The Toronto Raptors’ climb hasn’t been an overnight miracle. But it’s been a memorable climb under the steady leadership of head coach Dwane Casey.
The Raptors are on pace for an increase in wins for the fourth consecutive season since Casey was hired to lead the team on June 21, 2011. They went 13-4 in November, and Casey was named the NBA Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.
The Raptors (16-6 through Wednesday) have the best record in the Eastern Conference. And in their first three seasons under Casey, they won 23, 34 and 48 games, respectively, taking the Atlantic Division title last spring. Casey received a new three-year contract in May.
“Statistics come and go. You look at all the statistics and the key is continuous hard play each and every night you step onto the floor,” Casey said in an exclusive interview last week, “and I think that’s what our guys are giving.”
When Casey took the reins in Toronto, then-team president/GM Bryan Colangelo said, “. . . his proven ability as a defensive architect will serve as a great backdrop for the future of the team.”
Casey inherited a Raptors team that had gone 22-60 in 2010-11 under Jay Triano. That same season, Casey earned plaudits for supervising the title-winning Dallas Mavericks defense, working as Rick Carlisle’s assistant. Casey put his stamp on Dallas’ defense.
And that’s the same approach he took when he moved to Toronto.
“One thing we’ve done over the years is try to build a defensive philosophy, it’s something that we did when I first got here four years ago, and they were 30th in the NBA in defense at that time, and worked to build it up to where it is now,” Casey told Hoop Scoop by phone from Toronto. “It’s a gradual thing and it’s taken a while to get there, but we finally got our defensive philosophy established and now we’ve also got our offensive philosophy kind of in place — running and pushing the ball and playing aggressive offensively.”
I asked the 57-year-old Casey to give a basic description of the Raptors defense.
Here’s what he said: “Well, one thing we try to do is try to contain the ball, we try to make sure we play good team pick-and-roll defense. . . . One-on-one, we try not to let someone (beat us), we make sure we play team defense in iso situations . . . and if you are going to beat us, you’ve got to take tough 2s. That’s our main philosophy.
“We try to take away the 3s and make you play in the low-percentage areas more so than layups and 3-point shots.”
Defense may be Casey’s meal ticket, but the former University of Kentucky guard has also orchestrated the Raptors’ improvement as an offensive force. They are second in the NBA in scoring (108.5 points per game), trailing only Dallas’ 110.5. But ask 10 random individuals in Tokyo or Topeka to name three Raptors players and you’re likely to draw blanks.
Their relative anonymity is a credit to the work that Casey and the Raptors organization have done building this team.
The team’s progress “has been good,” Casey said. “It’s been gradual. We’ve developed players. DeMar DeRozan has developed into an All-Star.
“Kyle Lowry is playing at an All-Star level right now (averaging 20.6 points and 7.5 assists). He should be an All-Star this year. (Jonas) Valanciunas is developing. Terrence Ross has won the Slam Dunk Contest.”
All four of those just-cited players are in their 20s. The team’s oldest player is 31-year-old center Chuck Hayes.
“We’ve got a lot of good, young players that are developing,” Casey said, “(and) we have a chance to win while the young guys are developing at the same time, which is unusual in sports. That’s the positive thing.”
The Raptors lost dynamic guard DeRozan to a groin tear injury sustained against the Mavs on Nov. 28, and he’s expected to be sidelined for a month. At the time of the injury, the USC product had team-high totals in points (19.4) and minutes (33.6).
It’s a test for this young team to deal with DeRozan’s absence.
“You are losing almost 20 points out of your lineup, out of your offense,” Casey said. “We have to get it as a team. Not one person is going to pick up the slack.”
But, as Casey quickly pointed out, Lowry dropped 39 points on Utah on Dec. 3, citing that performance as one example of a player stepping up.
“Injuries are a big part of the NBA. . . . You’ve got to adjust to it,” said Casey, a guard on the University of Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA championship team. “That’s why you have 15 players on the roster. You don’t want to have your own season without your star player, but everybody else has got to be ready to adjust and step up and be ready to play.”
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Listen to Casey talk about the game he loves, and you hear the wisdom accrued from 35 years in coaching dating back to his start as a grad assistant at Kentucky. “It’s been a lot of years combined together to get to this,” he says.
You also recognize that he knows what it takes to succeed in this profession: work, lots of it.
Casey’s blue-collar work ethic was forged growing up in Morganfield, Kentucky, an agricultural town (pop: 3,285, according to the 2010 U.S. Census). In the summer of 1975, after his first year at Kentucky, Casey worked in a coal mine and that experience left a lasting impression on him, he recounted in Rachel Brady’s April profile of him in The Globe and Mail.
“I met men down there who had never worked a day above ground, they spent a lifetime down in those coal mines, and many of them paid for it with their health,” Casey was quoted as saying. “They were always saying, ‘Son, you don’t want to work your whole life down here, so work hard in college.’ That was quite a lesson for me.”
