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What’s Happened

Can you believe it’s been five years since the Toronto Raptors organization brought in Dwane Casey? What felt like a panic-button move at the time has transformed into the best stretch of Raptors basketball in franchise history, with their most noticeable accomplishment appearing in the form of 56 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

Casey came with some pedigree: He served as an assistant with the Sonics for 11 years, was head coach of the Wolves for two, and won a championship as the Mavericks’ lead defensive coach in 2011. Still, in a city that prides itself on innovation, Casey’s pleated wool pants and wispy voice seemed like a step backwards for a team already taking one. It didn’t help that his opportunity began with the task of focusing on culture while the front office not-so-subtly tanked, putting him a little behind on public favor to start.

Fast forward to 2016 and the pants are still there, but the confidence has changed. Casey has led this team to a better record in all five seasons he’s coached while commanding the respect of his players through hard-work and open communication, a respect that wasn’t always there. That mentality of hard work finally rubbed off on a team that struggled to show resolve in it’s first two early-round exits against Brooklyn and Washington. When two game sevens reared their ugly heads this past postseason, Casey was there to guide the team through it. If you wonder where Casey’s old-school toughness comes from, look no further than this piece by Ian Thomsen on Casey’s childhood in Kentucky working in mines and tobacco plants. “Pound the Rock” was kind of a funny mantra for a while, but a few years later, the players are still buying in and it’s one of the cornerstones of the most successful run and team history.

That hard work was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $18 million this offseason, with Casey posting a 210-184 record in his five years with the team. That’s not only the best record among Raptor coaches, but among all squads in the Eastern Conference during that span.

What’s Next

While it’s true that Toronto’s offensive efficiency (107.0) ranked fifth among teams last season, Casey still has tendencies to run overly simplistic plays, ranking 10th in isolation plays last season. There’s a general feeling that it gets worse in close games and tight situations, which serves to exacerbate the issue in the public eye. Part of this is a reflection of his players (specifically DeMar DeRozan), but seeing the Raptors work better out of the post (25th last year) and in transition (20th) will go a long way in improving plays out of a time-out.

Casey’s defense is a staple of his coaching style, and that will be no different this year. Jared Sullinger replaced Luis Scola in the starting lineup, and as Cooper Smither brilliantly explained, that’s a huge upgrade any way you look at it. Casey also loves floor-spacing power forwards, and with Sullinger trying to improve his shot from deep, he may quickly become a favourite of the coach. The challenge for Casey will be making a Sullinger-Jonas Valanciunas pairing work on the defensive end, where Sullinger should still be an upgrade but where he presents some similar challenges to Scola in that role. The team also lost their best rim protector in Bismack Biyombo, and Casey and company will have to figure a way to scheme around his absence or improve the perimeter defense to make it less of an issue.

Casey isn’t afraid to make tough decisions, either. He sat DeRozan in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and Biyombo in overtime against the Heat in Game 4. One of those decisions worked, and one didn’t, but at least both were made with confidence. Now Casey has more decisions to make: How to manage Patrick Patterson’s minutes, where to help develop Norman Powell, and what do about rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poetl being real rotational players on this team. He’s done a nice job serving the developmental goals while also winning, but that only gets harder as expectations are raised higher.

If anyone’s up to the task, it’s Dwane Casey and his pleated pants.

  • Noelle

    ” but seeing the Raptors work better out of the post (25th last year) and in transition (20th) will go a long way in improving plays out of a time-out.”

    This weakness in plays out of time-outs is a common theme among Raptors fans, but it’s funny how perception can be so different that reality. I know people are looking for WOW plays out of time-outs, but I saw a chart that as of last Feb., the Raptors were 7th in the NBA in Points Out Of Time-outs, ahead of teams like San Antonio, OKC, Cleveland, Miami, etc.. I mean what’s more important? Aesthetically pleasing to fans, or effective? The numbers say the team has been effective.

    • Sinbad

      This is very reductive and dismissive. It’s the quality of shot that they need to improve. Depending on generating freethrows or one of Lowry/DeMar making a tough, contested shot leaves no margin for error. You provide one example of a set play being run– the Corey Joseph gamewinner in Washington. It was a very good play. Why not add wrinkles like that more often? The lack of offensive ingenuity in SOB plays and the general offence is the most frustrating thing about Casey’s tenure. It nearly saw the Raptors knocked out of the first round against Indiana, then once again against a injury-riddled, aged Miami team. Some of it is the limitations of the roster, but I refuse to believe that he’s incapable of drawing up set plays or implementing an offence that generates more open looks, more off-ball movement, and more player movement.

