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Steve Aschburner

Dwane Casey
Injuries, a lack of practice and a young team have complicated Dwane Casey's first season in Toronto.
Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

In Toronto, Casey finds another chance to make things work

Posted Mar 27 2012 2:37PM

Dwane Casey has won games and lost a job. He has lost games and (so far) kept a job.

One's bad. The other's worse.

Casey isn't enjoying this season as coach of the Toronto Raptors, not the way the post-lockout schedule stole the summer from him, squeezed training camp and stripped practices from a young Raptors team. Coaches don't take much satisfaction from losing, either, and with a four-defeats-in-six-games skid after Monday's 117-101 drubbing from Orlando, Toronto dropped to 16-34, assuring itself of a fourth consecutive sub-.500 season.

But then, .500 was no magic mark for Casey in his last stop. He was right there, 20-20, as coach of a Minnesota Timberwolves team that was about to go on a 90-280 bender over the next 4 1/2 seasons. But, sure, absolutely, Casey was the reason and Casey was the guy who had to go. How'd that work out for the Wolves?

In between then and now, Casey took a year on Minnesota owner Glen Taylor's money traveling through Europe and Asia, working clinics, polishing his contacts and his resume. Then he logged three seasons next to Rick Carlisle on the Dallas Mavericks' bench, contributing to the Mavericks' 162-84 record in that time. Last season, the Mavs' defense, with Casey given credit as its "architect," gave up an average of 96.0 points on 45 percent shooting, then improved both numbers en route to the 2011 NBA title.

Sure enough, the 54-year-old Kentucky native got another shot at a coaching a team on his own. Only this time, there was a difference: Back in 2005, Minnesota chose him. This time, he chose Toronto.

Casey had interviewed for and just missed on a couple of jobs in between. But there was no urgency, no now-or-never feel when he opted to leave the defending NBA champions. He could have stayed, hunkered down through the lockout and waited for a more stable time and place to step back in.

But the parallels to Dallas intrigued him -- "a slow-footed, non-defensive player and an aging point guard" is how Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo described it, shakily connecting dots between Andrea Bargnani-Dirk Nowitzki and Jose Calderon-Jason Kidd -- so Casey made his move. Spelling defense with a "c" has been among his easier tasks, but again, losing with a plan (Toronto) hasn't been as trying as treading water with a team in dire need of a reset (Minnesota).

"I'm trying to create the same culture for us [as in Dallas or Chicago]," Casey said over the weekend. "Last year, we were 30th, this year we're up to 15th or 16th defensively, and it's been a pedal-to-the-metal approach because of that. That's one of the hardest things to do in sports, to change from an offensive identity to a defensive identity, because you do have to push, make people uncomfortable -- because defense is uncomfortable for some people, especially offensive-minded guys. But our guys have bought in.

"The schedule this year has been tough enough, as far as few practices. But I haven't heard any squealing. We've won 16 games -- I don't know what we have to squeal about. We're trying to get to where Chicago is, and we're scratching and clawing trying to get there with the personnel we have. But Bryan has a great plan for us and we have cap flexibility. Jonas [Valanciunas] is coming in. Our core has developed and gotten better. We're taking baby steps but we're getting where we want to go."

Valanciunas, the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian center whom Toronto took as the No. 5 pick in last June's draft, has been warehoused this season in Europe. Early this month the 19-year-old was named MVP of the LKL All-Star Game (25 points, 13 rebounds, six assists). He'll add to Toronto's youth movement, which is both good and bad in terms of quick results. But the more healthy bodies, the better, given what the Raptors have endured this season.

Bargnani, the team's best player, missed 26 games -- much of January, all of February and the start of March -- with a strained left calf. Calderon was out for five games with an ankle sprain. Jerryd Bayless has missed a total of 20 games with ankle and hip injuries. And DeMar DeRozan, on the brink of setting a franchise record for consecutive starts, now has missed two with a sore left ankle.

Still, against Chicago Saturday, Toronto did everything right except win (Luol Deng's Video fingernail-clearing tip at the buzzer beat them in overtime at United Center). The night before, they had dealt some payback to the New York Knicks, winning big after losing big three days earlier.

George Karl, the Denver coach who brought Casey to the NBA in 1994, has liked what he's seen. "Dwane did a nice job of filling in for Bargnani and now they've got Bargnani back," Karl said Monday. "The last 20 games of this season is going to be kind of an important period of time for them, to see where they are and what they're going to be next year.

"Getting a team to play well at the end of the year when they really have nothing to play for is a testament to a guy who's going in there, working every day and getting the respect of the players. From what I see, they're getting better -- they've made that step from struggling to where every game is on the line, to now they're winning a lot of games.

"I just think that's a sign of progress and a coach who's pretty dedicated to staying through the hell of NBA basketball."

Did he say hell? Casey got some more of that in the hours after Karl spoke, his team falling behind the Magic 10-0 at home, getting as close as 28-26 but never shutting down Orlando's business at the 3-point line. It was an embarrassing night, topped by young forward Ed Davis' needless basket with 2.1 seconds left that triggered knucklehead cheering at Air Canada Centre for the free pizza slices fans got with 100 points.

Karl chose not to address Toronto's challenge of dueling agendas now, the lure of lottery chances for a non-playoff team vs. the value of winning a few more games and solidifying a few more good habits. Casey got stuck in the middle in Minnesota in a slightly different way -- the Wolves were due for an overhaul but management was trying to milk what it could from Kevin Garnett's last years there. Casey probably wasn't the right choice for that spot, then took the fall for the wrong decision.

But that's done. This one affords him time -- at least through next season, after which the Raptors have a club option for 2013-14.

"Dwane's experience in Seattle and in Dallas, and getting his second chance ... how many coaches in oro sports need that second chance?" Karl said. "[New England Patriots coach Bill] Belichick being the No. 1 guy. In Cleveland people think of Belichick, 'He's not a very good coach.' He's probably the best coach in the NFL -- ever -- everywhere else."

At this point, Casey is simply the best NBA coach in Canada. But with players responding and backing his defensive push, and Toronto's constantly changing vision set for at least for a couple of seasons, he'll have a chance to extend his impact. A column in the Toronto Sun Sunday argued that -- based on the groundwork he's laid and the backing he has from upstairs to go further -- Casey might be "the best Raptors coach ever."

The list is a modest one: Brendan Malone, Darrell Walker, Butch Carter, Lenny Wilkens, Kevin O'Neill, Sam Mitchell and Jay Triano. Rising to the top -- for a franchise that has managed just five playoff appearances, one series victory and a record 250 games under .500 in 17 seasons -- might be a "Michael Bolton's greatest hit" sort of thing.

But Casey has a chance -- a second chance -- and he is making it, and his players, work.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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