TORONTO — Masai Ujiri called firing Dwane Casey the most difficult thing he’s ever done. He compared the veteran coach to his own father.
Hours after Ujiri told Casey his seven-year tenure with the team was over, the price paid for being swept by Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the team president fought back tears in a news conference Friday.
“I hope coach Casey gets coach of the year because he deserves it,” Ujiri said. ”I saw everything he did here. I saw the job he did this year. He deserves it.”
The 61-year-old Casey was the most successful coach in Raptors history, rewriting the culture of what had been one of the worst teams in the league. He led Toronto to four Atlantic Division titles in five seasons, and three consecutive 50-win seasons, and the Raptors rewrote the franchise record book in this past regular-season, winning 59 games and earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time
And beyond his basketball accomplishments, Casey will be remembered for the dignity and class with which he carried himself, a friendly, fatherly figure who addressed every member of the media by their first name, even those rarely around the team.
When Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster met with Casey on Friday morning, the coach handled the news with the same grace.
“What an unbelievable human being,” Ujiri said. ”It made it just the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I’ve never met anybody that classy in my life. I can honestly say I don’t know that I will work with a better person.
“He was just very graceful. He thanked us. He appreciated his time here. Just grateful. Just Casey.”
Casey made players and reporters laugh with his southern, homespun vernacular.
“Couldn’t hit the side of the barn with a bass fiddle,” he’d say on a particularly bad shooting night.
“We can’t be all happy on the farm,” he’d say, with the subtlest of winks, after a win.
This Raptors’ historic regular-season came after Ujiri called for a “culture reset” last off-season. Toronto revamped its offence to focus on three-point shooting and better ball movement, and focused on developing the bench, which became the envy of the league. Toronto was the only team in the playoffs that finished in the top five in both offence and defence.
Casey was fired two days after winning the Michael H. Goldberg coach of the year award, which is handed out by the National Basketball Coaches Association. He’s also the front-runner for the NBA coach of the year, as voted on by the media, to be awarded June 25.
“I think of this as, in some way, a celebration,” Ujiri said. ”Great man, great coach, and a difficult decision to come to.”
Ultimately someone had to pay the price for the Raptors’ failure to get past Cleveland for the third consecutive season. LeBron James and the Cavs made quick work of all the positivity of the Raptors’ regular season. It was a shocking ending to a campaign that had looked so hopeful.
Ujiri said he’d spent “countless hours” since Monday’s Game 4 loss evaluating, and said he made the move quickly partly in fairness to Casey, who will surely be snapped up by another team quickly.
The team president said there was no tipping point in decision.
“I think the time has come, sometimes these things come to an end, our relationships comes to an end and we’ll figure out a way to move on, a new voice, and just new everything, in terms of that position,” Ujiri said. ”Nothing in particular that Coach Casey did wrong but I think it was time to, time for this to happen.”
At his post-season press conference two days earlier, Casey said the Raptors had become a ”first-class program,” and spoke with pride about the team’s regular-season success — particularly with the major changes they’d made in playing style — and the buy-in from players. He believed the team had shown improvement in these playoffs, and the team was headed was in the right direction.
Asked if a new voice was important, Casey argued “continuity and consistency are huge” in the NBA, and mentioned longtime San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.
“There’s a lot of planning, a lot of ideas I have,” Casey had said. “You’re not going to change Rome in a day.”
DeMar DeRozan talked fondly of Casey in his post-season media availability.
“He put the trust in me, he believed in me, he let me be a 21-year-old kid going out there, playing freely,” DeRozan said. “A lot of my success, all of my success, I have to credit Casey. No matter what, I’m always going to have the utmost respect when it comes to coach Casey.”
Ujiri had called DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to deliver the news Friday, and said it was met with emotion.
“There’s five years of bond here, with all these players that’s the coach they know, this is the coach we know,” he said. ”So you can actually like feel it, like every single (player) I’ve talked to so far.”
There was no immediate word on his replacement, but Ujiri will want someone in place quickly. Among the possible names being floated: former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, Raptors assistant Nick Nurse, Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse, former New Orleans and Oklahoma City coach Monty Williams, and San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon, who would become the first female NBA head coach in history.
“I’m open. We’ll look everywhere,” Ujiri said, adding the current group of assistants will remain for now.
Will the team continue its current stylistic trajectory?
“I hope we can, because obviously you try to get those types of players to fit that mode,” Ujiri said. ”Hopefully there’s a smooth transition to that. The new coach will have a style. He’s going to have his own voice. I’m not a coach. I can’t comment too much on that.”
Casey won an NBA title as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, and was hired by Toronto in 2011 when the Raptors decided not to pick up the option on Jay Triano’s contract.
Casey posted a 320-238 (.573) overall record at the helm of the Raptors, the team’s regular-season record improving in all but one of Casey’s seven seasons.
He coached the Raptors to the Eastern Conference final in 2016 where they took Cleveland to six games. The Cavs went on to beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals.