LAS VEGAS — Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.
This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.
Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.
Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.
“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.
This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.
“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”
On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.
And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.
Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.
“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.
“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”
The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.
“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”
Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.