The Raptors are not known for defense. Toronto posted a league-worst 109.8 defensive rating last year and featured Andrea Bargnani at center. Bargnani was often ridiculed and denigrated for his 9.8 percent total rebounding percentage and his generally poor defensive play.
The young Raptors squad was just not ready to play defense at a high level.
Toronto was still exciting with high-flying guard DeMar DeRozan and, yes, Andrea Bargnani spreading the floor. Those two were still solid scorers and kept Toronto with a healthy 103.1 offensive rating. The Raptors were far away from a playoff berth for sure, but still had some nice players to begin rebuilding around.
In stepped new head coach Dwane Casey, the defensive guru behind the Mavericks’ defensive turnaround in 2011. Casey joined up with the Mavericks in 2008 after an unsuccessful head coaching stint in Minnesota. When he arrived, the Mavericks posted a respectable 103.1 defensive rating. In three years that went to 105.3 to 103.2 and finally to 102.3 last year when the Mavericks finally broke through and won the championship.
It took some time for Casey’s principles to sink in, but undoubtedly they became ingrained in the team and led in large part to the success that puzzled the heavily favored Lakers and Heat on the Mavericks’ way to the title.
Meanwhile, Toronto was still at the bottom of the league in defensive rating and were not known for any type of their defensive prowess.
When Casey took the Raptors’ coaching job, it was clear that making a change to the team’s defensive philosophy was not going to be enough. He had to make a change to the defensive culture on the team. Casey estimates the team has spent nearly three quarters of its practice time working on defense. It has been the clear goal of the Casey coaching staff early on in his time as the Raptors’ head coach.
“We’re trying to get our defensive program established,” Casey said. “From an offensive point, the coaches last year did an excellent job of creating a tempo, a pace offensively. And we have to come in now and change the culture and get a defensive mindset at the same time, which is probably the most difficult thing to do in basketball, to maintain an offensive mindset.”
It is hard to judge the results in the early part of this season. Just three games in, the Raptors have improved statistically. Their defensive rating is up to 103.4, good for 12th in the league. That is far from the bottom-feeding defense that has characterized Raptors’ teams in recent years.
Moving Bargnani to his more natural power forward position and starting Amir Johnson, with Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire behind him, at center has helped the team tremendously. Particularly on the glass.
It is still early, so numbers do not quite tell the whole story. Not yet at least.
What does it he observations from opponents and the mindset they have to take when they approach playing Toronto. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said he has noticed the change in the Raptors’ defense in preparing for his team’s game against the Raptors at Amway Center on Sunday. In fact, he said they are “light years” from where they were last year even three games into the season.
“It’s a total transformation already from what we’ve seen in the past,” Van Gundy said before the Magic’s come-from-behind 102-96 win over the Raptors on Sunday. “Really, since I’ve been here, Toronto has basically just tried to outscore you. There really hasn’t been, at least, what I would say is a concerted effort defensively to shut you down. Dwane’s totally changed that mentality already. You can see the effort and the discipline, the help defense, the entire thing, everything, the whole disposition has changed. It’s really a 180 degree turn.”
Van Gundy was definitely working hard to crack the defensive code early on. His Magic shot 6 for 19 from the floor in the first quarter and posted only 18 points through the first 12 minutes. It was a lot of force feeding to Dwight Howard too, but Howard was only 2 for 5 with two free throw attempts in the first quarter. The Magic could not get the ball moving.
It did not last long as Orlando posted 29 points in the second quarter, scoring 14 points in the paint and freeing up shooters with aggressive drives from Hedo Turkoglu and even from Ryan Anderson. Things did not get better when the Raptors were able to push their lead up to 16 points in the third quarter, but gave it all back by giving up 32 points in the fourth quarter including a 16-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter.
“It is (progress) and we’re growing, believe me,” Casey said after the game. “I know that to everybody, they don’t understand and see the growth. But I see the growth. I see the movement. I also see some of the mental breakdowns at crucial times. We’re decreasing those, but again in that situation, in that crucial situation we have to execute. We have to make the right decisions and go from there.”
It was hard not to notice that the Raptors were on a different page defensively than previous versions of the Raptors. The finishing touches are not there, but even an offensively focused player like Andrea Bargnani recognizes that they “have to stick with what Coach is doing with our program” and close games better. The culture is changing.
Casey certainly seems to have come a long way from the 66-95 record his Minnesota Timberwolves amassed in his two seasons as head coach (he was fired midway through the 2007 season and the job was handed over to Randy Wittman).
He joined the Mavericks and became the team’s defensive guru as the statistics earlier elaborated. Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle gave Casey full reigns over the defense. Casey said he learned a lot from Rick Carlisle. It certainly seems like that experience helped Casey grow as a coach and bring some of those lessons over to his newest task in Toronto.
“Exactly what we did for the last three years, we had to go in and change the culture [in Dallas],” Casey said. “Don Nelson is a great offensive coach, so we had to go in. Avery Johnson started it, and we continued the change of culture from an offensive mindset to a defensive culture, which is not easy with an older team. With a younger team, we can do more drill work, we can work harder and longer.”
There will be a lot more hard work ahead of Casey to make the kind of changes he envisions for Toronto. There will be a lot more drills and a lot more frustration ahead for Raptors and Casey.
This is the hard work for a coach trying to rebuild a franchise from the ground up.