Jurassic Mistake: Casey out after 59 wins


The Toronto Raptors have fired coach Dwane Casey after 7 seasons, including a franchise-record 59-win season this year. There were rumors that the franchise could make a move in the days leading up to this moment, but it seemed improbable Toronto would split with the winningest coach in its history after such a highly acclaimed season. His only mistake was losing in the playoffs to one of the greatest players in NBA history three years in a row, without a single superstar on his own team. But alas, here we are.

Four days after being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Casey is out of a job in a move that only makes sense if the front office plans to blow up the entire roster. A coach that has been this successful doesn’t get fired when it’s clear the roster has overachieved under him. And such a move is actually unprecedented in recent NBA history.

The numbers

Since the 1999-2000 season, 18 coaches have achieved regular seasons of at least 59 wins. Of those 18 coaches, only three were fired prior to the next season – Casey, Mike Brown (Cavaliers) and Flip Saunders (Pistons). Casey is the only of the 18 coaches to be fired after his first season of at least 59 wins. Brown and Saunders had previous 59+ win seasons with their respective teams before eventually being let go. Brown and Saunders also inherited better situations with legit reasons for higher expectations. Brown took over a team with James on it during his ascension to becoming the game’s best player. Saunders inherited a team that won the NBA championship two years prior.

Casey, on the other hand, had expectations only created by the product he put on the floor. The team he took over as coach prior to the shortened 2011-12 season had won just 22 games the previous year. He went on to increase the team’s win total every year but one since then, including five straight winning seasons and three straight 50-win seasons.

Casey has the most wins in franchise history (320), best win percentage (.573), most playoff appearances (5) and wins (21), five most winningest seasons, and he’s the only coach in franchise history with a winning record overall. He deserved a chance to see this thing through.

It’s easy to assert that if Casey were white, he would’ve been given more leniency, as black people often aren’t afforded the same slack. Excluding the five coaches since the 1999-2000 season that won championships either the season of their 59 wins, or prior to winning that many games (Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra), 10 coaches were retained after 59+ win seasons – 9 were white. The only non-white coach retained was Avery Johnson, who had two 59+ win seasons with the Mavericks.

The others

Rick Adelman lasted 3 more seasons with the Kings after consecutive 59+ win seasons. Mike Budenholzer lasted 3 more seasons with the Hawks after a 60-win season. Scott Brooks got an extra year after winning 59+ games in consecutive seasons with the Thunder. Rick Carlisle got 3 more seasons with the Pacers after peaking with 61 wins. Mike D’Antoni won 60+ with the Suns twice and was kept for another season after the second instance. D’Antoni also led this year’s Rockets to 65 wins, and even if they lose to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, he’ll likely be retained. Mike Dunleavy got another year with the Trail Blazers after his 59-win season. Don Nelson got two more years after winning 60 with the Mavericks. Tom Thibodeau won 62 games his first year with the Bulls and stuck around for 4 more seasons before being fired. Stan Van Gundy was kept by the Heat for another year after winning 59 games, and two years by the Magic after consecutive 59-win seasons.

None of those coaches won championships in those respective situations, but their franchises gave them a chance to either show improvement or regression before making a change. Casey wasn’t given that opportunity.

What’s next?

The only next logical step for the Raptors is to try to trade star players Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and begin a full rebuild. Toronto’s talent isn’t good enough to get past, or grow with, the powers in the Eastern Conference, and no coach is coming in to change that. This isn’t a Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr situation, where the Warriors had budding superstars. The Raptors have fringe stars either in or past their primes. If the team tries to trot out a new coach with the same team, the reasons behind firing Casey have to be questioned.