The Toronto Raptors are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, leading the Atlantic Division by 2.5 games and in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. These are all signs of a job well done by head coach Dwane Casey, but the two sides have not had "extensive" discussions about extending his expiring contract beyond this season, according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News.
The Raptors have gone 17-9 since Rudy Gay's final game with the team, turning around a season that saw them start 6-12. Toronto is on track to finish above .500 for the first time since hiring Casey following the Dallas Mavericks' championship run while he was an assistant coach under Rick Carlisle. It would mark only the fifth time in franchise history that the team finished with more wins than losses.
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Ross' coming-out party
Just halfway through his second season, Terrence Ross has a 51-point game on his resume.
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Casey said his first goal was to give the Raptors a "defensive identity" back in June 2011 and the team is finally accomplishing that. Toronto has enjoyed a huge increase in defensive efficiency since last season. They're allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-best overall defensive rating in the league, according to NBA.com. They allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions last season, ranking them in the bottom-10 in the NBA.
The massive year-to-year improvement is happening while the team develops its young talent. Big man Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are both second-year players who have stepped into increased roles.
Valanciunas continues steadily improving, averaging 1.5 points and 2.6 rebounds more per game than his rookie season. Ross, however, has burst onto the scene since filing in for Gay. He's averaging 13 points per game while shooting 43 percent from three-point range since becoming a full-time starter. He also had an incredible 51-point, franchise-record-tying outburst against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.
Toronto is a team stuck somewhere between rebuilding and competing, though. The franchise replaced longtime general manager Bryan Colangelo last summer when they hired Masai Ujiri away from the Denver Nuggets. Ujiri has already made his impact felt, first trading former No. 1 overall draft selection Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks, then shipping out Gay. Casey's future with the team was in question as well but Ujiri stayed the course heading into the season, stating he was "excited about moving forward and building this [Raptors] team with Coach Casey."
Toronto looks like a team that's moved forward in the blink of an eye. The Raptors on course to make the playoffs for the first time in half a decade while their youth is being developed and roster deconstructed. Where Casey fits into the equation going forward is an important question, but the Eastern Conference's Coach of the Month for December has already done a fine job of answering that question with results.