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Credit is Due

Despite the Raptors success over the last several seasons, it’s been an easy path to being critical of coach Dwane Casey. While the team has been winning with consistency during the season, the playoffs have been a different story, and the predictability of the team’s offense and offensive struggles when it comes to the postseason has been frustrating.

At the same time, this has been the most successful stretch of basketball in the organization’s history. The offense, while struggling in the playoffs, delivered consistent wins during the regular season built on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s dominance and surrounding them with players who complimented their skills.  When the stars had it going, the Raptors have been a tough team to beat, at least until April. It’s hard to say whether the criticism of Casey was fair. Both were true, that the team had unprecedented success under him and that the team hadn’t yet had a satisfying playoff run, and in both cases, he was at least in part responsible.

This past summer though, after yet another playoff run which was mostly frustrating and ended earlier than the team would’ve wanted again at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team committed the money to bringing back Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for at least another three years of this core. The team could’ve simply settled for being the team they’ve been and winning a lot of games, even if it never brought true postseason success. That would’ve been an easy out, and Dwane Casey would’ve had a defensible position as the coach that brought year after year of winning basketball and delivering All-Star berths for two of the best players Toronto fans had ever seen. Why mess with something that works for most of the NBA year, if you don’t have to?

However, the organization and coaching staff made the tough decision to try to find a better path to success. The offense has changed, been remade to be more team-centric, and the stars have bought in. DeMar DeRozan is a more willing passer, more focused on generating good shots for the offense than getting his own scoring going in each game, and it’s paid dividends. At the same time, he’s trusted his young guys. In years past, the Raptors didn’t really run true bench units, instead mostly running lineups with four bench guys and either DeRozan or Lowry out there with them to be remain as the offensive focus. It worked, too, with the Lowry and the bench units dominating opponents in the last two seasons and being some of the best five man lineups in the league each year. However, Lowry’s durability has been a concern, and those bench lineups tended to keep his minutes high, which was widely speculated as one of the reasons he had injury issues late in seasons and struggled when it came to the playoffs.

Jonas Valanciunas has become the rock in the paint for the team over the course of this season. Once a source of mostly frustration for Raptors fans, whether it was due to his defensive missteps, or annoyance with the team’s inability to properly use his offensive skills, and both were reasonable cases, he’s found his role at both ends of the floor. On the offensive end, the team features him more frequently and he’s responded with consistency, adding a three-point shot to his arsenal and owning the paint when asked. At the defensive end of the floor as well, he’s controlled the boards and improved his skills both as a rim protector as well as learning to manage space better. He’ll never be the most mobile defender, but he’s improving at managing his limitations and reducing their impact.

At the same time, the bench has became it’s own, entirely separate, entity. They’ve used their defensive intensity and athleticism to win their minutes, and have been a large part of the run the Raptors are currently on. With CJ Miles as the lone veteran in the group, the young guys have given the Raptors long stretches when the stars can rest, and in the last eight games, Lowry has only had to play 30 minutes three times.

That’s definitely a large part of what has made this year from Dwane Casey so impressive.  He didn’t have to do this. He could’ve simply ridden out the same isolation offense and used his All-Stars to anchor the bench lineups again, and it probably would’ve worked. Both Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet can fit beside Lowry or DeRozan, and they can still create their own shots with ease. In all likelihood, that would’ve still made the Raptors one of the better teams in the east, and it would’ve been hard to complain too much about yet another successful season.

It’s hard to change a team’s identity in the NBA. It’s harder still to do so when that identity works, and for the two Raptors stars, it had to be difficult as well, as those changes meant going away from the system that had brought them their success and helped build their reputation as one of the best backcourts in the league. Casey managed to get them to both buy in, as well as build up the young players around them to ensure that the team would find success in the new offense, and with the new bench.

All of this comes with one giant caveat, of course. The true test of all of this comes in April, May, and hopefully June. If the Raptors revert to form of years past come the postseason, it’ll be hard not to go back to the same criticisms of Casey. But if he stays true to the changes he’s brought to the franchise this season, the team should find new levels of success when they get to the playoffs, and Casey should get a large portion of the accolades if they do so. He built a successful team in Toronto not once, but twice, and the second time he did so by accepting he would have to let go of the things that brought success the first time around.

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