointed that the defence is so good.
      Also, whether you agree or not, there are a lot of Raptors who would like to see a full tear down that leaves only youngsters like DeRozan, Valanciunas, 2012 pick, Davis, Johnson, Johnson and Bayless. While I’d like to see Bargnani and Jonas play together, I don’t blame some fans for wanting a ground-up rebuild.

  4. I agree with BP completely. I’m not interested in getting a Bosh-type player 4th overall and building around that player and this core over the next 5 years. We need to at least try the Oklahoma City Thunder approach – be absolutely, terribly brutal, bring in a franchise player or two, and build around them.

    On other note, that teams do as badly as the Charlotte Bobcats are doing this year every year makes me sick to my stomach. Charles Barkley once mentioned that there were maybe 4 good teams in the NBA at any one time, 5 tops. There seems to be a ridiculous competitiveness disparity between teams that you don’t see as much in the other leagues, at least in my opinion.

  5. Whats thr matter if we finish in the bottom 8 of the league and get a 4-8th overall pick? Im pretty sure we got Bosh at 4th overall…pretty good player and dwayne wade went 5th …also a great player as we all know. I think as long as we have a top 10 pick well be fine because this years draft is one of the deepest in years and hopefully the scouting staff and Colangelo have learnt from past drafts to get players like DeRozan and Ed Davis instead of guys like arujio..
    Anyway Dwayne Casey good job!

  6. @ Liston – I thought part of being worst at allowing fouls was the general disrespect for the Raptors, and the general inconsistency (being charitable) of NBA refereeing.

    @JT When I read the headline, I understood it as expending too much energy on the defensive end – sort of the O’Neill approach.

  7. Right now, I’m just crossing my fingers that the Raptors will win the first overall regardless of where they finish the season. After all, the last five first overalls went to the teams who finished 2nd worst, 5th worst, 2nd worst, 9th worst, and 6th worst.

  8. They’re still tied for the 4th worst record in the league and are within striking distance of the Hornets and Wizards so let’s not get carried away. However, I have to say it’s a bit frustrating because there is no point to even risk anything like this happening when you are clearly just trying to tank and add young talent.

    I’m not going to fault Casey for anything because he’s a guy who got screwed in his last job and is just happy to be a head coach again so he’s going to try to win every night but it’s pretty irresponsible of Colangelo to still have Calderon and Barbosa on the roster. If you’re going to call it a rebuild, tear it down, don’t sit on the fence.

    You take Calderon and Barbosa away, we easily clinch one of the 3 worst records in the league.

  9. (1) The OKC approach does not mean it will work for every team. Yes, they got Durant, Westbrook & Harden, but Ibaka (who is the defensive anchor was chosen mid-late 1st round). Indiana has proven to be competitive & has taken a leap from last year, without a top 5 pick. (George, Granger, Hibbert, Collison, etc.) . Philly is another example (although I believe the Elton Brand contract is a huge setback atm)

    (2) The reason for optimism is the fact that the Raptors are competing defensively & will only get better as the they become more accustomed to the philosophy. We have not had many road games when we completely got blown out like last year & even the years before. The fact is, the Raps are tougher today than last year & defense keeps us in games.

    (3) Bargnani was playing at all-star level this season before he got hurt. He’s responded positively to Casey’s coaching style. Why are so many people calling to trade this guy ? He’s a match-up nightmare offensively, stretches the floor & showed he has emotion. Valanciunas hasn’t even shown what he can do yet, and he is projected to be a defensive centrepiece.

    (4) Having the worst record doesn’t guarantee # 1 overall. We were 3rd worst last year and ended with # 5. I just think that Colangelo better make some wise decisions, because if there is anyone who can mess up the Raptor’s current situation, it’s him.

  10. I like the defensive intensity Casey has these young guys playing with. it gives them something to hang their hat on and eases the pain of those tough loses (imo). I think Jack said it best on the broadcast last night we are bring “out manned” not “out played”.

  11. Casey’s been nothing short of amazing. His offensive sets need work and you can argue sometimes with his substitution patterns, but the fact that this team, with Bargs out most of the season, is competitive in just about every game is incredible. Hell, watching the way Bargs was playing D before he got hurt was enough to convince me.

    I would have liked to have seen more progression with some of the guys like DeMar (though he’s been a lot better of late), Ed (also looking better) and Bayless, but this season is going down pretty much exactly as I had hoped. Credit to Colangelo for hiring this guy.

    First time in years I feel pretty good about the team’s future.

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