Of course it takes teamwork to build a successful NBA team, and Casey said that Masai Ujiri, Colangelo’s successor at president/GM, in May 2013, has “come in and brought a good, positive energy to the team, and one thing he’s done is he’s allowed us to coach.”
“He’s got an opinion on things, but he hasn’t tried to impose his style of play. . . . It’s an excellent working relationship and he understands players. He knows how to evaluate players, which his huge in this sport, being able to evaluate players that fit the system.”
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During Casey’s first coaching job after his days at Kentucky, he spent a year at his alma mater as a grad assistant under Joe B. Hall. He didn’t know it would happen at the start, but during that season he developed a lifelong connection to Japanese basketball. (Longtime Japan men’s national team coach Mototaka Kohama decided to study college basketball that year at Kentucky.)
“He and I became great friends, so we hung out together,” Casey recalled in an NBA.com interview in 2011. “He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese, so every time we had to converse with each other you had to open a book and go through words. But we became great friends, and then after I left Kentucky in 1989 he called in the middle of the night saying, ‘Coach Casey, we’re starting a new team in the Japanese pro league. Would you like to come over and work with the men’s and women’s teams and also work with the national teams?’ The contract was very favorable and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I took the job.”
Following his grad assistant job at Kentucky, five years at Western Kentucky (1980-85) and four more at Kentucky (1985-89), Casey had put in the work to learn the college game. And then he moved overseas and taught the game to men and women at the corporate, college and national team level.
He stayed busy. He coached in the JBL, leading the newly formed Sekisui Chemical squad and then Isuzu Motors; both teams are now defunct. He helped run high school clinics and worked with several college hoop programs, including Hakuoh University, Nippon Sport Science University and Chuo University.
And even after he returned to North America and began his NBA coaching career as an assistant on George Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics staff in 1994, Casey stayed committed to working in Japan during summers, helping prepare the women’s national squad for the 1996 Atlanta Games and serving as a coach on the men’s national team in 1998 with Kohama and legendary mentor Pete Newell. It was Japan’s first appearance in the FIBA World Basketball Championship since 1967.
Hakuoh women’s coach Toshi Sato said Casey has made a lasting impact on the game in Japan.
“I learned something from him as a professional coach,” Sato, who first met Casey in 1991, told Hoop Scoop this week. “That was the persistent aspiration and the true attitude of a leader. . . . He’s also the coach who made Japanese basketball re-recognize the importance of defense.”
Looking back on his connections to Japan hoops, specifically in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Casey had this to say during our phone conversation last Friday (just days before he prepared his team to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in two of its next three games): “It was a great experience for me because I was just getting finished coaching in college and had a great relationship with Coach Kohama and came over to work with the men’s national team and their staff at the different universities and different women’s teams.
“It was a great experience working those summers with Coach Newell.”
Casey recalled traveling throughout Japan to conduct clinics and camps, including in Fukuoka, Akita and Hiroshima, and now tries to keep tabs on a lot of those players who have become coaches and GMs.
In 2006, Casey and his wife, Brenda, had their honeymoon in Saitama in 2006. It coincided with the FIBA World Basketball Championship. At the time he was the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach. He was fired 40 games into the 2006-07 season (the team was 20-20). Then he took some time off before landing an assistant coaching gig with Dallas in ’08.
While in Dallas, Casey strengthened his reputation as a defensive-oriented coach.
Or as he put it: “I believe in defense. I’m a defensive coach first. I enjoy teaching and I love building the team and turning the corner with the team, and that’s what we did in Dallas, that’s what we did in Seattle. It’s about developing players first and developing a defensive identity and we’ve done that, and it’s equated to wins.”
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Returning to Toronto, the Casey-Ujiri collaboration, a winning tandem, has helped strengthen the relevance of Canada’s lone NBA franchise.
“The NBA has been here 20 years now and it’s always going to be a hockey city,” Casey told me. “You are not going to erase that tradition. . . . But after making the playoffs last year and off to a good start this year, we’ve sold out season tickets for the first time in franchise history, most wins in franchise history last year, so it’s a lot of buzz about basketball.”
And not just at Air Canada Centre, which seats 19,800 for Raptors games.
Said Casey: “There’s a larger interest in basketball than ever before throughout the country and that’s been big for us. We understand that hockey’s always going to be king, but it’s an exciting time just to see the interest and fan support around the city and sell out our arena every night we play at home.”
Casey enjoys John Grisham books. He read “The Racketeer” this summer, but puts the novels aside during the season, preparing for games and “watching hours and hours of film.”
He’s also a firm believer in the need for a merger between the bj-league and the NBL, the JBL’s successor, especially now that the long-running feud between the rival leagues led to the Japan Basketball Association’s suspension by FIBA on Nov. 25 and created a slew of negative headlines for the sport here with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics looming on the horizon.
“I think it’s important that they get that together, where they can have a representative right there on the home turf,” Casey said. “I hate it as kind of a black eye for Japan basketball, how hard they’ve worked to get basketball where it is in the country and for them to lose their FIBA credentials the way they have.”