Image: Via Diamond Design
In case you still haven’t heard, the Toronto Raptors won their first-ever championship last season. Riding behind superstar Kawhi Leonard, Toronto managed to make history as the first non-American team to ever win the NBA championship. After the departure of their Finals-MVP, however, the organization’s expectations dropped dramatically. They weren’t expected to be a bad team, but they weren’t considered to be contenders in the East. This narrative changed as the season went on, mostly due to the breakout of Pascal Siakam and the general improvements of the players around him.
Toronto’s former head coach, Dwayne Casey, developed Siakam and many of the other players on their roster. He helped build this team and deserves a lot of credit for why the Raptors are still a great team this year. Casey built this team over seven years and Nick Nurse is reaping the benefits. Here’s how Casey made this team so great:
The Dwayne Casey Era:
Rookies: Jonas Valanciunas (overseas) R.1 P.5
There couldn’t be many expectations for Casey in his first season. Outside of third-year rising star, DeMar DeRozan, there was mainly just injuries within the core of the team. This season was a wash for the Raptors as Casey was adjusting to his new team. The direction for the team was pretty clear as they were still in asset accumulation mode. The goal was clear: build around DeRozan.
Rookies: Terrence Ross R.1 P.8
Quincy Acy R.2 P.7
Tomislav Zubcic R.2 P.26
Jonas Valanciunas R.1 P.5 (Drafted 2011)
A slight improvement over last season, Casey had a bit more to work with. European big man, Jonas Valanciunas, played his rookie season this year, along with Terrence Ross. Valanciunas showed some early promise, making the All-Rookie Second Team. Terrence Ross had a solid rotational role and showed signs of being a solid scorer. With the two rookies, Toronto added Point Guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry had a disappointing season this year dropping from 14.3 points per game in Houston, to just 11.6 the following year. Lowry was only 26, though, and had plenty of time to bounce back from that season. Toronto began building a solid foundation after this season that would bring them to the playoffs for years to come.
Playoffs: Lose first-round (Brooklyn Nets)
The first time the Raptors made the playoffs in the Dwayne Casey era, they managed to claim the 3-seed. After a disappointing first season in Toronto, Lowry had a breakout season averaging 17.9 points and 7.4 assists. Both Valanciunas and Ross showed signs of improvements as well. Ross became a full-time starter averaging more than ten points per game, while Valanciunas put up 11.3 and 8.8. Along with Casey’s three projects, DeMar DeRozan earned his first all-star appearance. Although they eventually lost in seven games to the Nets, the Raptors showed that they belong in the playoffs with a young team that was only going to get better.
Playoffs: Lose first-round (Washington Wizards)
Rookies: Bruno Caboclo R.1 P.20
DeAndre Daniels R.2 P.7
The one game improvement solidified Toronto as a playoff team. Kyle Lowry managed to gain the respect around the league to earn his first all-star appearance. Toronto also acquired eventual Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, and gave them a huge bench boost. Valanciunas continued to show improvements in his game, while Ross’s production went down as he lost several minutes to Lou. They made the playoffs again as a 4-seed, but got swept by John Wall and the Washington Wizards. With two playoffs under their belt, the next step is to actually win a series.
Playoffs: Conference Finals (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Rookies: Delon Wright R.1 P.20
Norman Powell R.2 P.16 (traded from Milwaukee)
Note: bold = still on team today
Casey finally managed to break the 50-win barrier in his fifth season. Lowry and DeRozan both made the all-star team. Jonas Valanciunas continues to show improvements and Toronto finished the season as the 2-seed. Unlike the last two years, Toronto didn’t lose in the first-round. They beat the Pacers and Heat in in seven games, before being matched up with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They put up a fight, but lost to the eventual champions in six games. This was the first year that Dwayne Casey brought the Raptors past the first round. This season established Toronto as championship contenders in East.
