Despite winning a franchise-record 59 games during the regular season, the Toronto Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey on Friday after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers swept them out of the playoffs yet again.
“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” team president Masai Ujiri said in a statement announcing Casey’s dismissal. “As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level.”
Given how summarily James and Co. dispatched the Raptors, it’s understandable why they felt as though some sort of change was necessary. While Casey did a top-notch job overhauling the team’s offensive systemthis season, Toronto couldn’t expect a markedly different outcome next season if it stood pat, especially with the Boston Celtics looming as another Eastern Conference behemoth on the rise.
Ujiri must now decide whether more wide-sweeping changes are on the horizon.
As tempting as it may be to take a stick of dynamite to the roster after a second straight postseason sweep, the Raptors should allow cooler heads to prevail and run back their core for one more season.
The ‘culture reset’ takes off
Following last year’s second-round sweep at the hands of Cleveland, Ujiri told reporters the Raptors needed to undergo a “culture reset.” He specifically highlighted the team’s isolation-heavy offense as a sore spot, saying, “It’s easy to defend in my opinion when you play one-on-one. It’s predictable. We feel we have to go in another direction.”
Casey took Ujiri’s comments to heart, overhauling Toronto’s offense this season by incorporating more ball movement, increasing its reliance on three-pointers and leaning more heavily on the team’s reserves.
Whereas the Raptors ran the sixth-highest percentage of isolation possessions leaguewide in 2016-17, they were in the bottom third of the NBA in such plays this past season. Their number of passes per game jumped from the fourth-fewest (273.4) to right around the league average (300.0), and they went from averaging the league’s fewest assists (18.5) to the sixth-most (24.3). On a related note, they had the NBA’s third-highest offensive rating.
That ball movement contributed to a drastic rise in three-point output, too. After finishing 21st and 22nd league-wide in three-pointers made and attempted in 2016-17, respectively, the Raptors ranked fourth and third in those categories this past season.
Their rate of three-point attempts also jumped from 22nd (28.9 percent of their overall shots) to fifth (37.7 percent). The rise in long-range bombs helped Toronto finish the regular season with the NBA’s fourth-best true shooting percentage and fifth-best effective field-goal percentage.
And rather on continuing to rely on the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to carry the team, Casey adopted a more egalitarian approach this season. After the Raptors’ bench averaged the fifth-fewest points (31.8) league-wide in 2016-17, it jumped into a tie with the San Antonio Spurs for fourth (41.8) this year.
Toronto’s “Bench Mob” unit of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl finished with the third-best net rating of any five-man lineup that played at least 250 minutes during the regular season.
In other words, everything that held the Minnesota Timberwolves back on offense this season plagued the Raptors last year, too. Casey’s willingness to adapt his system and the players being amenable to such an overhaul — particularly Lowry and DeRozan — helped pave the way to the best regular season in franchise history.
The Raptors were ill-equipped to stifle James and his suddenly potent supporting cast in the playoffs, but their offensive modernization was long overdue. Assuming they don’t blow apart their roster this summer, they’ll now have to find a head coach who’s equipped to guide their players to new heights.
Is Bud the right guy?
Ujiri reportedly has “strong interest” in pursuing Budenholzer, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski likewise reported Bud is “expected to get a close inspection for the Raptors opening.”
Budenholzer, who interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks’ opening earlier in the week, is “widely considered among the favorites” for that job as well, according to Matt Velaezquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, so his landing spot may come down to personal preference.
Would Budenholzer be the right man for Toronto? Considering his history against James-led teams—the Cavaliers swept his 60-win Hawks out of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014-15 and swept them again in the conference semifinals the next season—the irony of such a swap wasn’t lost upon Basketball Twitter.
“Man I hate losing to LeBron so I’m going to fire Casey and hire Mike Budenholzer” is certainly a concept to ponder. https://t.co/hAS0yLJtFa
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 11, 2018
THE RAPTORS: We just felt like we need the team to take the next step and Dwane wasn’t going to get us there.
US: What’s the next step?
RAPTORS: Beating LeBron.
US: Ah, so who do you think gives you a better chance at that?
— Anthony F. Irwin (@AnthonyIrwinLA) May 11, 2018
Dwane Casey and Mike Budenholzer sharing their intel on how to stop LeBron pic.twitter.com/8b5VaWPSaS
— Mike Goldfarb (@MikeGoldFool) May 11, 2018
That isn’t to say the Raptors should bypass Budenholzer in their coaching search because of his previous shortcomings against James. After all, no Eastern Conference team since the 2009-10 Boston Celtics has successfully prevented him from making an NBA Finals appearance.
In fact, Budenholzer’s time with the pre-teardown Hawks lends credence to Ujiri’s reported interest in him.
During each of Bud’s five seasons in Atlanta, the Hawks ranked among the top 10 leaguewide in passes per game, which suggests he’d be on board with Ujiri’s preference for an offense reliant on ball movement. They were 25th, 25th and 23rd, respectively, in their percentage of isolation possessions over the past three years, which likewise aligns with Ujiri’s vision.
