Casual fans probably know Dwane Casey mostly as either the guy screaming on the Mavericks’ sideline during the playoffs or the assistant whose name always seemed to be listed among the runners-up for head-coaching jobs over the last few years. Last week, the Raptors gave Casey his first top gig since the Timberwolves fired him midway through the 2006-07 season.
Casey is a basketball lifer whose career has included a bunch of interesting twists: a long stint coaching in Japan with the legendary Pete Newell; a chance encounter with George Karl that led to Casey’s hiring as the Seattle SuperSonics’ key defensive assistant in the mid-1990s; a role as one of the first black players at the University of Kentucky; and a crucial bit part in an infamous college recruiting scandal for which Casey has long since been vindicated.
Casey, who still keeps his offseason home in Seattle, chatted with SI.com for nearly 90 minutes on Monday. Here are some of the highlights of our wide-ranging conversation.
SI.com: It seems like you’ve been in the running for every head-coaching job over the last few seasons only to watch someone else get hired. Former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau went through the same thing before the Bulls hired him last year. Did you ever feel like maybe you just weren’t going to get a second chance?
Casey: [Laughing] Tom and I were the like twins going through the interview process. We are both coaches who did not play in the league, and a lot of our work was unnoticed and unglamorous. Tom did a great job in Chicago last season, and I’m so happy for him. Again, there’s always a reason you don’t get hired. That’s not an excuse. I don’t think any other coach was more prepared than I was, but everybody just has a different taste, a different flavor. But I never laid awake at night thinking about it. I had jobs to do in Seattle and Dallas.
SI.com: I won’t rehash the whole Chris Mills/Kentucky scandal here, but you won a lot of money in the lawsuit that followed, and you’ve basically been vindicated. Still, did you feel you just couldn’t get a job in college basketball after that? Did you try?
Casey: I interviewed a couple of times, including at Western Kentucky University, after all of that stuff happened. But it was clear to be that I was an NBA guy through and through. I just didn’t want to go back and deal with the recruiting aspect of college basketball.
SI.com: You’re known first as a defense guy, and now you’re going to coach the team that has been the worst defensive team in the league over the last couple of seasons. Do you have a read on why they’ve struggled so much?
Casey: It’s a little early to say, even though I’ve watched a lot of game film. But the “why” is not important to me. I don’t know why, really. It’s a team that has the athletic pieces to be a better defensive team.
It’s all about what you emphasize as a coach. Jay [Triano] has done an excellent job at creating an offensive atmosphere, and I don’t want to take away from that. But we have to have a defensive emphasis. We have to create a defensive identity. Every single day there will be a theme of the day about defense, whether it be working on one thing in regard to the pick-and-roll or man-to-man or whatever. There will be a theme every day until we get an identity we can compete with.
SI.com: Do you mean that literally — that every time you guys practice or watch film, there will be one theme you’ll focus on?
Casey: Yes, exactly. That’s how you build. Take the defensive stance — that’s the most fundamental thing. That’s something we did in Dallas, in terms of going back to the fundamentals and working on that defensive stance so that you are ready to move and go. We are starting from scratch here in Toronto.
SI.com: You’re an advanced stats guy, right? You look at points per possession, plus/minus and five-man lineups, right?
Casey: Oh, yeah. That started for me in Seattle, where we had Dean Oliver [now ESPN's director of production analytics]. I didn’t really understand the value of those numbers at that point, even though Wally Walker [a longtime Seattle executive] was really pushing us to embrace it. But being from the old school of coaching, I didn’t really know what to do with all of it.
And in Minnesota, we just didn’t have anything like that. But in Dallas, Rick Carlisle and Mark Cuban have embraced analytical numbers, and they have been so valuable to us in terms of what lineups we put on the floor. And I know Toronto already has guys in place who do this. This is the new wave in the NBA.
SI.com: So you probably know about Basketball Value, the Web site that lists numbers for every five-man lineup. When you look at Toronto’s lineups, you see immediately that almost every one that played a lot struggled on defense. And when you dig deeper, you see that nearly every lineup that included Andrea Bargnani was awful defensively. This is my way of asking: Can you build a good defensive team with Bargnani on the back line? Is it possible? How do you do it?
