Dwane Casey wasn’t fired because the Raptors lost to LeBron James.
Toronto president Masai Ujiri is a methodical and calculating executive; firing a coach, one who led the Raptors to their five best seasons in franchise history, in a fit of reflexive rage would be entirely out of character. Handing out a pink slip simply for failing to topple James would have been illogical and unfair too. The Raptors have hit a hard ceiling that capped the Celtics, Pacers, Bulls and Hawks before them. A lot of good coaches have seen their seasons end by James’s hand: Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, and even Mike Budenholzer, who happens to be the first name to surface as a possible Casey replacement in Toronto.
Casey was fired because of how the Raptors lost to James, and because that humiliating loss, coupled with similar defeats in 2016 and 2017, offered little hope that things could ever be different in the future.
Even Casey’s most ardent defenders, those who praise his affability, professionalism, and willingness to adapt this season, must admit: Toronto did not play to its full potential against Cleveland. Not even close. The Raptors had the best record and point differential in the East but played like a listless and disorganized eighth seed when it mattered. For a team with high-priced veterans and plenty of playoff experience, that alone was a fireable offense.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Kyle Lowry has never consistently played like an All-Star in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan was so bad that he got benched with the season on the line in Game 3. Serge Ibaka was missing in action early in the series. And the Raptors’ excitable fans got ahead of themselves after a 59-win season, ramping up the postseason expectations past the breaking point for a team with a track record of self-combustion.
However, Casey must take his lumps too. After a gutting Game 1 loss, Casey looked and sounded shell-shocked, and he wondered aloud at the podium whether his team had “the yips.” For a fragile team trying desperately to forget its traumatic past, the admission felt like a death sentence. It was followed by three straight demoralizing losses.
As the series progressed, Casey never found counters for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, who both feasted on unprepared defenses and ill-considered switches. On the last possession of Game 3, James’s dramatic end-to-end game-winner, Casey told reporters that his players blew the coverage and failed to execute a trap. Coming out of a timeout with the game on the line, that type of inexcusable breakdown falls on the coach. In Game 4, Casey’s decision to play Lucas Nogueira was a stunning head-scratcher that backfired within minutes. He was clearly searching for answers—answers that Bebe was never going to possess.
Those micro details were regrettable, but it was the macro stuff that ultimately did in Casey. The Raptors lacked self-belief against the Cavaliers in 2017 and, despite a year of major changes to their schemes and many new faces in their rotation, they lacked self-belief against the Cavaliers again in 2018.
Crushing defeats leave scars. The Raptors waded into the “Not this again” quicksand during the fourth quarter of Game 1, as they missed 11 consecutive shots, and they never escaped. Firing Casey won’t make Lowry a more consistent playoff performer, it won’t magically give DeRozan the three-point shot and defensive ability he so desperately needs, and it won’t help Jonas Valanciunas cover ground more effectively on the perimeter. But a new voice and personality should at least disrupt the harmful mental muscle memory that has accumulated. Multiple Raptors admitted this week that the team was in its own head, and Casey never found a way to pull them out of it.
At this point, Casey’s presence and voice stood as reminders of their collective failures. The back-to-back sweeps were bad enough, but hearing Casey call for “pride” from his troops again and again this week generated a pitiful sense of déjà vu. Having exhausted all other options, he was left pushing the same button with little to no response.
There were other practical reasons for Ujiri to pull the plug. It’s often easier to fire a coach than trade the stars, and that’s true here. Ujiri’s core pieces—Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka—all possess major contracts. Trading them would likely require taking a step back in the standings, parting with picks, or receiving bad contracts in return. Toronto’s roster is also deep and flush with young talent, and Casey’s replacement will inherit a playoff-ready team.
It’s a testament to Casey’s dedication, intelligence and personality management that he leaves the Raptors in far better condition than when he arrived in 2011. Ironically, his hard work conspired to make him replaceable. Shouldn’t the Raptors, in position to bring back their most important pieces, be able to win a 2019 playoff series with a replaceable-level coach? Really, what’s the downside risk in trying to see if a new voice can put the team into a better frame of mind and get them over the hump in the playoffs?
History will smile on Casey’s tenure in Toronto. He helped transform a backwater franchise into a consistent winner, he helped elevate Lowry and DeRozan to heights that didn’t seem possible, and he did it with total class while facing “hot seat” talk for years. Remarkably, he took home the Coach of the Year award from his fellow coaches this week and he might win the official award, via media vote, too.
If the Raptors had pushed the Cavaliers, if they had shown meaningful progress from last year, or if they had lost in a different or less embarrassing manner, he would likely still have his job. Unfortunately, that’s now how it went. Casey will regret that, Ujiri will regret that, and Lowry and DeRozan will regret that. They may all be haunted by Game 1 for the rest of their careers.
Even so, Casey didn’t find the right adjustments at the right moments, and Toronto never found the peace of mind that comes with playing one’s best in defeat. The status quo was untenable; Casey and the Raptors, shackled by their shared struggles, had gone as far as they could together.