There are two general types of bad defensive teams in the NBA. There are teams that have a sound system, understand the fundamentals and usually have everyone where they should be, only to be held back by a shortage of pure talent or size. Of all the below-average defensive teams from last season, the Rockets might come closest to fitting this model.
And then you have teams that just appear to have no clue what they should be doing. Guys jump way out of position on pick-and-rolls, players miscommunicate and leave opponents open, teammates bump into each other and effort is inconsistent.
This is a gross oversimplification, because poor defensive teams suffer from a mix of both general problems. But if you have watched the Raptors over the last two seasons, you know they lean strongly toward the latter model. In every Toronto game, there would be at least a half-dozen defensive possessions in which something would go so horribly wrong that (if you’re a nerd like me) you’d instantly rewind the DVR to see how the Raptors allowed yet another open shot. And in most cases, the tape revealed a Keystone Kops-level mishap that would send Tom Thibodeau into an instant tirade — or make him weep.
This is a long way of saying that the Raptors have made a very sound decision in handing the head-coaching job to Dallas assistant Dwane Casey, who just finished organizing the defense that led the Mavericks to the NBA title. Casey, as you probably know, has been among the losing finalists in recent years for top jobs in Atlanta, Chicago, Golden State, Houston and Los Angeles (the Clippers). It was getting to the point where you wondered if Casey was just unlucky or cursed with the same “personality” pseudo-issues that kept Thibodeau an assistant too long.
Casey’s qualifications are untouchable. He played and coached (as an assistant) at Kentucky, worked with the Japanese national program under the legendary Pete Newell and served in the 1990s as a longtime assistant with the SuperSonics. Under George Karl, Casey helped refine the famously aggressive Seattle defense and earned a reputation as a top-notch X’s-and-O’s sort whom players liked. He got his one NBA head-coaching shot in Minnesota, where he somehow had this team at 20-20 in a brutally tough Western Conference when Kevin McHale fired him in January 2007. His replacement, Randy Wittman, went 12-30 the rest of the season, and Casey has been an assistant ever since. It is hard to find a coach or scout who will do anything but rave about Casey’s coaching acumen.
The stylistic differences are huge between the defenses Casey helped coach in Seattle and Dallas. But those differences highlight his ability to craft principles that fit the available talent — and then to hold that talent accountable to those principles. The Raptors are obviously far behind those teams, and their roster, so young and defensively challenged, will provide Casey with perhaps the toughest test of his NBA career.
The Raptors have finished last in points allowed per possession in each of the last two seasons, emerging as one of the worst defensive teams in modern NBA history. Seventeen of their 18 most commonly used lineups last season allowed a points-per-possession mark worse the league’s average. Having so many lineups perform so poorly is basically unheard of in the NBA. It is the mark of a broken team.
The personnel had a lot to do with that. Jose Calderon tries hard and talks a ton, but he’s a swinging door at point guard. Andrea Bargnani, the franchise centerpiece, is among the worst big men in the league in terms of help defense, closing on shooters and rebounding. The inexperienced wing players and front-line guys — DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson — have shown some flashes, but they are young and raw, and they come with the usual flaws of players who are young and raw.
But no team should be quite this bad, this consistently. Jay Triano is, by all accounts, a good coach and a wonderful guy, but he could never get this team under control or bind it to a solid set of defensive rules. Players complained about a lack of accountability and film study, and though some of those complaints may have been targeted venting, the fact remains that this team just showed nothing on defense over two straight seasons.
Maybe no coach can change this; maybe the roster is just this bad. But Casey is one of those coaches who, at the very least, has a shot to turn Toronto into an average defensive team. He will have rules, those rules will make sense for this roster, and he will demand his players follow them all of the time. There will always be breakdowns. The Raptors aren’t the Mavericks, a veteran team that understood complex positioning and seldom shot itself in the foot. But I’d be shocked if the number of those breakdowns doesn’t decrease gradually in Toronto as next season progresses.
Casey isn’t just a defense guy, either. As ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz noted, Casey was instrumental in pushing Rick Carlisle to loosen his grip on the Mavs’ offense and hand over more control to Jason Kidd.
Results are never guaranteed in the NBA. Great coaches flounder because of so-so rosters, personality clashes, injuries and other variables over which they have minimal control. Casey may well be out the door in two seasons. But given what we know now, this is a great hire for the Raptors.