TORONTO — It is hard to imagine Masai Ujiri deciding to do something simply because he can’t think of any better ideas.
The Toronto Raptors president has made a point of talking about his team in the big picture sense, and when there has been clamouring in the recent past for rash, franchise-altering moves, Ujiri has responded by pointing to the things that have been built under his watch: a sparkling training facility, a development-league team, and most obviously a Raptors team that had previously won one playoff series in 18 seasons and has now been to the post-season five years running.
The message was one of patience. You start throwing things overboard or trading key pieces or exchanging young assets for old stars and sooner or later you are the Knicks. Probably sooner.
But even Ujiri’s restraint must have its limits. After a season bursting with promise that ended instead in the second round with another sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time without a Kyle Lowry injury to blame, attention is focused squarely on head coach Dwane Casey. And the attention is focused there mostly by default.
The Raptors have an expensive core — Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka — wrapped up for two more seasons at price tags that make them tough to move. They also have a lot of young talent, but would likely have to package some of that if they were going to try to move one of the big tickets. That means the most likely candidate for change is the coach, even though the list of Casey’s accomplishments this season is impressive: a franchise record in wins, and the top seed in the East, top-five ratings in both offence and defence, all while installing a wholly new offensive system. There’s a decent-to-good chance Casey, 61, will be named the NBA’s coach of the year in the next few weeks, which would be more than a little awkward if he has already been fired.
Neither Ujiri nor Casey were available to the media on Tuesday, a day after the Raptors’ Game 4 humiliation at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs, and so it was left to the players to talk about what went wrong in the playoffs this time. Their answers didn’t reflect well on Casey and his staff.
DeRozan said he felt the team’s offence had been out of its normal rhythm not just against Cleveland, but a round earlier against Washington. “We gotta know how teams are going to play us,” DeRozan said. “Playoffs definitely becomes more about chess than about checkers, in the sense that we wasn’t making the right moves at the right time.”
Lowry said the team was missing the “physical toughness” element to their play that is necessary at playoff time. “It’s just different basketball,” he said. Asked if Toronto’s new system, one that emphasized ball movement and winning with depth, and which was winning enthusiastic plaudits as recently as March, could work in the playoffs, Lowry said that it had been successful, but that the team also had to be able to adapt. “You gotta be able to change styles somewhat,” he said, adding that playoff opponents were able to frustrate their ball-movement scheme. “We gotta be able to figure out, you know, change this or do that differently,” he said.
Two things to note here: DeRozan and Lowry both had praise for Casey, with the latter calling him “one of the best coaches out there.” And each of them was plainly a part of the Raptors’ problems against the Cavaliers. But it’s not nothing when a team’s two leaders, its All-Stars, are effectively saying that it couldn’t adjust to meet the challenges of what their opponents were trying to do. That’s the main function of a coaching staff at playoff time: developing a game plan for an opponent, and then countering whatever it is the opposing team does as the series unfolds.
Counsel for Casey would argue that he couldn’t scheme to stop Cleveland because he didn’t have the right players to do it. When he went small to counter Cleveland’s smaller lineup, the Raptors were killed inside. When he tried to defend Kevin Love on the perimeter with Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas, they couldn’t keep him in front of them. If the roster changes made in the off-season were made with the Cavaliers in mind, in other words, they were plainly not the right changes.
But, there is also this: When Game 4 was over, and any illusion of the Raptors giving the Cavaliers a good fight was shattered by a 35-point deficit, Casey said he thought his guys would come out and compete harder. He said he told them they would have to respond to Cleveland’s first attempt at a knockout blow.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t,” the coach said. “That was disappointing.”
There is a lot to unpack in the “for whatever reason” part. Because the players knew they were overmatched? Because LeBron had stolen their will when he kissed the game-winner off the glass two nights earlier? Because they were hoping for chess and they were getting checkers?
Those are not simple problems for Ujiri to address. Unless he turns things over to a new coach, and lets that person try to address them.
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