The regular season is irrelevant.
That’s the message the Toronto Raptors sent Friday when they fired Dwane Casey, two days after his now-former peers in the NBA said he did the best coaching job in the league this season. Casey led the Raptors to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season, along with the second-best record in the league. He even got to coach in the All-Star game.
Swept in the playoffs, swept out of Toronto.
The Raptors were good this season. They weren’t great. And they can’t beat LeBron James, who has engineered the ouster of Toronto now in each of the last three seasons, the last two of them being sweeps. So Casey paid the price, and with that comes the reminder: Winning isn’t enough in this NBA. Coaches must meet expectations, regardless of how misguided they may be.
“In some ways I think the time has come,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said Friday, a few hours after telling Casey that he was done in Toronto. “Sometimes these things come to an end, relationships come to an end. And we’ll figure out a way to move on, a new voice, just a new everything in terms of that position.”
That’s becoming a mantra around the NBA. Last summer, all 30 coaches kept their jobs. Next season on opening night, there will be at least nine coaches in roles they didn’t have 365 days earlier.
Lloyd Pierce will be one of them after the Atlanta Hawks gave him his first head coaching job in the NBA on Friday. The former Philadelphia and Memphis assistant replaces Mike Budenholzer, who left last month after the Hawks finished 24-58.
And there are some great names out there: Stan Van Gundy was let go in what seems to have been a power struggle in Detroit. Frank Vogel is a proven coach who didn’t have much talent to work with in Orlando. Jeff Hornacek had a deeply flawed roster in New York. Steve Clifford is brilliant, and that couldn’t keep him in Charlotte. Budenholzer was the coach of the year in 2015, and he and Atlanta apparently stopped seeing eye-to-eye on enough things.
Let’s be clear: Casey was flawed in the East semifinals when James and the Cavaliers won 4-0. There were some peculiar decisions late in Game 1 when Toronto fell in overtime, and no resistance in two games that became blowouts. Casey should have done better, and he shouldn’t have offered an end-of-series series assessment that essentially was him saying the rest of the East is helpless until James isn’t great anymore.
So Casey had a couple subpar days.
Most days this season, he was brilliant. The National Basketball Coaches Association – the 30 NBA coaches – picked him as their coach of the year, in large part because of the way he took an already-good Toronto offense, changed it mightily and made it better. A high-risk move, and it paid high dividends. Casey’s peers clearly respected that.
The NBA coach of the year award comes out next month, after The Finals. That’s picked by a panel of media who cover the league. Casey very likely will win that award as well.
Even Ujiri kept lauding Casey on Friday: Good man. Good coach. Classy person.
Aren’t those tough to find?
Dumping a coach after a top-seeded season is rare, but not unprecedented. Cleveland fired Mike Brown in 2010 and wound up losing James to Miami anyway a few weeks later. Rick Carlisle got Detroit to the No. 1 seed in 2003, then got fired and replaced by Larry Brown – who led the Pistons to the 2004 NBA title.
Others have left of their own accord: Pat Riley with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1990, Phil Jackson in Chicago in 1998, Larry Bird in Indiana in 2000. Bird also fired Isiah Thomas as Pacers’ coach in 2003, a few months after Thomas coached in the All-Star Game.
Some of those moves worked out, others not so much.
Ujiri will have good options. Jerry Stackhouse has shown the franchise plenty as coach of the Raptors’ G League team. Many around the NBA are thinking the time is right for Monty Williams to get back on the sideline. It’s only a matter of time before San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina gets his chance to run a club.
Whoever gets the gig in Toronto, and any of the other open NBA jobs, will surely understand the new reality. Good isn’t good enough anymore.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org