The Toronto Raptors have done something that most people would never have thought would happen – they have fired their Head Coach who was recently named the Coaches Association Coach of the Year (and is a favourite to win the NBA Coach of the Year award), Dwane Casey.
The Raptors, under Casey’s tutelage, finished the 2017/18 regular season as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference due to a franchise record 59 wins. However, looking back on Casey’s coaching career with the Raptors, this season wasn’t simply a flash-in-the-pan, it was something of the norm recently –
2011/12 Season: 23 wins, 43 losses (66 games) – missed playoffs
2012/13 Season: 34 wins, 48 losses (82 games) – missed playoffs
2013/14 Season: 48 wins, 34 losses (82 games) – lost in first round of playoffs
2014/15 Season: 49 wins, 33 losses (82 games) – lost in first round of playoffs
2015/16 Season: 56 wins, 26 losses (82 games) – lost in conference finals
2016/17 Season: 51 wins, 31 losses (82 games) – lost in conference semi-finals
2017/18 Season: 59 wins, 23 losses (82 games) – lost in conference semi-finals
Many people are saying that LeBron James is the cause of this crazy sacking – the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by James, bundled the Raptors out of the postseason in a cleansweep for the second consecutive year. In fact, the Cavaliers have been the reason the Toronto Raptors haven’t progressed to the NBA Finals in the last three seasons; knocking them out in each of those postseasons.
So is it Casey’s fault that they haven’t progressed? Is it LeBron James? Is it Raptors players going missing when they’re needed the most? The answer, a bit of everything from column A, B and C.
To kick things off, the Raptors had no direct match-up for James, no one that could contain him or restrict his movements on the court, his touches of the ball. You look at the Boston Celtics for example, they’ve got Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris who have both played on James throughout the season and have bodied him up well enough to throw him off his game slightly (slightly is enough of a difference-maker). The Raptors tried Serge Ibaka – too slow – they tried OG Anunoby – not strong enough – and they even had CJ Miles at times – too slow and not strong enough.
This is where Casey’s coaching could come into question – if no one player could hamper James, then what strategies could be put in place to make up for that? It didn’t look like there were too many in game changes or tactical surprises by the Raptors. Reports over the years and even recently have all said that Casey is a great coach, a great player developer and training coach but his in-game coaching shows little imagination – without being involved with the team, I can’t necessarily comment on that but if it’s true, could it have played a part? Absolutely.
What about players going missing?
Let’s compare the statistics for DeMar DeRozan from the series against the Washington Wizards to the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers –
Washington Series (4-2): 26.7ppg, 3.3rpg, 4.8apg – 10/26 from three, 34/42 free throws.
Cleveland Series (0-4): 16.8ppg, 4.0rpg, 2.8apg – 0/9 from three, 9/11 free throws.
The Cavaliers were able to stop DeRozan from getting to the free throw line and also restricted his number of shot attempts with their suffocating defense. As the lead scorer and main offensive threat for the Raptors, DeRozan not scoring certainly makes putting a winning score on the board that much harder.
That’s not to say that DeRozan is the main culprit – Serge Ibaka, CJ Miles, Jonas Valanciunas and others all had a down series – he is just the focal point being the leader and main threat on this team. Kyle Lowry had a good series against the Cavaliers but even he was in foul trouble early in a number of games, making things a little more difficult.
It’s clear, I think, that Casey has been made the scapegoat when the finger could be pointed in a number of different ways but what’s done is done, the Raptors have parted ways with their franchise leader in coaching wins.
What makes it even more crazy is the good words said by all within the Raptors – including President Masai Ujiri, Lowry and DeRozan – about how great Casey has been for the franchise, how he did nothing wrong as a coach and how great he was as a coach.
Even other coaches like the Boston Celtics Brad Stevens and Cleveland Cavaliers Ty Lue had nothing but praise for Casey. I think it’s safe to say that even though the Toronto Raptors aren’t in Dwane Casey’s future, there will be another team that signs him on before too long.
The Portland Trailblazers suffered a shock series loss to the underdog New Orleans Pelicans, granting the Pelicans their first series sweep in franchise history.
As it always does after a surprise defeat, let alone four of them in a row, the fingers start getting pointed at players, coaches, support staff and, basically, anyone within the organisation as to who is to blame and what happens now.
