What the Firing of David Blatt Means for Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors

By now the entire basketball world is aware that the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers decided to part was with head coach David Blatt and give associate head coach Tyronn Lue a shot at running the team. The move came as something as a surprise given the Cavaliers place in the standings and how likely it was that they would repeat as Eastern Conference champions – it’s unprecedented for a coach having this level of success to be fired. The drama surrounding the situation has been the subject of a lot of air time and column inches but we’re going to focus on the basketball reasons because they’re part of an emerging NBA trend that the Raptors should be paying close attention to.
By all accounts David Blatt was not fired because he’s not a good coach or does not know the game, and when you cut through all of the dramatic nonsense there is one core issue: for whatever reason the Cavaliers felt his presence as a coach imposed a cap on how successful the team could be. There are a lot of reasons for this kind of perception to exist around a coach: sometimes it’s because the coach lacks basketball acumen, sometimes they’re a bad fit for the roster, sometimes – as is likely the case with Blatt and the Cavaliers – the relationship with the players is strained.
As Scott Skiles so eloquently pointed out, a team used to have to stop winning before the coach would be fired. Teams would wait for a coach to leave or for the team to plateau and then decline before the coach would be let go, barring some kind of public friction with the team that forced their hand, and even then the decision to fire was somewhat rare and fairly controversial when it did happen.
That’s no longer the case. Blatt was just fired after an NBA Finals run and during a season when he was likely to return there. The Phoenix Suns let Mike D’Antoni go after a 55 win 2008 season. In 2013 the Denver Nuggets posted their highest NBA win total and let George Karl go at seasons end. The Golden State Warriors famously parted ways with Mark Jackson after three years of consistent improvement because they rightfully believed he wasn’t the guy to get them to that next level. As time goes on these kinds of coaching personnel decisions are becoming more common and are being met with less criticism and skepticism, especially after the last one ended up being one of the better moves a franchise has made in recent memory.
This is something that the Raptors need to be considering as the end of the season approaches with a team option in coach Dwane Casey’s contract. The decision to retain or part ways with Casey goes beyond “has the team performed under his leadership?” and extends to “do we believe the team can get to the next level with him?” Under the old model for running a team Casey’s job would be all but assured: he has set franchise records for wins and is on pace for another one this year. No matter how the postseason plays out he will have coached the franchise to 3 of their 8 total playoff appearances and may even lead them to the second series win in franchise history.
Casey’s job is not secure because in a situation like Toronto’s the new model seems to place a greater emphasis on future projections than past performance. It’s not just about how the team has performed, it’s about whether the talent on the team is poised to take a step forward and if the talent on the sideline is capable of matching that step. It seems much easier for modern franchises to walk away from a coach if the answer to the latter question is “no”.
When you look at the apparent strengths and weaknesses of Casey as a coach you start to wonder about whether he’ll have a job going forward. That’s not to say that he’s a bad coach. The Raptors have been a resilient team under Casey, one that can claw their way back into games and throw a scare into any of the elite teams on any given night no matter how overmatched they may seem. Despite the consistent drop in assists over his tenure the team plays together and every year, even with many new faces, there always seems to be genuine chemistry. Guys who could easily be malcontents while being inconsistently used like James Johnson and Chuck Hayes never seem to be a big distraction of a drain on the team, they generally stay upbeat and positive and contribute when they get the chance. A big part of the job is managing people and despite a few speedbumps during his time in Toronto it seems very clear that Casey is very good at that aspect of the job.
The actual strategizing part of the job seems to be where Casey lags behind. He’s been outcoached badly in consecutive playoff exits. He’s implemented a more conservative defensive system this year that has helped the team a lot, but that’s something that probably should have been done a long time ago. The team wastes a lot of time on offense and relies heavily on one on one play, and a lot of the time it seems like the extent of the offensive strategy is “create a mismatch then exploit a mismatch” which does not seem like the base of a consistent, championship-level offense.
A coach can be both a good coach and not the coach that you want to lead you to the top of the league – the coach you need is very much situational and not all coaches are suited for all situations. If I have a team that is fairly young or one that struggles with effort and consistency I may prefer someone like Scott Skiles, Mark Jackson or Dwane Casey – guys who may be a little light on the X’s and O’s but will help create a professional environment where players learn to work together and put in consistent high effort – over guys like Mike D’Antoni or Erik Spoelstra who may not be as good at instilling those basics but have proven that they can install elite-level systems if given the talent necessary to execute them. Some coaches are the total package and you take them regardless and hold on to them for as long as you can, those are the Gregg Popoviches and Rick Carlisles of the coaching world. None of these coaches are necessarily bad, it’s just that the first two types serve a rather specific purpose and you need them to match up with the talent level and direction of your team.
As the Raptors attempt to transition from a developing team into a contending team they need to look at Coach Casey and try to evaluate what kind of coach he is: a Skiles, a Spoelstra or a Popovich. As good an overall job as he’s done while helping to turn the Raptors into a threat instead of a punchline if he doesn’t fall into the one of the latter two categories he could become more of a liability than an asset. It’s a difficult decision where you have to balance loyalty for the guy who got you to where you are with the desire to keep striving onward and upward into the upper echelon of the NBA. I’m not completely sold on the team moving in either direction and a lot of what happens will hinge on the Raptors playoff performance but the precedent for the Raptors moving away from a fairly successful coach is there, and the recent firing of David Blatt is just another example.
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