      • Dunkenstein

        Agreed….the Demar ISO play at the end of close games is such a give away. Everyone in the building knows Demar is going to the rim.

        • Sinbad

          Sometime Isolations are unavoidable. Sometimes they’re a good option. But it can’t be the first option every time down the floor, or down the stretch of games. It allows the opposing defence to load up on the strong side since they know the swing pass likely isn’t coming unless its a jump-pass at the last second. This isn’t an attack on either player– its the system that I can’t stand. It’s a high school offence.

      • Noelle

        You do realize that in sport, just like in business, results trump the observations of aesthetic seeking fans, but you keep dismissing real results and pounding your chest about how you know to manage it better, with cleaner looks, from your couch.

        • Sinbad

          Ah. The typical ignorant response. So, following that logic, we shouldn’t draw conclusions from an offence that has ground to a screeching halt in each of the last 3 playoff runs, turn a blind eye to the glaring inefficiencies and drawbacks of employing an isolation-heavy attack, and be grateful we’re winning at all? I’ll never accept that. It’s not an aesthetic criticism. It’s an analytic criticism. We all saw how Lowry/DeRozan struggled historically in the playoffs launching brick after brick and throwing themselves into defenders, hoping for a call. Contrast that to the ball movement that the eventual champion Cavaliers bludgeoned us with, that Indiana nearly knocked us out with, and that the Warriors used to claw back against the Thunder when they were down 1-3 in the WCF. If the goal of this organization is a championship, as Masai keeps saying, then the Raptors must build championship habits. Isolation-heavy play will not win a championship. But hey, if the goal is to go along for the ride and hope that an inherently flawed approach will win a ring, go ahead.

          • Noelle

            ummmm, the discussion is about OUT OF TIME-OUT RESULTS, so get off your offensive philosophy soapbox and move the goalposts back to the topic

            • Sinbad

              The article highlights the Raptors offensive approach. That’s what I’m responding to. Very interesting, however, that you equate advocating for more ball movement as being on a soap box.The same thing applies to SOB results too. Casey’s preferred philosophy is on full display there; it’s often one pass, usually off a pin-down or a high screen, directly into a 1 on 1 situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the margins are razor-thin.

              • Noelle

                You’re welcome to respond to whatever you want in the article, but in this case you responded to my post that was addressing the point about out of timeout plays, thus my soapbox comment about you pontificating on the overall offense of the team, not your self serving, pompous spin doctoring that I was speaking to ball movement.

                • Sinbad

                  Once again, pointing out that the greater offensive philosophy of isolation basketball that the Raptors employ heavily influences the plays they run on SOB plays isn’t self-serving, pompous, or spin. It is context. Context that you willfully ignore and that you deny at every turn.

                • Noelle

                  Hey, I know you think you’re a big boy, but you don’t get to define the context of my commentary, which was specifically addressing a specific point in the article, not some all encompassing context that you seem to need to turn it to. But if you want to expand the context, how about expending it to full game results, that you willfully ignore.
                  With a young, developing team, top 10 offense AND defense. How many teams can say that? A big part of the offensive philosophy being employed is geared toward helping the defense, so let’s not restrict the context to offense in a bubble.
                  The combined O and D got the team 56 wins last year, despite significant injuries to 3 starters, and an ineffective PF starter. How many teams won 56 or more?
                  You say the offense was ground to a halt in last 3 playoff runs? How many teams got to conference finals last year? Context includes results.

                  Having said that, I’ll play your game a little bit. You severely overstate the amount of ISOs the Raps actually run, and use that as a basis for your “insightful” context and analysis. To quote you:

                  ” it can’t be the first option every time down the floor”
                  ” employing an isolation-heavy attack”
                  ” it’s often one pass, usually off a pin-down or a high screen, directly into a 1 on 1 situation”

                  Based on stats, the Raps’ offense ends in ISO 8.1% of the time down the floor, which is hardly “isolation heavy” and certainly not at all reflecting “first option every time down the floor”. In contrast, the Cavs who you cited, ran ISOs 8.9% last year. GSW ran ISOs 6.3%. Less than 2% of plays difference is hardly a huge leap, and since we don’t have 2 generational 3 pt shooters, quite understandable.

