TORONTO — You know how coaches and team executives always say they don’t listen to what is said and written about them?
The Toronto Raptors are very much listening.
The first indication of this fact came when Dwane Casey, at present still the coach of the Raptors, gave his season-ending press conference on Wednesday afternoon. In an opening statement that said he was happy with the results of the regular season and disappointed by what happened in the playoffs — fair and fair — Casey also said this: “Maybe for individual players it’s a wasted season, but for our team and our program, it’s not a wasted year.”
This was a direct response to Kyle Lowry’s statement a day earlier that for him, this past season was “a wasted year.”
Casey then answered a question about whether he expected a vote of confidence from his boss, team president Masai Ujiri, by saying no, he was just going to keep doing his job. But he was aware that there has been much speculation about his precarious future.
“I’ve read all the articles and texts and all this stuff, so I understand what’s being said,” Casey said. “I’m not blind or (in the) dark, but I’m not looking for a vote of confidence or anything like that.”
But it wasn’t until Ujiri took to the podium after his coach that it became clear that the Raptors are not pleased to have become a punch line in recent days.
“People can make fun of anything they want on the internet, make fun of the team, make fun of getting beat and all that stuff,” he said. “Hey, there’s only one team, one team in the NBA is going to win the NBA championship and 29 teams are going to be not winners and 29 teams are going to be disappointed and we’re one of them.”
In an exchange of about 20 minutes that included only one piece of news — that he had made no final decision on Casey — Ujiri seem to warm to the idea of a stiff defence of his team and his coach and his organization as he spoke.
“So yeah, everybody can question Casey all they want, you can question Kyle all you want, you can question DeMar DeRozan all you want,” he said. “Guess what? I have to look at a body of work.” He explained that it was about more than one series or even one season, it was about the next five seasons. On a direct question about Casey’s future, he said he had done a great job and that history will remember the vast strides made over the past several seasons.
“Anyone who wants to poke fun, hey, we’re proud of the moments we’ve spent here and we’re really proud of what’s going to come after this,” Ujiri said.
Many of these answers came with a rising crescendo, like Ujiri was addressing a political rally. Or the troops. Asked how he could make his team better, he said there were many ways to do it.
“We’re not going to handcuff ourselves in any way, but the one thing I know is we’re a strong team now, we’re together now and now it’s my job. It’s on me. Put it on me.” By this point the voice was getting loud: “Forget all the other stuff that you guys are talking about. Put it on me. We’ll get better. We’ll get better here. We believe in this city, this country, this team here and move forward.”
It was a flourish better suited for addressing a throng of fans at Jurassic Park than a bunch of reporters at the team’s practice facility, but one could see the point he was trying to make: that the Raptors, a 59-win team, are not doomed to failure. They have done great things, and he expects them to do more.
Much can certainly happen in the next few months, but there was nothing said on Wednesday that indicated major changes are inevitable. Casey said he’s still working here until told otherwise, and Ujiri spent much of his time pointing out how much things would be different today if the Raptors had just managed to win that damn Game 1 against Cleveland. He was quite righteous about the foul call on Kevin Love late in that game that wasn’t ruled a flagrant foul until a day later.
“That might not be the reason (we lost),” he said. “We missed a hundred layups, we had 400 turnovers.” Not quite, but point taken. “But all I’m saying is the margin of error is this small” — he held his finger and thumb together here — “and that’s the playoffs.”
Would Ujiri be talking about tiny margins for error if he was going to axe his coach? Would he be making a rousing defence of his stars if he was hoping to trade one of them?
Perhaps, but so far, he is keeping his options open. Given that the NBA often undergoes seismic change in the offseason, the inclination to move slowly and deliberately is understandable. Big changes, if they come, might simply come later.
But Ujiri sounded much more like someone determined to swing a big hammer at this time last year. On Wednesday, he joked that he couldn’t pull off the culture-reset speech this time around, and then stood up for his coach and his stars. And he said he wanted no part of tanking.
“But we believe in what we’re doing here, honestly,” Ujiri said. “We believe in the growth.”
Even if others — fans, media, the dang internet — don’t necessarily believe in it.
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