The Toronto Raptors will enter play on March 20 having compiled a 47-21 record. Trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers by just 1.5 games in the standings, the Raptors are all but guaranteed to surpass last season’s win total of 49 games (which was a franchise record).
Slowly but surely, under the leadership of Dwane Casey and behind the decision making of Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have become one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
For months, it has been a foregone conclusion that the Cavaliers and LeBron James would simply waltz to their second consecutive Eastern Conference championship and make the NBA Finals.
Casey—perhaps one of the more underrated coaches in the entire league—clearly has other ideas.
* * * * * *
“When a bully comes up and someone attacks you like that, the only thing you can do is fight and I think our team did a good job of turning around and fighting back,” Casey said on March 18.
On that day, the Raptors pummeled the Boston Celtics in a game that didn’t really mean much to anyone. But for Casey, the win marked his 200th career win as the Raptors head coach and, although he previously passed Sam Mitchell’s franchise record of 156 wins as a head coach, his growth and maturity on the sidelines for Toronto is an amazing story, especially in an NBA that has become marked with coaching changes and impatient front offices.
This game in particular happened to be the fourth game in five nights for Casey and his team, and it was against another team jockeying for playoff position. Experiencing a bit of a slide themselves, the Celtics needed a win the worst way.
But if there is one thing that we have learned about these Raptors under Casey, it’s that they simply refuse to be outworked and out-hustled. It’s a identity that has been forged ever so consistently since Casey took over from Jay Triano back in June 2011.
Under his leadership, we have seen Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan become one of the premier backcourts in the entire league while Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo have become everyday contributors. This season, as the Raptors seem poised to crush their franchise-record 49 wins from last year, it is worth noting that DeMarre Carroll has missed 45 games. Carroll, the recipient of a four-year contract worth $60 million from the Raptors last July, was the team’s prized acquisition of last summer and was signed partially to fill the void that the Raptors seemed to have at the small forward spot.
Turns out, it appears the Raptors may not have even missed him.
* * * * * *
An old adage in the NBA is that, sometimes, it’s not the trade that you make that is the difference; sometimes, it’s the trade that you don’t make.
Casey, originally appointed to succeed Triano by the Raptors’ former general manager Bryan Colangelo, was thought to be a stopgap.
When Ujiri was brought on as the general manager in 2013, everyone expected him to come in and do what general managers typically do. Blindly, a new general manager often takes over a team and tears down whatever remnants of the prior regime were there. They usually clean house and conduct fire sales and, without question, install their own staff.
Ujiri, though he certainly wanted to put his fingerprints on the franchise, was wise enough to sit back and survey the scene in Toronto before making any drastic decisions. If you can recall, there was a fair amount of chatter around the league that the Raptors, who had just turned in 23-win and 34-win seasons, would conduct a fire sale of their roster and “tank” the 2013-14 season. Back then, a young phenom by the name of Andrew Wiggins was on the precipice of the NBA and, as an Ontario native, would have been an amazing savior and draw.
Turns out the Raptors didn’t need him, either.
With Casey coaching for what seemed to be his career, he managed to pull some consistency out of Lowry—who the Raptors were openly shopping—as well as get meaningful contributions from Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and Tyler Hansbrough.
At the team, the Raptors were thought to simply be a team of spare parts that would ultimately be just another broken down, stranded car on the side of the freeway. However, in the two seasons since, they have been the complete opposite.
Despite trading the talented Rudy Gay away during the early portion of the 2013-14 season, Casey would lead the team to a then-franchise-record 48 wins. That season, the Raptors also captured the team’s first Atlantic Division crown since 2008. To call the campaign a surprise would have been an understatement.
That summer, after wisely giving Casey and Lowry an opportunity to flourish together, Ujiri kept both and decided to build upon the foundation that had existed prior to his arrival, resisting to urge to raze it.
Now, following a 2014-15 campaign that saw Casey break his own single-season record, the team enters the final few weeks of the regular season with an outside chance to win 60 games and catch the Cavaliers for the first seed in the conference.
Indeed, the story of Casey’s rise has been remarkable to witness, just like his Raptors.
And on the day he captured his 200th win, Kyle Lowry said it best: “We always say, it’s not a one or two man show. It’s a 15-man show.”
Thus far, it’s been a pretty one.
In their franchise’s history, the Raptors have won just one playoff series – defeating the New York Knicks in their first round matchup back in 2001. To this point, the Raptors have never won a seven-game playoff series and are fresh off of series losses to the Brooklyn Nets (2014) and Washington Wizards (2015) in the last two postseasons.
As they sprint toward these playoffs, the Raptors have an opportunity to capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference and accomplish something remarkable this season.
Nothing is guaranteed, but the evidence suggests that the wisest thing to do would be to not bet against Dwane Casey. To this point, in Toronto, he has not disappointed.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.