                  Broken down Raps offensive plays:
                  Transition…. 11.6% (24th, scoring frequency #1 in the league)
                  Isolation……. 8.1% (10th, scoring frequency #6 in the league)
                  Ball handler.. 20.7% ( 3rd, scoring frequency #1 in the league)
                  Roll Man…… 5.4% (26th, scoring frequency #9 in the league)
                  Post Up…….. 6.4% (18th, scoring frequency #25 in the league)
                  Spot Up……. 20.3% (9th, scoring frequency #6 in the league)
                  Hand Off…… 3.1% (25th, scoring frequency #3 in the league)
                  Cut………….. 6.1% (26th, scoring frequency #7 in the league)
                  Off screen…. 6.9% (5th, scoring frequency #19 in the league)
                  Putbacks…… 5.5% (18th, scoring frequency #29 in the league)

                  ISO heavy? First option EVERY TIME down the floor? The numbers speak a very different language. Speaking of ignorance, which you’ve labelled me with twice in this discussion, you’re ignoring factual numbers in embellishing this “iso heavy” insight of yours.

                • Mike$

                  Just want to say the turnover point is a strong one. Lots of the pass heavy teams (warriors especially) suffered from turnover problems. They played at a fast pace though so losing a few extra possessions isn’t a huge deal and their bigs are mobile and can get back and defend.

                  A team like the Raps with a slower 5 who isn’t so mobile would suffer way more than the average team from being turnover prone. Then to make it worse the Raps play at a really slow pace. Since there are less possessions in a game, every possession means a little bit more. Having low turnovers was a big key to the Raps defense. Another key to their defence was getting to the free throw line. Dead balls mean everyones back to defend and a set half court defence is always better than transition D.

                  Thats two ways the Raps offence is geared specifically to help their defence and also takes into account their personal who need more time to get into the half court. That said I still want to see the offence spread out a little bit more so we aren’t so relient on two players. We obviously need them playing well and are the best options but if a few other guys are given more touches they might be ready to carry more of the load while our 2 allstars rest. Also finding that third option would be nice come playoff time when they get keyed in on.

                • Noelle

                  I agree with the idea of hoping they continue to evolve and diversify the offense, but until they have a 3rd/4th option that they can rely upon to produce consistently, they gotta go with their strengths. Though it’s a misnomer to call it so iso dominant, as numbers show, the above numbers clearly show that they are playing to their strengths, and are damn good at it. I gotta put a full analysis of this stuff together because it’s very telling about why they play with the offense they do. Shit for example, #1 in the league for efficiency in “Ball handler” plays. Any wonder the offense is so centred on DD and KL, the two biggest ball handlers? Best in the league at it. The very close second biggest percentage of plays are “Spot ups”, where they’re 6th best in the league, and is also hardly pointing to iso every time down the floor.

                  Also notice how inefficient we are in Post Ups (25th in the league), so no wonder they’re not feeding (in poor position) JV more like everyone screams for. Shit, we’re 2nd last in the NBA in put back efficiency for heaven sake, but yeah let’s make JV’s defensive weaknesses secondary to a constant outcry of feeding him more. JV gets better, consistently, and they’ll feed him more. Until then, play to the strengths of your 2 all stars, doh(nothing personal)

                • Mike$

                  Yeah I agree that what we have been doing is very effective. I have no problem with the offence being centered around DD or Lowry. I do think you over looked JV as a third option though, especially if he spends more time with the second unit.

                  “Also notice how inefficient we are in Post Ups (25th in the league)”. Thats true but that points to a team problem, not just JV. Considering JV had a much higher average than the rest of the Raps in points per post up possession it saying the Raps were a bad post up team not JV was a bad post up player. If JV accounted for all the Raps post up possessions they would have ranked 8th. And that was with JV regressing in the post from the year before. The year before he was one of the best in the NBA in the post in terms of efficiency (maybe injury and working his way back in effected him).

                  Im not to worried about him getting more post touches though. Even the top teams are pretty ineffiecent out of the post. Its just not a very efficient play over all. I want to see JV receive more looks on the pick and roll. Even though we were #2 (not sure where you got #1 in the league from) in the league in points per possession as the ball handler in the pick and roll, scoring for yourself off the pick is usually not very effective. For example not a single team scored more than a point per possession (PPP) as the ball handler in the pick and roll. The Raps averaged 0.90 PPP which isn’t much higher than the .87 PPP that JV averaged in a post up. So being 2nd in the NBA is great, but its second in the NBA at one of the most inefficient ways to score. This is where i want JV to get more touches. He scores at an absurd 1.27 PPP for 4th best in the NBA. Since we run so many pick and rolls it should be easy to get 1 or 2 more passes to him a game after the screen.

                • Noelle

                  Casey gets shit on for JV not getting more touches on the PnR, but I think Lowry needs to improve immensely as a distributor in PnRs before that’s going to happen with any regularity. Yes, I’m saying the responsibility rests heavily on our MVP. He is the PG, and it’s something he’s not very good at.

