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Lewenberg: Raptors make clear statement with Casey extension

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Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050
5/6/2014 5:31:34 PM
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TORONTO - When the Raptors reconvened in Washington following February's All-Star break, Dwane Casey had a hand-drawn contract waiting for them.

It wasn't legally binding. "It probably wouldn't hold up in court," Casey joked. It was more of a symbolic gesture.

"[It was] a document committing to the team, committing to the process, leaving their egos at the door."

With two-to-three sentences scribbled up top and a row of lines indicating where to sign, Casey had everybody pledge allegiance to the (Raptors) claw. Players, coaches, trainers, equipment managers, the media relations staff, everyone came up to sign, one-by-one. The first signature belonged to Kyle Lowry.

"If [they] didn't want to sign it, you would have been able to tell right off the bat, if guys wanted to read it," said the Raptors' head coach, who kept the contract in his briefcase, traveling around with it for the duration of the season. "Everybody stepped up and didn't hesitate and the next night we went out and beat [the Wizards]. Guys probably forgot they signed it, but I didn't"

"I'm all in, was the head of the document. And they were."

On Tuesday, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors went all in on Casey and, in two months, they will do so with the team's core group of players, namely Lowry, making every effort to keep the band together.

A year ago, just around this time, Casey and former general manager Bryan Colangelo met with the media to deliver their annual end-of-season post-mortem. They conducted their press conferences separately, unsure of their own futures, let alone the direction of the organization.

Now, Ujiri sat adjacent to Casey at the podium, announcing that he and his coach have agreed to a new three-year deal, using this strange, foreign word over and over again; "continuity".

"We plan on growing as a team," Ujiri said. "I'm not going to make any crazy, quick-fix decisions here. We want to keep building and one of the things we've talked about is continuity."

If you take one thing away from Tuesday's proceedings it's that message. Ujiri has every intention of doubling down on this past season's surprising success.

Naturally, Casey was the first domino, a quick decision, no-brainer and an easy deal to get done.

In his third year with Toronto, Casey led his team to a division title and franchise-record 48-win season before bowing out in the seventh game of the conference quarterfinals. He has more than earned the opportunity to stay on and see this through. In fact, Ujiri was hoping to open talks of an extension with his coach in late March, but as the team stumbled - they had lost four of six games at the time - Casey's preference was to hold off until the end of the season. With that said, the 57-year-old never intended to test the market or throw his hat in the ring for another job. He felt it would be disingenuous and knew where he wanted to be.

"My heart is here, my mind is here," Casey said. "I'm committed to this organization and to these players going forward."

Locking up Casey was the first step, and a logical one. For him, it made little sense to jump ship now and start fresh elsewhere, likely with a losing program, after working hard to change the culture and build an identity in Toronto.

The real sales pitch will come in two months, when Lowry - an impending free agent - must decide whether to finish what he started with the Raptors or make like so many stars of the franchise's oh-so-painful past and split.

That's why this day was important, that's why it was necessary. Ujiri and Casey were at the podium for over 46 minutes. They were speaking, at least indirectly, to Lowry.

"It's very important for us, in terms of continuity," Ujiri said, using that word again - "continuity" - when asked about re-signing Lowry. "For me, negotiating is easy if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here." 

"I think we'll be fair with Kyle and we'll figure it out and I think it's important. So we'll go through that process but we're optimistic stuff will happen."

With Casey in place at the helm of the ship, Lowry knows exactly what he would be signing up for and familiarity - or "continuity" - could go a long way in wooing the star point guard.

Despite various reports of a rocky start to their relationship, Casey and Lowry have become close. They've lost together, they've grown together and most importantly they've won together.

"Kyle came into a tough situation," Casey admitted before using a fantastically strange, albeit accurate, metaphor. "It's almost like coming into a relationship where you already have a girlfriend and a new girl comes in, because Jose [Calderon] was already here. We already understood Jose knew the system, he knew the calls. Kyle came in trying to learn them, and Kyle is a very prideful man and should be. Kyle came into that situation as kind of second fiddle and if you know Kyle, he's not a second fiddle kind of guy."

"But again, he grew from that. Once Jose was traded, it got closer, it got closer. He understood what we were doing, I understood what he was going to do in certain situations [and] trusted him."

Ironically enough, the two bonded at the wedding of former Raptor Rudy Gay, Lowry's best friend, last summer when they were able to get to know each other away from basketball.

This summer should start off quietly for the Raptors, at least over the next couple of months. With Casey now part of the recruiting party, the focus immediately shifts to locking up Lowry, a process that they can begin on July 1.

Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez - who spoke passionately about his desire to return on Monday - are both restricted free agents and also appear to be part of Ujiri's offseason plan.

"As far as I'm concerned, keeping our core group going forward, with Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patterson and Nando (De Colo), those guys are priorities for us," Ujiri acknowledged. "And if you want to build, I think, a team where we have young players, we have to build continuity. When free agency comes, we have to attack our guys first."

There's still "building" to be done, but it's looking likely that those tweaks will be made around the team's current foundation.

Internal growth will be crucial, as Casey alluded to. He wants Terrence Ross to get stronger, Jonas Valanciunas to expand his post game - he'll work with hall of fame centre Hakeem Olajuwon this summer - and DeMar DeRozan to improve defensively.

It's hard to believe that this franchise is just 12 months removed from a summer plagued by uncertainty and indecision, though they've had their fair share of them over the years. It seems like decades ago now. For most of that year Ujiri kept us guessing. What was his plan? On Tuesday he laid out his blueprint. 

"For me, there's not going to be any crazy decisions made, there's no quick fix," the Raptors GM said. "We're a growing team, and we're going to grow gradually. I really don't care what the expectations are. The way to build in this situation we're in is to continue to give our young players the opportunity, to try and draft well and make sure we figure out the right players to sign."

The Raptors know what they want and are making no effort to hide it - continuity.



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