The Last WordKevin O'Neill is a my-way-or-the-highway kind of coach. Whether his way is the right way for the Raptors will be determined by how his players respond.
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
Nobody can say for sure where this ninth edition of the Toronto Raptors is headed, but one thing is certain: Kevin O'Neill has the road map and he will be followed with enthusiasm.
To this point, just a few weeks into his tenure as head coach, O'Neill has been understanding and sensitive to the various personalities under his command. He has been demanding -- but not volcanic -- as the Raptors try to adopt his philosophy based on the premise that NBA success begins with unrelenting defensive intensity.
Whether he remains warm and cuddly depends upon how smooth the transition is. We'll start to get an indication tonight with the arrival of the NBA finalists, the New Jersey Nets, at the Air Canada Centre for the season opener.
"He believes in his system," said Michael Curry, the 10-year-veteran brought in from Detroit by O'Neill. "He has been really good with the guys and has pushed buttons at the right times.
"As the season goes on, he's going to have to do the same things. He has worked us hard and given us time off when we need it, so he has done a great job of managing the players."
But Curry isn't so naive to believe this season is going to be spent holding hands in front of the camp fire, singing Kumbaya.
Conflict is inevitable and, in some cases, healthy. "There's gonna be an explosion," Curry said. "There's gonna be an explosion by the players, too.
"That's just part of being competitive and doing what you have to do to get your point across. You can't do it all the time and (O'Neill) didn't do it all the time in Detroit. Sometimes he had to be hard to convince (the Detroit players) of that system.
"I don't think it's been hard to sell (the Raptors) because these guys are coming off a couple of bad years and a laid-back approach. I think they kind of welcome (O'Neill's intensity)," Curry said.
That's obvious just by gauging the work ethic apparent at the end of practices these days. Under Lenny Wilkens, the Raptors practice facility emptied out faster than a high school at the final bell. Yesterday, more than half the team still was on the floor a half-hour after the workout ended.
For O'Neill, success will be measured not so much in numbers as in how his team responds to challenges.
"Success to me, for our team, would be if we played hard every day; if we improved," O'Neill said. "Obviously everybody wants to get to the playoffs and everybody wants to win in the playoffs, but that can't be our focus.
"Our focus has to be to improve as a team every day."
That improvement begins with attitude. Over the past several years a malaise enveloped this franchise, especially on the court. Preparation was not up to contemporary NBA standards.
Injuries -- and the Raptors had more than their share -- only go so far to explain the drop-off in quality over the past two years. The atmosphere around the team often was less than professional and the coach didn't seem capable of regaining control of his locker room.
Over time, O'Neill's strengths and weaknesses as a head coach will be revealed but one thing is certain: The locker room will be his, come hell or high water. So far, he has been asserting his will -- but subtly.
"He's the same guy he was in Detroit but he probably has been a little more conscious of how he attacks guys," Curry said. "He has been careful with the guys and aware that they're learning a new system.
"The mark of a good coach is to realize what type of person you're dealing with and how you can push their buttons. Players have different kinds of makeup and he understands that."
But in the end, they will play ball O'Neill's way or they won't play here. Once the players buy in to the notion that O'Neill's way is the path to success then all will prosper.
"The style of defence he wants us to play wears on teams," Curry said. "What you begin to realize over a course of weeks and months is that it makes you a better and better basketball team.
"The goal is to get better, the goal is to win. The playoffs are within our reach. But before we get to that, we have to develop our identity out on the court," Curry said.
"We have to be a team that plays hard every night. Even though you don't win all your games, you can play at a certain level every time and that's what we want to do."