SPECIAL BY: Justin Robertson

Sometime around late November, around the time when the Toronto Raptors take on the L.A. Lakers, coach Dwane Casey will leapfrog trailblazer Lenny Wilkens as the second most wins as head coach. By then, or perhaps some time shortly after that, Casey would have accumulated 114 career wins as Raptor’s coach. And halfway through next season Casey will have surpassed Sam Mitchell’s record of games coached as a Raptor (345) and most wins (156) When that happens, that will make Dwane Casey one of the Raptor’s greats. In three seasons he’s taken the Raptors from a flailing group of disinterested boys to a committed group of men. In less than two years, Casey will become the greatest coach the Toronto Raptors has ever had.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey

When Casey – now ranked 13th best coach in the NBA –  took over in 2011 the Raptors couldn’t rub two wins together; 10-game losing streaks were all too common and hunger for the game  was as non-existent as 30-degree days in the artic. That year they finished 11th in the Eastern Conference with 23 wins. The only thing they had going for them was that they weren’t as bad as the Charlotte Hornets who finished the season with a 23-game losing streak and seven paltry wins. The following year Casey had the Raptors playing better basketball but they lacked consistency and eight-game losing streaks were still etched in their fabric.  They did, however, win 34 games – 11 more than 2011 – and finished 10th.

 

That brings us to 2013-14 which reads more like a list of showbag items: a franchise record breaking 48 wins; a third place finish in the Eastern Conference; a Division title; a seven-game playoff series against Brooklyn, that, one could argue, could have gone either way –  perhaps a view from the extreme optimist. Casey has improved the team steadily each year. Since 2011 he’s elevated the wins from 23 to 48, they’re the ninth best defensive team in the NBA with a rating of 102.4, are ranked second for blocks and have the same turnover ratio ranking of 10th as the 2013-14 Champions San Antonio. On the eve of a brand new season Ujiri is probably sitting in his swivel chair looking at the numbers, slightly chuffed and eager about what kind of heights the Raptors could soar to in 2014-15. And it’s all because of Dwane Casey.

Casey, among the playoffs hype of last season, throughout the 23 lowly wins during his inaugural year, has remained steadfast and low-key and has operated in one emotional gear: composed. At the recent Raptor’s Open Day practice he told 300 coaches sitting in the vastly empty Air Canada Centre cauldron, when a team wins, never overdo the praise and when a team loses don’t be too hard on them. It’s the same philosophy he takes into the Raptor’s change room post match. “Sometimes I don’t even talk to them. I’ll wait till the next day,” Casey said leaning on the lectern wired to a headset. This season Casey is demanding more from his chargers; more intensity, more defense, more team play and all three combined. Listening to him speak last Sunday morning you can tell his vision is slowly coming to fruition. He has a plan and he’s halfway to wherever he wants the team to go. The constant reminder of “we’re not done working yet, there’s still a lot of work to do,” suggests the Raptors  – although playing better, more consistent basketball these days – have to pay their dues before they rub shoulders with San Antonios’ and the Miami Heats’ of the basketball fraternity – but they’re not that far off.

Dwane Casey, the former UK guard and the pride of Morganfield, Kentucky, won his first NBA title last night as an assistant under Rick Carlisle.

You know that old saying: success breeds success? As archival as it is, it sums up Casey to a tee. In 14 seasons as an NBA assistant he accrued a caboodle of honourable numbers: a .617 winning percentage with eight seasons of 50 plus wins, his teams qualified for post-season action 11 from 14 attempts and he took his ’96 Seattle squad to a franchise record of 64 wins. On top of that in 1998 he coached Japan’s National Team to its first World Championship appearance in 31 years. Casey is executing what he did so successfully at the Dallas Mavericks, Seattle and Japan now with Toronto and has brought his push to be better as individuals, to be better as a team.

“It takes two to three years to get the defensive work right. To get that continuity. To take that next step. We still need to be that hungry team,” he said. “To win a championship your defense needs to be solid. You have to score, yes, but you need to really work hard on your defensive end.”

While Casey delivers the hard lines to media such as “We’re not anywhere the defense intensity we need to be”, It’s a team defense” and “we have to be sharper”, you can tell by the way he beams he’s proud of his boys and how far they’ve come and things like creating personal coaching legacies doesn’t keep him up at night.

When we all think of great basketball coaching legacies, Phil “Zenmaster” Jackson comes to mind with his 11 shiny rings as coach including six with Chicago Bulls in nine seasons. Lennie Wilkens won a Championship title with the Seattle Supersonics in ’79, was the ’94 Coach of the Year, but it was his career 1,332 regular season wins that has him ranked second behind only Don Nelson for all-time wins that was his legacy. Both coaches had the teams to forge greatness. Casey has had his work cut out for him and has been busy laying the foundation for what’s to come. His legacy could very well be taking a poor team and turning them into a perennial playoff unit; a championship would be icing on the cake.

“You can go through steps faster, but you can’t skip steps. I don’t care who you are, whether you have an old team, young team. You got to continue to go through the steps,” Casey said. “It’s going to be a continuous work in progress. We’re not in the elite status yet, until we get there we got to work, claw and scrap to get there.”

Playoffs are rare in Toronto. In 20 seasons the Raptors have made the post-season six times; only once, in the 2000-01 season, have they made it to the second round. If the Raptors do progress deep into the playoffs this year and continually for years to come it will be because of Dwane Casey; that and his coaching record will make him not only one of the greats but the greatest Raptor coach in history. And if the Raptors somehow win the Championship under Casey’s watch, mark my word, the City of Toronto will carve out a gold-plated statue of the Kentucky coal miner, the size of the Statue of Liberty that will forever sit on top of the CN Tower.