Many, including myself, were shocked that the Raptors weren’t blown away by the Celtics on Friday night, let alone that the Raps actually picked up the W. Toronto had no real match for Boston’s talent or experience that night, and yet with a basic game plan, a team full of unproven youngsters and a few guys on 10-day contracts pulled away from a surefire playoff team with a few future Hall of Famers.

After the game, coach Dwane Casey talked about how the game plan was to “milk it,” to go deep into the shot clock on offence and to dig in on defence. As Casey half-joked, to get the victory on that night, the Raptors “had to set basketball back pre-shot clock.” It worked, and it gave us another example of how Casey manages to somehow find a way to keep this lackluster team (and that’s putting it mildly) competitive.

For the most part, almost everything Casey has done in his first season on the job in Toronto has worked. That might sound silly just a day after a 22-point loss dropped his team to 22-40, but I’d argue coaxing 22 wins out of this collection of talent is a feat in itself.

And if it hasn’t worked in terms of wins and losses, it’s worked in terms of keeping this team competitive on a night to night basis. At 22-40, the Raptors have a respectable average point-differential of -3.5. They’ve nearly cut last year’s average of -6.3 in half, and you could argue that with injuries and trades, Casey has had half of last year’s team to work with.

The other encouraging sign about Casey’s influence is that it seems to have bred better results as the season has worn on. At 14-29 towards the middle of March, the Raptors were about to embark on a 19-game stretch that was expected to dig them a deeper hole in the standings, and put them in a much better Draft Lottery position. 19 games in 31 days, with 15 of the 19 games coming against winning teams.

Instead, the Raptors went a respectable 8-11 during that stretch, including 7-8 over the last 15 games (12 of those 15 games came against playoff teams), with an average point-differential of -0.9.

While it was a devastating run for “Tank Nation,” it was an impressive run nonetheless. And when you consider that Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Jerryd Bayless and Linas Kleiza all missed time during the month-long sample, and that the Raptors were counting on the contributions of 10-day players, it was by far Casey’s most impressive stretch of the season.

The only complaint (other than the “we’re winning too much” theory) I’ve heard Raptors fans express this season is that Casey’s slow-it-down, anything to win style actually takes away from the pace and entertainment of the game. For his part, and he mentioned it on Friday night, Casey says that once he has “the horses” to play the way he ultimately wants to play, the Raptors will play defence “and run.”

I’m the type of fan that couldn’t care less how you get me a W. Win pretty, and I’m happy. Go ahead and grind it out to win ugly – I like that grimy victory feeling too. Instead of taking Casey for granted and complaining about his style of play, I’m just relishing in the fact that if and when the Raptors finally have those “horses” Casey talks about, he’ll be the coach taking the reins.

Dwane Casey might be that rare breed of coach that can legitimately make due with less, if need be. He might be that rare breed of coach who can both implement a winning game plan from an X’s and O’s standpoint, and be a great motivator for his players.

The question that will need to be answered going forward, is whether Casey can implement a winning game plan that bears results when there are actually expectations to win in Toronto, and whether he can motivate and get the most out of his players when he has established and proven NBA talent at his disposal.

You won’t find anyone brave enough to guarantee Casey can or will do it. But with the job he’s done this season, I have a feeling you won’t find many people foolish enough to doubt that he’ll do it either.

Comments (13)

  1. I love what Casey has done so far, but it makes me wonder if he has set the bar too high for the future. What I mean is, I think most of us can agree they will never be a true championship contender with this current group in the future. So will it be considered a “coaching failure” if the team never makes it above say, 50 wins?

    But I agree with you on the wins. I don’t care how they come, as long as it’s a W in the end. In fact, I actually like watching good defensive teams play.

  2. Good piece man… As long as he gets hard working “horses” they do not even have to be world class talent at every position. If this team builds a team similar to that of Memphis than there is something special coming eventually. Its now up to management, they go the right coach. Time to mix together the right players

  3. My concern is that this team will get .500 ish ball and hover there for a season and people will start to get impatient very quickly. If anything the last couple seasons has convinced me is that .500 ball is way more entertaining than change for the sake of change. Lets stick with these type of players, this type of coach and have some patience in Raptorland.

  4. I’m just curious to see how much of this defensive improvement is the result of Casey and how much of it is the result of the funky schedule and offense being down significantly league wide.

    I know we’re way better but I don’t think it’s sustainable to this extent in a normal 82-game schedule and how much of it he’s willing to sacrifice for offensive improvement is a whole another issue.

    Regardless of how many times you and Scott want to have the same discussion about Casey worded differently and even with the defensive improvement, I don’t think the season has been a success with the tank being derailed and most of the roster regressing.