Reports are already circulating that head coach Terry Stotts could be on his way out the door, those same reports are saying that the Orlando Magic will pounce if this is the case. Was Stotts to blame though? Possibly. Could he have done anything differently in terms of rotations, strategies, motivational speeches? Most likely, everyone can improve in anything they do.
Stotts and the Blazers have lost ten postseason games in a row but really, who expected them to end the 82 game regular season with the #3 seed in the stacked Western Conference? They didn’t go into the postseason with the best form line, losing seven of the last 12 or similar and yet they still held on to that third seed.
What about Damian Lillard, is he to blame? A superstar of the game, of the league, and he was well held by Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday. Below are Lillard’s averages from the regular season and this series against the Pelicans –
Lillard (regular season): 26.9ppg (44% shooting), 4.5rpg, 6.6apg, 0.4bpg and 1.1spg
Lillard (postseason): 18.5ppg (35% shooting), 4.5rpg, 4.8apg, 0bpg and 1.3spg
There will be plenty of fingers pointing at Lillard with his scoring and shooting percentages down on his regular season performances. There will be many people saying he goes missing in the big games. If his stats from the 2016/2017 regular season compared to the 2017 postseason are anything to go by, this isn’t true –
Lillard (2016/17 regular season): 27ppg (44% shooting), 4.9rpg, 5.9apg, 0.3bpg and 0.9spg
Lillard (2016/17 postseason): 27.8ppg (43% shooting), 4.5rpg, 3.3apg, 0.5bpg and 1.5spg
During this series he was just beaten fairly and squarely by Jrue Holiday on both ends of the court. Holiday played out of his skin on the defensive end to make life as difficult as possible for Lillard and he succeeded.
Do the Blazers need to bring in players? Have they got enough coming off the bench or enough alongside Lillard and McCollum in the starting lineup?
Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless are all serviceable players and good at playing their role but they are fairly limited in what they can provide. Davis is a pure inside player, he’ll fight for a rebound and will be able to put the ball back up but he can’t step out and shoot from the mid range or further. Aminu has improved his three point shooting over recent seasons but is still very inconsistent, shooting at just under 40% from the field. Harkless is also inconsistent on the offensive end but is looked at as a primary defender on this team.
The two players who have the most upside, besides McCollum and Lillard, are Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner and both should be in the starting lineup. Nurkic saw his numbers drop ever so slightly this season but he got through essentially the whole season and has shown steady improvement. He could be a 18ppg, 12rpg player and that’s what the Blazers need – an inside threat to complement their All Star guards.
Turner, the former #2 overall pick, continues to show glimpses of what he can do on the court and he could be a constant 12ppg, 5rpg and 5apg player. He sees the court well, can play any position from the point to small forward and can take some of the decision making pressure off the two guards. It’s on defense where he slips up but the Blazers could find a way to hide him on a weaker opponent with little trouble.
The starting lineup moving forward should look like –
PG: Lillard, SG: McCollum, SF: Turner, PF: Aminu, C: Nurkic
Coming off the bench is where they could look to make some changes – Zach Collins they are high on and being that he’s a rookie, there’s time to get more game time into him during the next season, Pat Connaughton looks as though he could be a solid player off the bench and Shabazz Napier is a good backup point guard. Outside of those three however, anyone else could be on the block and released or traded elsewhere.
Playing Collins alongside Nurkic could also be beneficial, once Collins has more confidence and ability to match up at this level, due to Aminu being of slighter build and that would also improve their defense and take some of the pressure off Nurkic, along with keeping him out of foul trouble by being the sole “big man” on the court defensively. Collins is also able to step out to the three point line, keeping that same spacing that Aminu would have provided when he was on the offensive end.
So with that change it would look like the below with five starters and the four key bench players –
PG: Lillard, SG: McCollum, SF: Turner, PF: Collins, C: Nurkick – Bench: Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier.
That lineup clearly shows that they need to bring in another big man to provide back up off the bench – Robin Lopez who seems to be on his way out at Chicago could be a good back up here. Trevor Booker, although undersized, will get you rebounds and plays bigger than he actually is. Nerlens Noel, Tyler Zeller or Ekpe Udoh are also options that could be looked at for them.
There’s no need to panic at the Blazers, they simply got outplayed by the Pelicans and their players didn’t fire as much as they would have thought. A tidy up of the bench squad is all that’s really required, the centre pieces should be staying and so to should the coach.