Toronto Raptors: New Head Coach Dwane Casey Faces a Defensive Dilemma
If you watched the NBA Finals this past June you probably noticed that a certain superstar seemed to disappear after the second game of the series. In fact, even if you didn't watch the Finals and don't like the NBA to begin with, you were probably still aware of the fact that LeBron James was pretty much MIA for the majority of the series since it was all everybody talked about.
The media obsessed over the King's latest disappearing act, and pretty much everyone had a reason, or theory, regarding his poor play. Some cited his inability to coexist with Dwyane Wade while others believed he simply couldn't handle the pressure he brought upon himself.
While there's certainly plenty of truth in both of those claims, many of the so-called experts failed to acknowledge probably the biggest reason the two-time MVP was such a non-factor offensively for the Heat: For the second consecutive season an excellent coaching staff got a group of savvy, talented veterans to check their egos at the door and buy into the concept of team defense.
In the 2010 NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, it was the combination of Celtics head coach Doc Rivers and assistant coach-defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau that made the Finals far from an offensive cakewalk for Kobe Bryant.
This year, it was the Mavericks' tandem of head coach Rick Carlisle and assistant coach Dwane Casey who caused James to shift into shutdown mode and hang out around the three-point line as a spectator.
As we all know, Thibodeau's integral role in the Celtics' stingy defense ultimately landed him the head coaching job in Chicago, which paid immediate dividends for the Bulls last season.
In his first year at the helm Thibodeau guided the Bulls to the top seed in the Eastern Conference and established them as one of the top defensive teams in the league (first in opponents' field goal percentage: 43.0 percent; second in points allowed: 91.3) en route to winning the Coach of the Year award.
Basketball fans in Toronto are hoping Thibodeau was the start of a trend since the Raptors plucked Casey from Carlisle's staff shortly after the Mavs disposed of LeBron and the Heat to win the franchise's first championship.
While no one with a sound and sober mind expects Casey to duplicate—or even come close to—the success experienced by Thibodeau and the Bulls during their first season together, Raptors fans are at least hoping to see improvements under the direction of the 54-year-old Casey, who has plenty of coaching experience in the league.
Casey spent the first 11 years (1994 to 2005) of his NBA coaching career as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics before landing his first head coaching job with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he compiled a 53-69 record in a season and a half (2005-07). From there, it was on to Carlisle's staff with the Mavericks.
Throughout his NBA coaching career, Casey has developed a reputation for being a strong defensive coach, which is certainly a step in the right direction for the defensively deficient Raptors.
Last season, the Raptors ranked 26th in points allowed per game (105.4), 29th in opponents' field goal percentage (48.2 percent), and tied for 28th defending against the three (37.6 percent).
Unfortunately for Casey, he doesn't inherit much defensively with the current Raptors personnel, although there is at least some talent offensively.
The Raptors frontcourt features a trio of promising young bigs in center Andrea Bargnani (the team's leading scorer at 21.4 ppg.), second-year power forward Ed Davis (13 double-doubles last season) and the highly touted Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas (the fifth overall selection in the 2011). In the backcourt, there's potential in third-year shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 17.2 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting last season.
Still, this roster isn't much defensively. In the super-soft Bargnani, Casey is burdened with arguably the worst defensive center in the league and a far cry from what he had to work with last season in Dallas with Tyson Chandler. However, one positive is Valanciunas is considered to be a fairly good help-side defender and his presence should enable Bargnani to shift back to his more natural spot at power forward.
All things considered, Casey certainly has a tough road ahead of him with the defensively indifferent Raptors. To his credit, he understands the challenge in front of him and vows to address it head on: "Defensively, I am going to be a hands-on control freak," he said in his introductory press conference. While this may sound promising, I wouldn't expect too much improvement with this Raptors squad. It would be a miracle if Casey is able to lead the Raptors to a top-20 ranking on defense.
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