Damien Cox: Raptors coaching switch pays off as agent of change

Damien Cox: Raptors coaching switch pays off as agent of change
The Orlando series isn’t yet over, and there’s a long ways to go for the Toronto Raptors to feel anything close to fully satisfied this season.

But there are some conclusions we can reach.

Just be careful if you’re too enthusiastically supportive of this as a fan. They’ll start charging you more.

Second, it’s worth acknowledging that, yes, it was the right decision after last season to replace Dwane Casey as head coach with Nick Nurse, as much as that pains me to say.

Casey, it seemed at the time, had done absolutely nothing to get fired. He’d won more games in the regular season (59) than any other Raptors head coach, good enough for the second-best record in the league. The team had won its first-round series before falling — again — to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Casey was voted NBA coach of the year. Beyond that, he was a standup individual and certainly one of the most approachable and classy head coaches the GTA had ever had in any sport. He represented our city well.

After the loss to LeBron James and the Cavs, team president Masai Ujiri initially pointed the finger of blame at himself. “It’s on me,” he said. “Put it on me.”

Hours later, he fired Casey.

The optics were awkward, both for the team and Ujiri. Unimaginative at best, scapegoating at worst. It sure seemed more accurate to observe Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both again falling well short of their regular-season production in the post-season, and it wasn’t like Casey hadn’t given them the chance and the minutes to be better.

Initially, Nurse didn’t seem to be the first option to replace Casey. Internally, there was Jerry Stackhouse. Externally, names such as Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt and the Van Gundy brothers popped up. But Nurse got the nod, which didn’t feel much like change. It felt like more of the same, giving all the responsibility to the guy who had been sitting right next to Casey since 2013, very much part of all those previous disappointments.

Slightly less than 12 months later, however, we know a lot more. Or at least, we understand a great deal more about this basketball team and how it has changed.

A team with two main offensive threats, Lowry and DeRozan, now has two other main offensive threats in Leonard and Pascal Siakam. Did Ujiri believe he was going to trade DeRozan when he fired Casey? Maybe. Did he believe Siakam would jump to 17 points a night from a shade over seven points per night? Possibly.

Jonas Valanciunas later moved on in a deal that saw Marc Gasol come to Toronto, and it seems more far-fetched that Ujiri and Bobby Webster had that cooking last May. But clearly the plan wasn’t to hang it all on Casey. The plan was to aggressively alter the team in a variety of ways, including coaching.

Nurse hasn’t stumbled in his first chance at a head coaching job, and many assistants making the jump to head man often do. While you could argue he had lots of talent on his bench, this was a team that rarely seemed to have the same group going in back-to-back games. Much of the year the surprise was when Leonard was playing, not when he wasn’t. From Patrick McCaw to Malcolm Miller, from Jodie Meeks to Jeremy Lin, from Chris Boucher to Greg Monroe and Lorenzo Brown, you just never knew who might pop up in Nurse’s lineup and get important minutes. Or even start.

Nurse never complained about the missing bodies or what seemed to be an overprotective training staff. Just played with who was available. And kept winning.

Casey might have done the same with this new group. Maybe he deserved the chance. But what we do know is that all of Ujiri’s changes collectively created a new dynamic. You could see it all season in the way Siakam blossomed, in the fundamental role that Danny Green filled, in the way Gasol altered the rhythm of the offence when he arrived.

After a tight loss to the Magic on opening night of the post-season, rather than getting here-we-go-again jittery, the Raps roared to three straight triumphs in very confident style. There were enough players who hadn’t been with this team to accumulate the psychological scars of playoff disappointments past to support those who had been part of those stumbles and had those scars.

It still feels lousy that a class act like Casey lost his job. But he got another one, and quite clearly he wasn’t a scapegoat. He was one of a variety of significant changes the Raptors made to try and achieve a different result than in previous playoff campaigns.
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