Before thinking about the personal repercussions it will have on Dwane Casey and his family, I selfishly thought about what Toronto’s ousting of their coach – just two days after he was named Coach of the Year by his peers – says about the Washington Wizards.
This season, Casey led the Raptors to the second-most wins in the league, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and avenged an embarrassing three-year old first-round sweep by bouncing the Washington Wizards in six games.
But for the Raptors, Casey – the most successful coach in the team’s history – didn’t do enough to keep his job.
And all I could think about was Ernie Grunfeld. Randy Wittman. Scott Brooks. How each of them would have – and already have – gotten rewarded for not achieving half of what Casey did in Toronto.
All 30 NBA teams fall into two categories: the contenders and the non-contenders. The second group is sliced into a couple of subcategories: the rebuilding franchises bottoming out for draft picks and teams content with making a profit by appearing in the playoffs for a handful of extra games.
As the league has evolved and it’s become more apparent that being mediocre simply has no long-term upside, the teams that are “good” are used as punchlines more often than the awful teams that aspire to be “great” but have an actual plan in place, even if it means experiencing years of purposeful suffering.
Toronto thought they were in the first group – that they finally cracked the code by modernizing their offense, incorporating role players instead of solely relying on their All-Star backcourt and improving their already-solid defense. Then the playoffs came and the Raptors, who made the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, crawled back into their shell after being humiliated by the mere presence of LeBron James in the second round.
Their sweep had a sorry, uncompetitive feeling that surpassed that with which a 4-0 loss is inherently accompanied by, warranting Casey’s dismissal. Masai Ujiri assessed the team’s failures in the playoffs and decided – probably in part because he perennially failed to instill confidence into the team when it mattered most – it was time to change the locker room’s voice, despite the accolades Casey amassed as the team’s head coach.
He made the correct call. Toronto wasn’t – and isn’t, as currently constructed – a championship contender. Ujiri, as a forward-thinking decision maker, examined the league’s landscape – how the Philadelphia 76ers have stockpiled game-changing pieces and are on the cusp of overtaking the East and how the Boston Celtics have gotten there without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – and determined that Toronto needed a shake up. The core of the roster, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, remains intact, but that, too, could change as the off-season progresses. Ujiri and the rest of the team’s front office was supported by the franchise’s ownership in their pursuit of a championship – and their lack of complacency with just being “good” – and were given the go-ahead to make the drastic change, knowing their jobs could, too, soon be on the line if it doesn’t pan out.
Had the Wizards had finished first in the East, won 50-plus games for the first time since 1979 and made the semifinals – how would have Grunfeld reacted? Better yet, how would have Ted Leonsis responded?
We can safely assume that Grunfeld’s contract extension wouldn’t have been signed in secret with the details of the deal tucked away forever. It probably would have been public – the franchise-record setting season touted on Leonsis’ blog as evidence of the team’s growth, with snarky comments directed at fans that questioned why it took decades for the team to finally win 50 games. Brooks, with three years left on his contract, would have gotten an unnecessary lifetime extension and the team would have unveiled a statue at the opening of the team’s practice facility.
If Leonsis’ goal in “everything we do is to win a championship” is true, then the team going to start operating like the Raptors and other teams that truly aspire to be title teams – refusing to accept meaningless playoff appearances and finally decide to make overdue, necessary, and uncomfortable decisions, instead of playing catch-up with mid-season moves that leave the Wizards in basketball purgatory.
Until the Wizards’ ownership get the chutzpah to reject mediocrity and put leadership with foresight in place, the franchise will continue to watch other teams – like the Raptors – make calculated gambles with hopes of eventually hosting a championship parade, while Washington’s star players see the primes of their careers disappear on cruise control.
The Raptors’ decision to let Casey go might’ve been behind schedule or premature, depending on one’s perspective. But at least they’re trying to make a switch with the team’s future in mind, which can’t be said for the Wizards – a team dangerously close to run-of-the-mill quicksand that tortures the franchise, the players, and their fans in a sort of limbo that makes an eternal hell a place of salvation.