                  It’s funny that when Lowry first got here, and while he and Casey banged heads for a while, creating a battle between KL and an excellent PnR PG in Jose, many screamed for Casey’s head because he was “trying to turn Kyle into Jose, and should let Kyle be Kyle”. Well, Casey and Kyle came to an agreement somewhere in the middle ground, and for the most part our PG is being himself like everyone wanted. Now that’s damn good, and has lead the team further than ever before, but the guy whose relied upon to feed the big man on PnRs is not very good at it. Kyle is fantastic, but he’s not CP3 or Steve Nash,,,,, or even Jose, when it comes to court vision and distributing the ball, in particular in PnRs.

                  Casey’s damned if he don’t and damned if he do, when it comes to allowing Kyle to play to his strengths. Casey adapted. Some fans need to.

                • Mike$

                  I wasn’t blaming the coach for the lack of touches JV gets on the roll. I never blamed anyone. But yes i agree its not on the coach for the way a play like that is executed. All he can do is set up where the shooters spot up and what side of the court the play is ran on. From the amount of spot up corner 3’s we get (one of the most efficient shots in basketball) out of the PnR I think the set up is fine.

                  So like you said JV getting the ball more is on the players not Casey. I think both our all stars have to get better at it. DD has already shown much improved passing last year so hopefully he applies more to the PnR next. Lowry especially showed he could make the pass last playoffs. I don’t know if its because he wasn’t trusting his shot so he was looking to get others involved but we really seen him help JV get some nice looks. But you are right we have to let Lowry be Lowry but as he gets older and can’t carry so much of a load, it would be nice to see him start transitioning his game a bit.

                • Noelle

                  Didn’t mean to imply you were blaming anyone, sorry if it came across that way. Aww, just a rant about the everlasting Casey detractors that feel no shame about dissing the man, no matter what he does, even if he does what they were previously screaming for, as in allowing Kyle to play to his strengths, not his weaknesses. I too hope Kyle gets better as a distributor in PnRs, and the bigs see the ball a lot more in them, but he needs to work on it, not the coach has to force him into doing what he’s not strong at.

                • CJT

                  Oh Shit.
                  Yes he did.

          • Mexiballer

            Well said. As you say if the Raptors want to be true contenders, one way or another they will have to become much more creative offensively. Predictability will not get it done.

            • distorsun

              Yep. They have good weapons. They have have to evolve just enough to make them tougher playing the same opponent night in and night out (top 10 O mean nothing in the poffs).

              Watching them play, I cannot imagine that there isn’t ANOTHER level to that offense.

              • Noelle

                Oh there is another level to come, but the management of this team is putting a whole lot more stock on trusting the process, than impatience. A lesson many fans still fail to appreciate.

            • Dunkenstein

              The Raps, as built right now are a top 4 to 7 top team. We aren’t winning any championships with this group no matter what plays Caseys draws up.

              I think that based on our talent we actually won more games than we should have.

      • Henry Swagson

        Nope Lowry’s elbow/shooting slump and DeRozan’s inability to make defences pay for going under screens/sagging off of him are what prolonged both those series. Offence can use some tweaks to make it even better but it is already elite.

        Hey man get out of here with that injured Miami excuse. JV is better than Hassan and was thoroughly outplaying him when they both went down at the same time, and predictions were made with knowing Bosh might never play again (they were pretty bad with him anyways).

      • Dunkenstein

        That was a great play but I think it was more of an improvement than a set play.

  • Truth Teller

    Lets go Blue Jays!

  • steve fisher

    A few KEY weaknesses continue to persist from day one : so many basic fundamentals on both sides of the ball are either NOT DONE or done improperly such as : not keeping between your check and the basket ( CONTAIN ) , NOT contesting so many shots with a hand in the face ( CONTEST ) , far too much dribbling around as compared too FAR too little sharing the ball which all the ELITE teams like the Warriors do on a nightly basis which make them a pleasure to watch as compared to the Raps who far too often take their fans on a gut renching roller coaster ride , NOT headmanning the ball as soon as they get possession on D therefore missing all kinds of easy baskets from 2 on ones or fast breaks before their D gets set , several Raps have NO idea how to set a proper PICK let alone the roll to the basket , and too often seem to have no clue on inbounds plays , leaving their opponents STAR SHOOTERS WIDE OPEN all game, and allowing their own stars and everyone else to continually make the same stupid mistakes because their are NO CONSEQUENCES for screwing up , elite coaches like POPS, DOC, and TIBS regularly chew out and yes believe it or not BENCH anyone including the stars with NO hesitation !! All of these shortcomings MUST be TAUGHT and if NOT improved MUST have consequences !! OUR GM has many strengths but his biggest weakness may be allowing this litinany of problems to continue !! If they persist we need an elite coach to ever reach the ELITE level GO RAPS GO !!!