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The Raptors trusted Dwane Casey to remake his team without rebuilding it

With Casey as the conductor, Toronto has pulled off a feat most consider impossible: changing a culture without changing personnel.

It’s not often that DeMar DeRozan seals a victory for his head coach by missing a game-tying shot, but that’s what happened Sunday, Feb. 18th, at the NBA All-Star Game. Dwane Casey, courtesy of Toronto holding the East’s best record, coached Team LeBron to victory, mere weeks after winning his 300th career game with the Raptors.

“It was fitting,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said in an interview with SB Nation. “With all the things he’d done for the franchise, for him to be able to have a moment on a national stage, in L.A. and at the all-star game, and the team wins. He deserves it.”

The moment, like so many this season, was accompanied by a built-in Coach of the Year case. It was a testament to the Raptors’ process-oriented season, to incremental progress, and, above all, to being rewarded for eschewing panic for patience in the form of their best season ever. The present moment is miraculous not only because of what is happening today, but because of the many moments in years past when things could have fallen apart.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors stand in stark contrast to a league that often answers disappointing results with pink slips for head coaches. When Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s arrived in 2013, they were prepping for a tank and shopping Kyle Lowry. Most regime changes spawn a change at the coaching position too, since GMs generally like to hand-pick someone to suit their vision. Ujiri took inventory, decided to stick with Casey, and the Raptors went on a magical run that changed the franchise’s trajectory.

They followed it up, however, by getting swept by the Wizards in 2015 after a disappointing second half of the regular season, Criticism of Casey reached a fever pitch, with rampant speculation he could be let go. Last season, after enduring another sweep, this time at the hands of the Cavaliers, Ujiri infamously announced the Raptors needed a “culture reset.” It read like the final nail in the coffin for Casey’s tenure in Toronto.

Webster has an alternative explanation.

“We felt like we were better than a 4-0 sweep,” Webster said. “It was really just Masai’s challenge to all of us. Let’s take a look at what we’ve done, and let’s be proud of how we’ve gotten here, but if we really wanna be a championship contending team, we need to make some changes.”

In the days following that low point, the Raptors’ internal braintrust burned the midnight oil to put Ujiri’s “culture reset” into action. When Webster and Ujiri asked Casey what he saw, they were, in Webster’s words, “exactly on the same page.” The league was passing the Raptors’ plodding, isolation style by.

And so the mandate was born: more ball movement, more spacing, more running, and an increased focus on developing their young talent.

“[Culture reset] suggests that change is coming. But that doesn’t mean you have to change personnel,” Webster said. “People can change.”

What has culminated is an offense humming like never before, with an assist rate that’s jumped from dead last in the NBA to the middle of the pack. The only other team to rank in the top five in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency is the Warriors. In the course of six months, with largely the same personnel, the Raptors have morphed from batting practice for real contenders into one of the league’s most fearsome squads.

Few coaches would be as well-suited as Casey is to implement a vision with so many built-in hiccups. He has, as Webster puts it, an “even-keeled” approach, accompanied by an endurance for what Casey refers to as ‘good mistakes’ — something the team, to a man, will tell you they appreciate.

That approach was crucial in overcoming early-season growing pains. At first, the Raptors were plagued by unnecessary overpassing and giving up good shots. The roster wanted to make things work. They just hadn’t quite figured out how. In the month of October, Kyle Lowry shot 37 percent from the field, and scored just 13.5 points.

But Casey managed the growth period well. It helped that Casey also had six full years to build a foundation of trust with DeRozan, who was notoriously stubborn about expanding his range.

“It’s never an easy sell,” said Webster. “When they know you’re coming from a great place, you’re coming from an honest place, that makes the conversation easier.”

DeRozan is currently having the best season of his career, averaging career highs in assists, three-pointers attempted, and three-point percentage. Enduring the process of turning a man whose game was once an ode to his idol, Kobe Bryant, required a leap of faith, from both sides.

“When you have a coach that puts that trust in you, just out of respect as a man, as a human being, you wanna give the utmost back to him,” DeRozan said. “With us, you do that on the court, playing for him.”

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the Raptors keep thriving, Casey’s trust manifests itself in unlikely places. On Friday night at the Air Canada Center, the Raptors trailed the Bucks by two points, with 3.3 seconds remaining.

C.J. Miles, Toronto’s sharpshooter, inbounded the ball to Jonas Valanciunas at the top of the key. Miles ran towards Valanciunas to run a dribble hand-off in case his defender, Jason Terry, fell asleep. He didn’t.

The game would rest in Valanciunas hands. He faked the dribble hand-off pass, tricking Henson into taking a half-step to his left, turned right, drove to the basket and dunked the game into overtime. The buzzer sounded with Valanciunas, his arms and legs splayed out on the floor, surrendering himself to the catharsis of the moment.

A year ago, the slow-footed Valanciunas probably wouldn’t have seen the floor on the final possession of the game, let alone caught the ball in the middle of the floor. He spent the offseason shooting 100 threes per practice session and working on his face-up game.

When the Raptors met in training camp, Valanciunas was entrusted with running more dribble hand-off plays in order to loosen up the motion of the offense.

After taking just four threes in the five seasons prior, Valanciunas has attempted 46 this season, knocking them down at a 45.7-percent clip.

The Raptors are hoping 23-year-old Pascal Siakam, who is shooting just under two threes per game at an 18.7-percent rate, can make a similar leap. While the jumper has yet to come along, Siakam has morphed from a reckless ball-handler who would occasionally twirl out of bounds performing ill-conceived spin moves, into the engine that fuels the second unit. DeRozan referred to Siakam as Toronto’s Draymond Green after Monday’s blowout win over the Pistons.

“You have to be [patient],” Casey told SB Nation on Sunday. “We have a young team, seven or eight guys, and we’re trying to win at the same time. If you’re developing and winning’s not the top priority of the season, then OK, but for us, it’s always been to try to win at the same time, which is tough to do.”

Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low. This tried-and-true cliche is one Casey has repeated time after time. It’s allowed Casey’s team to maintain rationality through this transition, when you’re liable to go 14-for-36 from three one night and follow it up with a 7-for-27 clunker the next game.

In recent years, the Coach of the Year award has become a litmus test for good management. Organizational alignment has never been so important. It speaks highly of Casey that he’s been malleable enough to thrive through a regime change and a culture change.

The Raptors, for their part, refuse to buy into their own exceptionalism. Webster pushed back against the notion the Raptors’ patient approach is revolutionary.

“I think what you’re touching on is we live in this really pressure-packed society. Especially in the sports world, you need immediate results. If you don’t get immediate results, then something drastic has to change. I don’t know if we’re bucking that trend. I think there’s a few other franchise out there who have had sustained success.”

He has a point. Golden State and San Antonio are the NBA’s pillars of consistency. The Miami Heat aren’t far behind.

Truth is, the Raptors can’t afford to get wrapped up in their own mythology. For all the Spurs’ success, the only team that has managed to be self-referential about its philosophy and continue to dominate is the Warriors. From that perspective, there is no harm in taking on a quiet, unassuming, workmanlike attitude.

When Ujiri demanded a “culture reset,” he issued a simple decree for every part of the organization: honest self-assessment. The result has been a season that challenges the sheer notion of putting a ceiling on human capability.

Dwane Casey is equal parts its conductor and beneficiary.

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