TORONTO • In politics it is called the Friday afternoon garbage dump: the government releases some news just before the weekend so that it only gets a few hours of scrutiny, and then it hopes that everyone forgets it by Monday.
Masai Ujiri pulled off the sports version of that on Friday, but with an extra twist. Not only did the Toronto Raptors president fire his head coach Dwane Casey, but the organization announced the news just two and a half hours after his corporate brethren, the Maple Leafs, declared that they had promoted Kyle Dubas to the position of general manager. In a hockey-mad town, it guaranteed that the Casey firing would be down-page news.
(A few hours after that, the Blue Jays said they were putting Marcus Stroman on the disabled list, and one could be forgiven for wondering if MLSE was about to announce it was folding the Argos, just because now was the time it would attract the least attention.)
Although the man who has been in charge of the Raptors for five years would say that the timing of the decision was reached organically, and after careful consideration, and not out of any desire to have it slip by unnoticed, there are evident reasons for why Ujiri might want to have this particular move pass by without a whole lot of examination. Casey, 61, the best coach in Raptors team history by a significant margin, is coming off a record-breaking season, and is a decent bet to be named the NBA Coach of the Year next month. (He was the choice of his fellow coaches for their version of that award earlier this week.) To the extent that Casey must wear blame for his team’s underwhelming playoff results — they are 21-30 in the post-season under him, including three losing sweeps in the last four years — that is a blame that should be shared by many others in the organization, including its two stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The blame also goes to Ujiri himself, who despite a truly remarkable job in turning the Raptors from a team that almost never made the playoffs into one that could be legitimately disappointed to only win one playoff series in a season, repeatedly sent Casey into battles in which the best player in the series was on the other team. It’s a tough way to win.
Ujiri, when he met the media on Friday afternoon, did not make much of a case for the firing of his head coach, something he noted he had never before done in his career.
“I think, in some ways, I think the time has come, sometimes these things come to an end,” he said quietly, in sharp contrast to his defiant press conference of just two days earlier. Ujiri said there was no single thing that Casey had done wrong, but, “I think it was time to, time for this to happen.”
He had already said it was a difficult decision, and when asked how he had broken the news, his answer showed how much Ujiri had struggled with this. He said he went with general manager Bobby Webster to speak with Casey in person.
“What an unbelievable human being,” Ujiri said. “It made it just the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” He was speaking slowly and deliberately and appeared very close to tears at this point. “I can honestly say I don’t know that I will work with a better person.”
And while Ujiri didn’t say that Casey’s playoff failures were the reason for his dismissal, and he said he hadn’t spoken with Lowry or DeRozan until he let them know that he was getting rid of their coach, what those players said when the season ended must have factored into Casey’s exit. Lowry said the Raptors still hadn’t adjusted to playoff basketball, and needed to learn how to change things on the fly.
DeRozan made his “chess versus checkers” comment, saying the Raptors “didn’t make the right moves at the right time.”
Casey bristled a day later at any suggestion that the Raptors had been outcoached, and while it’s true the star players didn’t quite say that, there was certainly a suggestion of that in their words. A police officer can say “you are speeding,” or can say “you are travelling at a speed beyond the posted limited,” and the point is the same, if the former is a bit more blunt. If the team’s best players felt like they had no answers for the Cavs, that would go some way to explaining why they went out with a 35-point loss in Game 4 in Cleveland.
And so, the Casey era in Toronto is over, if for no other reason than it was simply time to make a change. It doesn’t seem particularly fair, not when the Raptors’ biggest problem in recent seasons has been running smack into the impenetrable force that is LeBron James, but it’s also not surprising given Ujiri’s lack of options. Remaking an expensive roster will be difficult — he admitted as much himself on Friday — and a new voice at head coach will at least give the team something of a fresh outlook after a season that ended with such disappointment.
Ujiri said a few times on Friday that he hoped Casey would be celebrated for all that he has done here. He said he hopes he wins Coach of the Year. “I saw everything he did here,” he said. “I saw the job he did this year. He deserves it.”
He didn’t deserve this.