    • “I’m just curious to see how much of this defensive improvement is the result of Casey and how much of it is the result of the funky schedule and offense being down significantly league wide.”

      In each of the last two seasons, the Raptors ranked dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions. This season, they’re 16th (middle of the pack) in that department. That’s a monumental improvement with essentially the same roster. I can only assume your “offense being down league wide” comment refers to points allowed per game, but that’s a shitty measurement of team defense. Their league rank in points allowed per 100 possessions is a very reliable measurement, and the difference is undeniable.

      • I know they’re significantly better, just want to see if it carries over to next season when point per game averages will probably go back up as teams resume a normal schedule and how the team adjusts defensively to opening up the offense more assuming we have more/more polished offensive talent on the roster.

        As we saw with Kevin O’Neill, shortening the number of offensive possessions per game can do wonders for a team’s defensive metrics even without the presence of many above average to great defenders on the team. So, if all we’re going to take away from a rebuilding/development season is Casey just using smoke and mirrors to constrict the offensive flow out of every game as the team in all likelihood falls out of the Top 5 and most of its young talent flatlines then no thanks.

        • The other big impact to the defensive improvement is that teams no longer have time to implement and practice things to beat opposing teams (with offense). Thus, all teams generally move a little closer to the league average for points allowed. If you happen to have improved your D in a key position in the off season, you will move up in the comparison rankings.

          This is exactly what happened with the Raptors. Bargs out at C, Aaron Gray in at C. I’m sure that was worth 5-6 spots by itself. Throw in Casey’s coaching/teaching, JJ at SF with more minutes, a slightly improved JC, and suddenly you are jumping to mid pack. If we could add a SG who can play D in the draft, the league D rank could improve even more.

          Next season, staying at mid pack will be a challenge when team have more time to prepare. If Casey is successful in doing so, that will be great. If he can continue to move this team up, that will be amazing! Especially when trying to add a very raw Jonas V to the mix.

  5. This reminds me of when Bill Mussleman coached the Minnesota Timberwolves in their first couple of seasons. He had them run a slow down offense and they consistently outworked their opponent. With a roster that made the current Raptors roster look like All-Stars, in comparison, they ended up winning 29 games. Because winning 29 games meant getting the 7th pick in the draft and getting Luc Longley, Musselman was fired and with basically the same roster, and a more conventional offense, they won only 15 games and ended up in the 3rd pick in the draft.

    Two lessons to be learned from that. Coaches that are able to get something out of nothing are not necessarily the same as the ones who are able to get greatness out of good players. Casey MAY be able to get the most out of talented players, but all we know right now is that he’s good at getting the most out of a less talented roster.

    The second lesson to be learned is that just because your team overperforms doesn’t mean it will help your team in the future. In fact it might hurt your team’s future.

    I just pray the Raptors don’t end up with Luc Longley.

  6. I’m glad to hear that Casey eventually wants to open things up on offence a bit. The way NBA Ds play now, with multiple 6’10″ plus guys packing the paint, zone defences, etc…, I don’t think it’s ultimately possible to score enough to win by just grinding out your offence in the half court; you need to run in order to break defences down and get easier buckets. Plus it’s more fun. Of course he’ll also need to stay on them to get their asses back on D, but I’m optimistic that he’s in the players’ ears enough to get them to do that. I’ll be curious to see if the roster moves BC makes will look to add (or keep) some guys who can play up-tempo, if not as starters then as guys who can bring some heat off the bench.

  7. Unfortunately for Casey, BC should have been in full rebuild/tank mode the last few seasons with Triano when this team was a literal laughing-stock around the league. Regardless, Casey worked some small miracles with the talent he was provided with and I personally could not have taken another season of league-worst defence. You can look at pace and scheduling but don’t short-change the man. The defence and effort were both miles ahead of previous seasons. You could see it in the first game when Bargs suddenly looked like he knew how to defend pick and rolls.

    I wouldn’t worry about whether Casey is the guy to coach high-level talent. That bridge is somewhere over in the South Pacific right now and regardless, this guy has earned the right to try.

  8. Colangelo has always loved versatile offensive players. I hope he sees what he has in Casey and brings in some higher quality versatile defensive players instead.

  9. MKG or Beal PLEASE! Trade up if you have to BC. Amir or Davis plus the 5th should be able to get you the second or third pick. We need wings. Give up some of your bigs to get a great wing.

  10. “The question that will need to be answered going forward, is whether Casey can implement a winning game plan that bears results when there are actually expectations to win in Toronto”

    No .. the real question is when will there actually be expectations to win in Toronto.

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