Instead of Casey having to continue overhauling his offensive philosophy on the fly, Budenholzer would put the foundation for such a system in place from day one. Managing relationships with players is just as critical as X’s and O’s savvy, so Budenholzer’s fit in Toronto would largely come down to how much he could get Lowry, DeRozan and Co. to buy in.
If the Raptors are hesitant to rock the boat much further, they could promote from the inside, elevating assistant coach Nick Nurse or Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse to the main gig instead.
The pressure to win right away in Toronto makes it the highest-pressure gig still open. Who the Raptors wind up hiring could wind up signaling their intentions for the roster moving forward.
The nuclear option
In his season-ending press conference — prior to Casey’s dismissal — Ujiri brushed aside any notion that the Raptors’ playoff disappointment would lead to a fire sale.
Ujiri on blowing it up/tanking: "We're not doing that here. We're finding young players. We're going to grow. We're going to win."
— Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) May 9, 2018
For Raptors fans hoping for a fresh start, Ujiri’s defiance may be frustrating. But after he re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka on a pair of three-year deals worth a combined $165 million last summer, Ujiri made his long-term vision clear.
“The way we’ve constructed it now, we’re on a two- or three-year plan,” he told reporters at the time. “And if that doesn’t work, then we know what to do.”
Outside of VanVleet and Lucas Nogueira, the Raptors have their entire core under contract through next season. Miles ($8.7 million) and Jonas Valanciunas ($17.6 million) have player options for the 2019-20 season, while Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka could all come off Toronto’s books in July 2020. Meanwhile, the Raptors will have cheap team options on Poeltl ($3.7 million), OG Anunoby ($2.3 million), Malachi Richardson ($2.6 million) and Siakam ($2.4 million) in 2019-20, which should enable them to duck the luxury tax regardless of whether Valanciunas and Miles opt in.
The Raptors already have $126.2 million in guaranteed salary on their books for 2018-19, which will push them above the projected $123 million luxury-tax threshold even if they don’t retain VanVleet and Nogueira.
Dumping a salary to avoid the tax sounds promising in theory, but Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Valanciunas, Miles and Norman Powell are the only six Raptors players earning more than $3 million next season. Would Toronto already give up on Powell after signing him to a four-year, $42 million extension in October?
Considering how rapidly Ibaka’s production dropped in the playoffs and $44.9 million he’s still owed over the next two years, the Raptors may struggle to find him a new home without taking back an unappealing contract in exchange. Lowry is fresh off four straight All-Star Game appearances, but his $31 million salary in 2018-19 will complicate trade discussions. The same goes for Valanciunas ($16.5 million), too.
If the Raptors do decide to break up their All-Star backcourt, they could try calling the Washington Wizards or Portland Trail Blazers, both of whom are likewise coming off of postseason flameouts. Perhaps the Wizards have grown tired of the long-rumored tension between John Wall and Bradley Beal and would be amenable to a one-on-one swap of Beal for DeRozan? (After signing a supermax extension last summer, Wall isn’t eligible to be traded until late July.)
The Timberwolves could make for an intriguing trade partner, too. Strife is reportedly running rampant throughout the organization, according to Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN, and Jimmy Butler is heading into a contract year.
Would the T-Wolves be willing to part ways with Butler for a package headlined by DeRozan? Would the Raptors have any interest in Toronto native Andrew Wiggins, who has yet to take off as expected and is about to enter the first season of a massive five-year, $146.5 million extension?
More importantly: Would any of those trades drastically move the needle for Toronto in 2018-19?
The path forward
Before being fired, Casey pointed out the difference between this year’s sweep and last year’s sweep.
“There’s a huge gap I think we closed between the first 4-0 and the second 4-0,” Casey said, via Seerat Sohi of SB Nation. “That 4-0 is very, I think, deceiving. You had two games by what, one point and two points. So the gap is closing.”
As disheartening as that silver lining may be, Casey isn’t wrong.
Had Valanciunas converted one of his multiple tip-in attempts in the waning seconds of Game 1, who knows how the series might have unfolded? Had James not hit a running, buzzer-beating floater off the backboard at the end of Game 3, Toronto would have entered Game 4 with the opportunity to wrest home-court advantage right back from the Cavaliers.
The Raptors’ closeout thrashing in Game 4 likely cost Casey his job, but who’s to say with another year of internal development and a new head coach, the Raptors won’t be right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference title conversation next season?
Given the alternative — sloughing off stars but still being too talented to compete for a high lottery pick — running this core back one more year may be Toronto’s best option for now.
If the Raptors fall short again in 2018-19, it’ll be far easier for them to blow up their roster next summer. Valanciunas and Miles could be coming off the books, while Ibaka and Lowry will only have one year remaining on their respective deals. Toronto would have an additional year of insight into the development of its reserves, too, which would perhaps make a hard reset easier to stomach.
In the meantime, the Raptors — and whoever they hire as their new head coach — deserve one final chance with this core before giving up on it for good.