Now he gets his shot at redemption.
Today the Toronto Raptors introduced Dwane Casey as the eighth head coach in franchise history, fresh off of his stint as an assistant with the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. It's been a long road back to the head coach's chair for Casey after his first shot in Minnesota was cut unexpectedly short in the middle of his second season.
On January 23rd, 2007, Casey was fired by the Timberwolves despite a 20-20 record and the team being squarely in the playoff hunt in the West. Wolves GM Kevin McHale (who, coincidentally, beat out Casey for the head coaching job in Houston last month) had grander expectations for his club and handed the reigns of the Wolves to assistant coach Randy Wittman. The team's season fell apart after that, going 12-30 the rest of the way, and Casey's reputation as a head coach got a huge boost thereafter since he, apparently, had the Timberwolves wildly overachieving while he was in charge on the sidelines.
Since that time, Casey has been a 'must-interview' prospect for basically every single head coaching opening in the NBA. Dallas, where Casey last worked as an assistant, was even chasing Lawrence Frank last season to replace Casey since they assumed that Casey was sure to get the head coaching job in Atlanta or with the Clippers last summer. He's interviewed so often, in fact, that it had begun to work against him as people started wondering why, if he is such a good coach, is everyone seeing him but no one is hiring him?
Timing is everything, though. After Casey spent the last couple of years as an assistant with the Mavs, primarily as a de-facto defensive coordinator for the club, their ascension to the NBA title this year has driven Casey's stock through the roof. After Dallas managed to slow down scoring machines Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in consecutive rounds, Casey became the primary target for the defensively-challenged Raptors and, within a week of his team winning it all with Dallas, he was finally given a second chance to prove himself as head coach.
In many ways Casey elicits memories of former Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, Toronto's last coach during a rebuilding phase. Like Mitchell, Casey is known as a tough-but-fair type that demands accountability in the locker room, and he won't ever be criticized for letting people off the hook defensively (*cough* Bargnani *cough*).
Unlike Mitchell, however, his long history as an assistant coach has given him a much better grasp of X's and O's and, one hopes, a more collaborative approach to working with others. It was his defensive acumen, though, that got him the job in Toronto, and some perspective should be added to the big picture before anyone calls this hiring a slam dunk in that regard.
Two years ago, when Casey was first brought on in Dallas, the team was only 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Last year, after the club brought in Shawn Marion and, eventually, Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson, the team finished the year 12th in defensive efficiency. This season, after acquiring Tyson Chandler, they cracked the top-ten and finished 7th overall. Notice a trend here?
Now, this isn't meant to suggest that it was defensive-minded players, and not Casey, that made the difference in Dallas. Obviously, Casey designed a defensive system that worked for these guys, including the NBA's most committed use of zone defence, but it took committed defenders to make it work. Plus, if you want to be honest about the whole thing, it was their insanely efficient offence that gave Dallas their edge in these playoffs, not their 9th-ranked defensive efficiency.
What Dallas really did was put themselves in a position to be good enough defensively to allow their offensive domination to break open leads. We're not talking about the Raptors stealing Tom Thibodeau from Boston here, and even if we were talking about the Raptors stealing Thibodeau, they'd still have to makeover their roster for it to make a tangible difference, and therein lies the rub.
Casey could be the most creative defensive mind the NBA has ever seen for all we know, but without a roster of players that are willing and able to commit to and execute his system, all of Casey's strategic acumen will go to waste. If the Raptors continue to employ Jose Calderon as their first line of defence, Andrea Bargnani as their last line of defence and DeMar DeRozan on the best opposing wings, this team is going to lose. They are going to lose because they are going to get feasted on just like they have for the last two years under Jay Triano. That's why, while this hiring is nice and fine, it's only one small step towards correcting the real problems for the Raptors out on the court.
If Colangelo acts as though this hiring alone will be enough to meaningfully improve Toronto's defence, then they'll fail. By hiring Casey, he's laid down the expectation that improving the team's defence is priority number one, and now it's on him to give Casey what he needs to actually improve it. It's all well and good to hire a talented architect to re-build your house, but if you aren't going to provide them with the tools, materials and personnel that they'd need to build it, what's the point?
Hiring Casey is a perfectly respectable step in Toronto's rebuilding process, but it is going to take several subsequent steps with regards to re-imagining parts of this roster for it to matter. You're telling the fans you're serious about winning by hiring Casey? Fine. Now go show Casey you're serious by giving him some pieces that he can actually work with.