This year also marks the beginning of the accidental rebuild. Dwayne Casey saw potential in Norman Powell to trade for him from the Bucks. Norman Powell managed to play in 49 games, despite being a second-round pick. Powell showed off his range as a rookie shooting over 40% in his rookie season.
Playoffs: Second Round (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Rookies: Jakob Poeltl R.1 P.9
Pascal Siakam R.1 P.27
Fred Vanvleet Undrafted
Toronto may have picked up some players that you have heard of. Well, none of them matter yet. In the meantime, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to play great basketball. They added Serge Ibaka to their roster in a trade the sent Terrence Ross and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic. The problem with the Ibaka trade is that they now have a lot of depth among big men. Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson were taking up the majority of minutes in the front court, taking away from development time for Jakob Poeltl. Aside from that, Toronto finished their second-straight season with 50+ wins. They lost five more games than last year, but still claimed the 2-seed. They defeated Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Millawaukee Bucks in six games before getting swept by LeBron and the Cavs. With four straight playoff appearances without making it out of the East, the Raptors began growing impatient with Casey. Toronto is known as a great regular-season team, but choke in the playoffs.
This season was the season that really put their accidental rebuild into action. Jakob Poeltl would become apart of quite an important trade later on. Aside from him, Siakam and Vanvleet were picked up by Toronto this year. The two of them didn’t look like much in their rookie season and no one expected anything from them in their careers. They didn’t play much in their rookie season and both averaged under five points a contest. Through the draft, Casey’s raptors have now acquired Fred Vanvleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam in two years.
Playoffs: Second Round (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Rookies: OG Anunoby R.1 P.23
Dwayne Casey’s final season with Toronto was his best regular season of his career. Casey’s final draft pick, Anunoby, already carved a rotational role. Pascal Siakam and Fred Vanvleet also began to show signs of improvement. DeMar DeRozan was still playing like a star, but Kyle Lowry has a massive drop in production. Jonas Valanciunas seemed to hit his ceiling, but he added one other part to his game: 3-point shooting. On one attempt per game, Valanciunas shot over 40%. The Raptors finished the season as the 1-seed. They played a tough six-game series against the 8-seeded Washington Wizards before getting swept, again, by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fed up with the lack of playoff success, Toronto’s front office fired Casey after seven seasons. He was replaced by rookie unknown Nick Nurse.
Casey and the Toronto Raptors gave one more gift to Nick Nurse, OG Anunoby. Anunoby showed defensive promise and prompted Casey to take a chance on him. Unlike Casey’s other rookies, however, Anunoby immediately became a rotational player in his rookie season, averaging more than 20 minutes per game. His skill on the defensive end would be a big reason why he would become a starting caliber player.
During the back half of his time in Toronto, Dwayne Casey developed the likes of Fred Vanvleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas. He built these players while contending each season. No one noticed, but Casey built over half of a championship team with one lottery pick (Jakob Poeltl). Casey also gets credit for turning Lowry into an all-star. Although Casey did not win the championship, he set up their depth and gave Toronto a huge boost post-Claw. Casey did everything for the Raptors except the end result.
After Casey left the scene, Nick Nurse and the Raptors front office made some changes. In the offseason; they traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. During the regular season, Jonas Valanciunas was traded to Memphis in exchange for Marc Gasol. Siakam and Vanvleet both had breakout seasons and Kyle Lowry had a lot more pressure off of his shoulders. Kawhi lead Toronto to their first championship in franchise history, and then left. Everyone thought that this was the end for Toronto.
It wasn’t. Siakam and Vanvleet are proving themselves to the entire league. OG Anunoby and Norman Powell both showed their abilities on the team as well. New pick-up Chris Boucher is also showing that he’s a capable young player in his rookies season. These young players are joined by Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. The mix of vets and young players on the team make a dangerous playoff team. Despite not having Kawhi, they remain a contender in the East thanks to their, possibly accidental, contending rebuild.