Dwane Casey was headed back to Dallas on Friday with a better winning percentage than the team he left behind. The surprise is that he left the champion Mavericks in order to become head coach of the cheerless Raptors.
Last season, Toronto lost 60 games and ranked 29th in field-goal defense, enabling opponents to convert a plentiful 48.2 percent of their shots. In Casey's first week in charge, the Raptors held Cleveland and Indiana to a combined 40.4 percent from the field, which is better than all but four teams, including the Mavericks. He acknowledges this trend may not last, but his players also understand their 1-1 start was no accident. In the preseason, according to Casey, they invested at least 75 percent of their practice time on the defensive end of the floor.
"It's not there yet," said Casey of his team's commitment to defense. "It's going to be an ongoing daily conversation we'll have, and we'll work on it every day in practice. We have to treat our shootarounds like practice, because we haven't had a lot of time together."
The Raptors have few players who are known for their defense, but neither were many of the Mavericks last season. Nor were several members of the recent champion Lakers and Celtics. Any team can defend, and every team should.
The Raptors traditionally haven't, and Casey was hired to change that. He was essentially the defensive coordinator for Dallas, which opened this season showing no memory for how it won the championship last season. The Mavs lost defensive leader Tyson Chandler as well as DeShawn Stevenson, a tough perimeter defender who helped shut down LeBron James in the Finals. And in their two opening blowout losses this week, the Mavericks surrendered 51 fast-break points to the Heat and Nuggets while entitling them to shoot a combined 49 percent from the field. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle emphasized this week that playing time will be based on defensive effort.
"What made you feel good in Dallas last year is that all the players talked about was defense, so you kind of changed the culture," said Casey. "That's the same thing we have to do here is change the culture, from thinking about my last shot, my next shot, my next touch, to let's get the next stop. Once we change that mentality, we'll be fine."
It won't be as easy as that. The Mavericks are certain to improve defensively over the weeks ahead, because their team leaders will demand nothing less. The rebuilding Raptors aren't sure who -- if any -- of their players will demand defensive consistency throughout this long, truncated season.
Their best player, 7-foot shooter Andrea Bargnani, has often been compared to Dirk Nowitzki. Bargnani may not become a Hall of Famer, but he can learn to compete defensively, as Nowitzki did. "The hardest thing to do is to push a guy like Andrea and make him like Dirk was with Avery [Johnson, the Mavs' coach of 2004-08 who pushed them to defend] and with Rick -- to push him and make him play defense," said Casey. "Because their whole life they've had a gift of being a great offensive player, so you've got to get them to do something that's not natural for them. That's the pressure of a coach. You're not in there to win friends when you do that, but that's what we have to do. I feel comfortable doing that. I don't think of myself as a dictator, but there's a lot of non-negotiables on the defensive end, and when guys they do their job, they get more freedom on the offensive end.''
The new emphasis makes sense in all kinds of ways. There was a time when the Raptors appeared to becoming a franchise built around international players, not that there's anything wrong with that. But all players need structure, and blue-collar defense is likely to be appreciated in Toronto more than in a lot of other NBA cities, based on the constructive influence of the Maple Leafs and the NHL in general.
"I call it the hockey mentality, because I know that's what the fans want to see," said Casey. "It's that type of physical play where you legally put your hands on people and be physical, body people when they cut through the paint. Those are things we're teaching -- how to do it legally without being called for fouls, and protecting the paint."
The goal in Toronto is to make something of a season before the Raptors are able to spend their cap space as well as a potentially high pick in what is expected to be a talented draft. The roster will be overhauled over the next year or two, but that doesn't mean the Raptors shouldn't create a lasting defensive identity, or that they can't establish a strong home-court presence this season. Along the way, Casey is counting on second-year big man Ed Davis to show leadership defensively.
"Our job as a staff is to really push him and get him to develop as a fulltime player," Casey said. "His challenge is going to be to do it on a daily basis with his practices, with every drill, just make it a habit. That's why I've been on him so hard, because I know it's there. That's why I have to push him and make sure he gets to the next levels."
There is no Chandler on this Raptors team, but that is no excuse, either. "I don't know that Ed has the quickness and speed of Tyson," said Casey of 6-10 Davis. "But he can be a rim protector in the paint. He's got a knack of blocking shots, and he's put on 20 pounds of muscle this summer, which has really helped him in the paint. He reminds me a lot of Rashard Lewis -- very quiet, very unassuming -- but it's in there, so we've just got to push him."