TORONTO — Dwane Casey didn't want to talk about his future until now. The Toronto Raptors head coach deflected questions about his contract all year, and he didn't even want to discuss it with his boss.
Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri approached Casey in March, after Casey had turned the Raptors' season around. The team was headed to the playoffs but in a bit of a rough patch, in danger of falling to the sixth seed in the standings. In Cleveland at the start of a road trip, Casey deferred the conversation. If he was telling free-agent-to-be Kyle Lowry to block out all the noise and focus on each game, how could he not do the same?
“I think coach Casey was really classy because he said to me and he said to the players, ‘Let's leave this thing and concentrate on the season, this is our chance to prove ourselves,'” Ujiri said at his end-of-season media availability on Tuesday.
The press conference doubled as an announcement of Casey's new deal, which will keep him in Toronto for a reported three years and $11.25 million, per the Globe and Mail's Cathal Kelly. Casey earned it by shepherding a surprising Raptors run after the early-December Rudy Gay trade, taking them from the verge of being blown up to the best regular-season record in franchise history. He preached consistency and a defense-first approach, the same things he talked about when he arrived in 2011.
Toronto wound up with an Atlantic Division title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and came one possession away from advancing to the second round in a grueling seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets. In typical Casey fashion, he gave all the credit to the players for sticking together.
“I want to commend them because they did a fantastic job this year and made it one of the most fruitful years that I've had in coaching,” Casey said. “Even throughout the championship [as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks]. Because no one expected this group of guys to achieve and accomplish what they did.”
At the beginning of every year, Casey gives each Raptor a set of “role cards” outlining his responsibilities. He sends his players inspirational quotes via text message. Over February's All-Star weekend, he thought of a motivational tactic for the group that had been doubted and almost dismantled. He'd seen it work with the Mavericks, and he tried it himself in Washington directly following the break.
“I had each player sign a document,” Casey said. “It probably wouldn't hold up in court, but a document committing to the team, committing to the process, leaving their egos at the door.”
Lowry was the first to sign. Everybody else followed — the whole traveling party, including the coaching staff, the trainer and the equipment manager. Casey kept it in his briefcase.
“‘I'm all in' was the head of the document,” Casey said. “And they were. Each player dedicated themselves, gave themselves to the season and, as far as I'm concerned, to the future because this year was just the start of what we want to grow and develop with Masai as our leader."
On Monday, before Ujiri's plans were reported, Toronto's players complimented Casey on the job he did and were clear that they wanted him to return.
“He's not going to tell you to do something just to do it,” DeMar DeRozan said. “It's a reason behind everything. Once you respect a man's word like that, you're going to work for him.”
While Casey said he's tried to become a better coach every year since he started in 1979, he said the support lets him know he should keep doing what he's doing.
“Sometimes I know it sounds corny, some of the things I say, but it's real,” Casey said. “It's real stuff, or it's real talk. It's life more so than just basketball. It just tells me to continue to do that. I'm kind of old school, where I want guys to have their shoes tied before we go out to practice, ‘cause like I tell them, you don't go to work on a construction site with your boots untied or your boots hanging off or whatever, so let's get your boots strapped up, let's go to work.
“All the little things like that let you know that it's soaking in, it's effective, it's real,” he continued. “And it's what life is all about, it's what working hard for something is all about. That's all I can stand for, and until they're tired of listening to it, I'm going to continue to preach it. ‘Cause I've seen too many examples of it being successful to change. And I'm too old to change.”