Casey: Well, he’s not going to be our starting center, really [because he's more of a power forward]. He’s in a similar situation with Dirk Nowitzki at this point in his career. I’d have to check their numbers, but I’d venture to say at this point in his career, he’s probably somewhere in the same area where Dirk was, where both have had to live down the reputation of being soft. And by the way, Dirk has never been anywhere near soft. Don’t ever use that word with him.
SI.com: I won’t! Believe me!
Casey: Because he’s one of the toughest, hardest-working guys in the league. I don’t know Andrea. All I know is what I’ve read and seen. I am excited to get to know him. He’s going to get better defensively, and he’s a great offensive player. But we have to work with him, coach him up and put him in the right situations so he is not exposed as much. I think Amir Johnson can be an above-average defender in the same position, and that we can put someone like Amir in a system so that Andrea is not exposed as much.
Look, our challenge is to find a five-man unit that is above-average defensively. Who that five will be, I just don’t know at this point. But when you win 22 games, you’ve got to change things. You can’t come back with the status quo.
SI.com: Sticking with defense … You were an assistant with the Sonics in their 1990s prime and now with Dallas. Those teams, on the surface, would appear to be very different — Seattle with all those athletes flying around in that crazy defense, and the old Mavericks getting by with guile. But were there principles both defenses shared? Stuff we should watch for in Toronto?
Casey: It’s funny, because people mostly remember Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp from those Seattle teams, and they were both really athletic and flying everywhere. But we also had an older Detlef Schrempf, an older Sam Perkins, an older Nate McMillan and other veterans like we had in Dallas.
And in Dallas, we had Tyson Chandler all over the place in the paint and on the perimeter. He was like our version of Gary Payton. Both teams were similar in that on the fly we could change defenses, switch, double-team, go into zone, that kind of thing. There was a method to the madness in both places.
SI.com: I have to say, I watch and re-watch a lot of basketball and a lot of individual possessions, and the Mavs are the only team over the last few years where I’d watch a quick possession three or four times and not be able to decide whether you guys were playing zone or man.
Casey: Well, that’s a compliment to us. You’re not an idiot. You want your zone to look like man, and you want your man to look like zone. The mix of the two is beautiful. You want to guard the ball man-to-man and play zone on the weak side. But both defenses should look the same.
SI.com: Will we see that kind of thing in Toronto? Do you have the right personnel?
Casey: It’s too early now. I’ve got to have a training camp before we make that kind of decision.
SI.com: How’d you get that job as an assistant for the Sonics, anyway? You were coaching in Japan at the time, right?
Casey: Yes. It was through George Karl. We met one summer at the NBA Summer League, and he told me that Bob Kloppenburg, his lead assistant, was retiring. He was looking for someone to fill the position, and he asked me.
SI.com: Just like that? You must have had some prior relationship, right?
Casey: We had crossed paths on Shawn Kemp, since I had recruited him to Kentucky and coached him there, and the Sonics drafted him not long after that. So Shawn is really what connected us.
SI.com: And did you jump at the Sonics’ offer right away?
Casey: I did, but I’ll tell you what: It was a huge pay cut for me.
SI.com: From coaching in Japan in the 1990s?
Casey: Oh, yeah. Japan was paying pretty well, between my work with the national team and the club team. But I wasn’t complaining.
SI.com: Talk about Coach Karl a bit. Tell us something about him that maybe doesn’t get enough coverage.
Casey: I’ll tell you this: He is one of the best as far as being innovative and different on defense. A lot of what we see now in the league came from him — the trapping, the double-teaming, showing hard on pick-and-rolls and the way he took advantage of the old illegal defense rules. All those innovative and non-traditional schemes, he was huge with that.
SI.com: Random question: Who’s your favorite player you’ve ever coached?
Casey: Oh, wow. I couldn’t possibly pick one. I mean, we had Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton, Bill Cartwright, so many Hall of Fame guys — Dirk and Jason Kidd in Dallas, too. Sam Perkins, he was such a great player. Some people don’t realize how good he was. Even a guy like Ewing, who we had at the tail end of his career in Seattle, he was still so smart and effective in the paint.
SI.com: Another random one: Could you make the argument that Kevin Garnett is the best defensive player since Bill Russell?
Casey: Absolutely. You could make that argument, yes. He is one of the best I have ever seen.