The Toronto Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey on Friday following yet another second-round sweep by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The firing came just two days after Casey was named Coach of the Year by his fellow coaches. Casey won the award after he coached the Raptors to the best record in franchise history (59-23) and the East’s number one seed.
There are many who say Casey didn’t deserve to be fired. There are others who feel it was the only move left for Team President Masai Ujiri. Ultimately, it wasn’t because the Raptors lost. It was that they lost to LeBron James, again. For three consecutive years, Toronto has been sent fishing by James and the Cavs, and the last two were sweeps. Making matters worse this time around was that not only did the Raptors get swept, they didn’t even seem interested in competing. They lost game one despite never trailing in regulation and followed that up by getting blown out in game two. In a do-or-die game four, Toronto may as well have not bothered coming to Quicken Loans Arena, as they lost by 35.
Could Casey have made different coaching decisions? Of course. James was rarely double teamed in the series, an extremely questionable decision. In game three, James hit an absurd game winner at the buzzer. Everyone in the building knew the ball was going to James. Casey chose not to deny him the ball or double. Without question, mistakes were made.
With all of that being said, this was never a championship caliber roster, and that is not Dwane Casey’s fault.
It is difficult to win titles when your two best players are guards. By the nature of the position, guards take higher difficulty shots and are more prone to slumps. You can get away with that in the regular season. In the playoffs, when opposing coaches have more time to game plan and defenses tighten up, you need to have the ability to get easier baskets. Toronto does not have that ability.
That’s not to say a guard heavy team can’t have championship success. The pre-Kevin Durant Warriors did it in 2015. But they had Steph Curry, that year’s MVP, one of the top five players in the world. The Houston Rockets have a chance to do it this season, but they have James Harden, the likely MVP this year and another top five player. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are not on that level, although Toronto continues to trot this same roster out, year after year, in the hope they will reach it.
They aren’t the only team with this issue. Look at the Portland Trailblazers. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum looked great in the regular season, then got swept by an Anthony Davis led Pelican team. The Washington Wizards, led by guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, have seemed to be on the cusp of serious contention for several years. They never seem to get there.
All three of these teams realistically need overhauls. They have so much of their resources tied up in their backcourts that they lack the flexibility to get the inside help they need. It’s difficult to part with stars, but all three teams need to take a serious look in the mirror and decide if they are content with just making the playoffs each year. If they want to truly contend, which Toronto seems to, it may require breaking up the backcourt to improve the frontcourt.
Masai Ujiri seems unwilling to do this. After another embarrassing loss to Cleveland, he had to do something. Essentially, he had two options. Option one: fire Casey and replace him with a new coach in the hope it helps this team get over the mental block James seems to instill in them. Option two: try to find a trade partner for DeRozan or Lowry (or both) and move on. Ujiri chose option one, because to choose option two would be admitting to what is already clear to many-that this roster is flawed. Unfortunately, Ujiri seems content to keep bringing this same core back, possibly in the hope that James takes his talents West next season. This was the short-sighted option. Whatever James decides to do this offseason, he’s getting older, while the young Celtics and Sixers are coming. Ujiri chose the small picture over the big one, which is rarely a winning bet.
Next season, we will likely see the same Toronto Raptors, with a coach to be determined. Ujiri had better hope this one get’s different results. Otherwise, he’ll have to face the reality that the actual person to blame for this team’s shortcomings is himself.