Head coach Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors led the team to a 48-34 record, the second Atlantic Division title in franchise history and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14.
In 2012-13, things looked entirely different as the team finished last in their division. They missed the postseason by four games, ending a disappointing year with a record of 34-48.
Even with new management in the form of 2013 Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, Casey managed to hold onto his job. Ujiri would have been completely justified in bringing in his own coach and parting ways with a man that experienced very little success in his first two years on the job, yet he gave him a chance.
Ujiri and Casey had zero history prior to their time in Toronto, yet the transition into working together and establishing a relationship was as seamless as they could have hoped, per Eric Koreen of the National Post:
There’s going to be a relationship with trust between Masai and I. Communication. We’ve talked every day. I think that’s very, very important. Are you going to have disagreements? Yes. There’s not a general manager and coach in this league or any sport that has agreed on everything but the difference is you talk about it, you agree, disagree and then you align.
On May 6, Ujiri rewarded Casey with a three-year extension to keep him in his role for the foreseeable future, via a press release on Raptors.com:
From day one last summer Dwane has done an excellent job both on-and-off the court. There’s been growth from each player on the roster and the team’s identity of toughness and a desire to always compete has clearly been established.
We’re very excited to continue to grow and develop this team with Dwane as our head coach.
Locking up Casey was a no-brainer. His job had been a revolving door since the Raptors first came into existence back in 1995. There have been eight head coaches in franchise history. Casey is one of only four (Lenny Wilkens, Sam Mitchell and Jay Triano) to have coached over 200 games with the team. He's also one of only three (Wilkens and Mitchell) with 100 or more victories (105).
Consistency in positions of authority is something the Raptors have rarely had, mainly because they haven't done a whole lot of winning. Casey is one of the main reasons why the philosophies of the team are starting to change for the better. Ujiri couldn't afford to lose that.
The blockbuster trade in December that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings could have been the final nail in the coffin for the season, but not with Casey at the helm. He not only integrated his new assets into his system with relative ease, but he also helped save a floundering 6-12 team by turning them into one of the big surprises around the NBA, per Rachel Brady of the Globe And Mail:
One thing players understand is consistency, and trading a player can really upset the apple cart, so I saw a lot of sad faces. The only thing we as coaches could do was keep developing players as we had been doing. Nobody knew which way we were going to go, but we sure didn’t know we were going to become a playoff team. We got John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, who were veterans, and young Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, who are basketball junkies, and they really wanted to fit in. We found that they all really wanted to please.
With his newly-renovated roster, Casey turned his bunch into an elite group on both ends of the floor. The Raptors had the ninth-highest offensive rating in the NBA (105.8) and ninth-highest defensive rating (102.4, tied with Washington Wizards), per ESPN.com. They were the only Eastern Conference team to finish in the top 10 in both categories.
In 2012-13, Toronto finished 14th and 22nd respectively in those aforementioned categories. He had a revamped roster to work with, but Casey still had to get his players to buy into what he was preaching.
DeMar DeRozan, who experienced a career year after making his first NBA All-Star team, had this to say about Casey and his respect for the man, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:
One thing I respect about coach Casey, man, he’s been consistent. He’s been the same Dwane Casey since he’s been here, preached the same thing, told us to stick with the same principles and they’ll work . . . and everything he said came together like he said it would.
You gotta respect coach Casey. He never changed up. You could go in his office, knock on his door, talk to him whenever, you could text him.
He’s a great dude.
The relationship between Casey and point guard Kyle Lowry was rocky at best in the early parts of his tenure. There was a stubbornness to Lowry's demeanour that made him extremely difficult to work with. He built more of a reputation for his attitude than his skill on the court.
Through hard work, listening and trust, the bond between head coach and point guard grew stronger and stronger as Casey slowly gave Lowry his seal of approval in being able to dictate how he wanted to run the offence. With his newfound confidence, Lowry put up career highs across the board, averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals.
You could overanalyze each of his moves on the sidelines throughout the year and find several things to complain about. He's had issues with delegating minutes to some of his younger players (especially Jonas Valanciunas). His decision-making in the postseason against the Brooklyn Nets was also highly questionable, sitting hot hands at inopportune times and going with particular lineups that even the most die-hard fans couldn't wrap their mind around.
The most obvious statement imaginable is that there is no such thing as a "perfect" coach. If you're expecting greatness 100 percent of the time, you're not being realistic. This is a learning process for everyone as the team continues to evaluate talent and create a well-oiled machine capable of winning championships.
Remember, 2014 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Casey took the idea of tanking games for Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins and instead allowed his players to choose the type of season they were going to have.
Not only is Casey the right coach for this basketball team, he may be the best one the Raptors have ever had.
All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and up-to-date as of May 12.
Christopher Walder is a freelance writer who has been published at Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Fansided, SI.com and several other online outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @WalderSports.