Dwane Casey’s Raptors committed defensively

toronto_raptorsBelieve it or not, January’s NBA Eastern Conference Coach of the Month was the Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey.

Flip back a few months, and you’d have found rumors galore speculating on the job security of Toronto’s head man whose expires at the end of the season. Therefore, with a new regime in the front office, it was Casey who seemed the likeliest causality to fall victim to organizational change. Fortunately for Casey, there was a plot twist – the Raptors started playing defense. Really, really good defense.

For all intents and purposes of this discussion, I’d prefer to talk strictly about Casey and the team’s performance this season, nothing past or on the horizon. Because while I did mention Casey’s contract, and we could touch on Casey’s coaching past along with the two previous seasons in Toronto, those factors are entirely different conversations.

Now then, Casey’s strongest strategic basketball quality has long been his extensive defensive background. Finally equipped with a roster reflective of Casey’s defensive principles, the team has become a force to be reckoned with on that end of the floor. On the season, Casey’s Raptors are currently 5th best in the league, allowing 97.1 points per game, and the team’s Defensive Rating (pts/100 possessions) resides in the top 10 at 104.4.

Teams are scoring less and at a lower rate, which is the main reason for the turn-around in Toronto. The Raps occasionally become offensively challenged and stagnate, and Casey still has his in-game time management issues. But across the NBA, improvement on the defensive end quickly advances incompetent teams into mediocre (See: Charlotte Bobcats), mediocre teams into competitive (Raptors), and competitive teams into championship contenders (See: Indiana Pacers).

Toronto features four of its five starters with Defensive Win Shares over (2.0), which isn’t extraordinary, but it’s certainly above average. Kyle Lowry’s been the best of the bunch, but still remains risk-reward as a defender. The starting bigs Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas have both been serviceable protecting the rim, with high-energy rebounder Tyler Hansbrough and sweet-shooter Patrick Patterson coming off the bench to spell and provide flexibility for Casey.

When you watch the Raps, they still have their issues in the pick-and-roll, particularly with Valanciunas. He’s agile enough to move, but it’s not uncommon for younger bigs to be too indecisive when in P-n-R like Valanciunas is at times. An offensive post presence seems to have given Toronto fits as well.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how can I be claiming defense as all that important? It’s the NBA dude. Doesn’t by definition having the words ‘defense’ and ‘NBA’ in the same sentence classify as an oxymoron? But in all seriousness, there’s a notion, or stigma, that’s been polluting NBA fans for years: NBA teams don’t play defense.

In today’s NBA, that’s simply not the case. Of course, playoff-level defensive intensity cannot be sustained 82 games a season. But watch the better defensive teams on a given night and rotations, switches, and ball pressure will dismiss any faux-belief of marginal defensive effort. Even for the bad defensive teams in the NBA, it’s not a lack of effort that torches them. It’s the lack of communication, consistent wrinkles in the game plan, and favorable matchups that exposes bad defenses in the NBA on a nightly basis.

Dwane Casey didn’t have to make his team commit to defensive effort, he’s respected and effort was the easy part. What he did was concoct proper techniques that the team has been able to display and responded to. Again, with players who couldn’t exhibit the ability to comprehend Casey’s defensive concepts (a certain seven-foot rebound allergic Italian comes to mind) now gone, Casey’s developed a defense that can conceivably carry the Raptors into the playoffs come April.