Feb 12, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey (left) and assistant coach Billy Bayno (right) during a game against the Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Atlanta 104-83. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Masai Ujiri & his coach – why playoffs matter


Dedicated readers will know I’ve been an anti-tanker since before the season tipped off. Players need to learn how to perform in a playoff drive, and in the post-season itself, before they are truly ready to win the biggest prize of all. A team always in the draft lottery can’t gain that precious experience, nor can team members who wear suits and worry for a living. The Toronto Raptors appear poised to make the NBA playoffs seeded as high as #3. What impact will that achievement, and making some playoff noise, have on the odds of Dwane Casey retaining his job?

May 9, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri during the press conference naming him NBA executive of the year at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Dwane Casey got his first head coaching gig with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He led them to a 33-49 record in the 2005-2006 season, then was gassed after the T’Wolves started ’06-’07 at 20-20. The logic of firing the coach of an improving team was never explained. When his successor, Randy Wittman, won 12 and lost 30, Dwane must have enjoyed a private chuckle. He returned to the assistants’ ranks, and won a championship ring with the Dallas Mavericks in ’10-’11. Dwane was selected by Bryan Colangelo to lead the Raptors, commencing with the lockout-shortened season of ’11-’12. His record prior to this season was 57-91, but incoming General Manager Masai Ujiri decided to retain him.

That decision (or non-decision, if you like) has turned out well, as Toronto leads the Atlantic Division. Dwane has never head-coached a single game in the NBA playoffs. Assuming the Raptors don’t suffer either a monumental collapse, or a rash of injuries, he’ll get his chance this season. From Masai’s perspective, it’s an excellent opportunity to watch his coach in the crucible of post-season pressure. Can Dwane draw up a strategy to score some points against Chicago’s ferocious defense? How well does our coach deal with retaining a lead in the dying seconds? Conversely, can he claw back from 4 down with less than a minute to play? Do we get smoked in overtime games?

It’s hard to overstate the value of a top-flight NBA coach, which is why Phil Jackson continues to be mentioned as a candidate for every struggling high-profile team, despite his advanced years. The Zen Master has won 11 championships, surpassing Red Auerbach’s nine. Most NBA coaches are canned before they ever get close to a title. The Raptors do not project as a finals participant, so Masai won’t be expecting miracles. However, as a rightly demanding GM, he’ll need to see Dwane deliver more than the criteria established earlier this season. Incremental team improvement, in particular from the kids, isn’t enough anymore. Nor is winning the Division title, which was surely a “stretch” goal.

Dwane Casey and his coaches will need to win at least one playoff round, and contend in the second. Masai Ujiri has to be convinced his championship-grade bench boss was here all along, or there will be a new helmsman next season.

Brian Boake is Senior Editor for Raptors Rapture. “Like” Raptors Rapture on Facebook and follow us on twitter @RaptorsRapture for all the latest news and updates about the best damn NBA team from Canada.

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