HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Watching Dwane Casey work his defensive magic with the Dallas Mavericks from the start all the way until their championship finish during the playoffs provided us with a renewed appreciation for importance of having assistant coaches that are basically coordinators.
As Rick Carlisle‘s defensive coordinator, Casey helped transform a team that was considered anything but defensive-minded into a cohesive unit capable of dealing with anything thrown their way — they did run through the Blazers, Lakers, Thunder and Heat on their way to the crown. There were obviously some good tools to work with, namely Tyson Chandler. The Mavericks finally found the right defensive anchor to help them mask some of their glaring deficiencies. Having Chandler watch Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki‘s back on defense was a definite masterstroke.
But Casey, now the coach in Toronto, will have to work some serious magic to do the same things for the Raptors, a notoriously bad defensive team whose best offensive player, Andrea Bargnani, is the runaway winner of the worst defensive player tag on the team.
Coming up with a scheme that fortifies the Raptors’ defensive prowess must be built on the premise of keeping teams from exploiting Bargnani on that end of the floor. And that’s exactly what Casey, blueprints from Dallas under his arm, has in mind. He made that clear in this interesting Q&A with Zach Lowe of The Point Forward on SI.com:
SI.com: So you probably know about Basketball Value, the Web site that lists numbers for every five-man lineup. When you look at Toronto’s lineups, you see immediately that almost every one that played a lot struggled on defense. And when you dig deeper, you see that nearly every lineup that included Andrea Bargnani was awful defensively. This is my way of asking: Can you build a good defensive team with Bargnani on the back line? Is it possible? How do you do it?
Casey: Well, he’s not going to be our starting center, really [because he’s more of a power forward]. He’s in a similar situation with Dirk Nowitzki at this point in his career. I’d have to check their numbers, but I’d venture to say at this point in his career, he’s probably somewhere in the same area where Dirk was, where both have had to live down the reputation of being soft. And by the way, Dirk has never been anywhere near soft. Don’t ever use that word with him.
SI.com: I won’t! Believe me!
Casey: Because he’s one of the toughest, hardest-working guys in the league. I don’t know Andrea. All I know is what I’ve read and seen. I am excited to get to know him. He’s going to get better defensively, and he’s a great offensive player. But we have to work with him, coach him up and put him in the right situations so he is not exposed as much. I think Amir Johnson can be an above-average defender in the same position, and that we can put someone like Amir in a system so that Andrea is not exposed as much.
Look, our challenge is to find a five-man unit that is above-average defensively. Who that five will be, I just don’t know at this point. But when you win 22 games, you’ve got to change things. You can’t come back with the status quo.
In addition to Johnson, the Raptors also have a potentially high-impact young defender in Ed Davis to work with. Casey clearly has a plan, though. And that has to make Raptors fans, who are tired of watching their team get trampled defensively, feel a little better about the future.
Casey comparing Bargnani to Dirk will probably raise a few eyebrows, but it shouldn’t when you factor in the context in which the comparison was made. In fact, there probably isn’t a better frame of reference, or role model, for Bargnani at this stage of his career.
Now if Casey can just identify his Chandler-clone …