TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was the first domino to fall at the franchise after yet another NBA playoff loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers but he may not be the last as the team embarks on an off-season of uncertainty.
The decision on Friday to fire the most successful coach in Raptors’ history came four days after the East’s top seeds were eliminated by the Cavs for a third straight season, including embarrassing second-round sweeps in the last two years.
Beating a team headed by one of the greatest players of all-time in a best-of-seven series was always going to be a tall order but this year seemed like the Raptors’ best shot since James and the Cavs were thought to be vulnerable.
But the Raptors, whose franchise-record 59 wins during the regular season raised expectations that they would challenge for the NBA title for the first time in their 23-year existence, were once again outmatched by their post-season nemesis.
After their latest loss to the Cavs, Raptors president Masai Ujiri said he planned to evaluate the roster and team as a whole and make assessments as to the future.
His first move was to fire Casey, who two days ago was named the National Basketball Coaches Association’s coach of the year, an award that is voted on by a panel of his coaching peers.
“This was a difficult decision to come to and it’s not something we’ve taken lightly,” Ujiri told reporters at the team’s practice facility.
“In some ways I think that time has come, you know like sometimes these things come to an end, relationships come to an end, and we will figure out a way to move on, a new voice and just new everything in terms of that position.”
Casey, 61, had coached Toronto since 2011 and led the team to five straight playoff appearances, four division titles and the only three 50-win seasons in franchise history.
After being eliminated by Cleveland during the 2017 playoffs Ujiri said Toronto needed a “culture reset” and so it was Casey who implemented a more balanced attack and the best bench in the league during the regular season.
However, Casey and his players came up short when it mattered most and simply had no answers for the mismatches created by a Cavs team that have been to the last three NBA Finals and won the title in 2016.
Still, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said ahead of his team’s series-clinching win that it would be “absurd” and “crazy” if the Raptors fired Casey for losing in the conference semi-final.
At Casey’s season-ending news conference earlier this week, he said he understood how the criticism fell on him after the type of series Toronto endured.
“It’s part of the business,” Casey said. “I’m a big boy. I’ve been through it. I know where we started here. I know what we’ve accomplished.
“It’s part of the territory. I take it, I accept it. I’m not running from it... I’m an easy target... I don’t feel sorry for myself, let’s put it that way.”
Ujiri said firing Casey was the hardest thing he had done in his life but he will face even tougher decisions over the coming months as he considers whether to reshape the Raptors’ roster.
“With our roster I think that’s something we are always looking at,” said Ujiri. “But roster changes are a little bit more difficult and complicated.
“We’ll continue to grow this team as much as we can but we are not saying that this roster is perfect. There are things that we have to do... to get better.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Ken Ferris