Four games above .500, with half-a-season to go, Dwane Casey was looking for a buy-in. From everybody.
He could tell the Raptors had a chance to do something special, something nobody had thought possible. Something that would eventually land him his three-year contract extension, which is currently being vetted by lawyers.
But first, he needed everyone on board, Casey recalled Tuesday at his season-ending media availability, alongside president/general manager Masai Ujiri.
“I’ll never forget, I think I told Masai. It was the Washington game right after the all-star break, I had each player sign — and it probably wouldn’t hold up in court — a document committing to the team,” Casey said. “Committing to the process. Leaving their egos at the door.”
Even though the trade deadline was imminent, and even though he had nearly been dealt to the New York Knicks that week, Kyle Lowry wasted no time setting the tone.
“Kyle was the first to jump up and sign it. Everybody, Paulie (Elliott, the assistant travel manager), Kevin (Dipietro, the equipment manager and travel coordinator for the team), the whole travelling party, the trainer, Scott (McCullogh), Alex (McKechnie, director of sports science), everybody signed it.”
Casey had seen a similar document before during his time in Dallas, which culminated in a championship before he was poached by then-Raptors boss Bryan Colangelo. He resurrected the idea, wrote the few lines himself and showed it to the team. Everybody had their own number and line to sign on the page.
“ ‘I’m all in’ was the head of the document — and they were. Each player dedicated themselves, gave themselves to the season, and also, as far as I’m concerned, to the future, because this year was just a start of what we want to grow and develop with Masai as our leader,” Casey said.
“Everybody humped up and didn’t hesitate and the next night we went out and beat Washington in Washington ... I’m going to always search for different ideas, different ways to motivate the players whether it’s collectively or individually to make guys click.”
Casey carried the document with him in his briefcase for the rest of the season.
“I’m probably going to frame it,” said the man who has been coaching in some capacity since 1979.
Casey will not rest on the laurels of his well-deserved new contract. He said on Tuesday he’ll watch tape of all of the team’s bad losses and will encourage his staff, which he commended, to seek out ways to improve this summer.
He could have signed an extension back in March when the team was scuffling a bit, in danger of losing the Atlantic Division lead to Brooklyn, but he chose to wait.
He had been telling Lowry to ignore all of the rumours, ignore all thoughts of his free agency and said it would have been “disingenuous” to sort out his future while he preached patience to the rest of the team. He used that same word again later when asked if he had considered testing the waters and seeing what a free-agent coach coming off of a franchise-record 48 wins might command.
“No, I didn’t. I knew this was where (he belonged). I appreciate Masai giving me the opportunity, the organization giving me the opportunity to be here this year and it would be so disingenuous to even go out and put your foot in the market and think that was a possibility so I didn’t even give it a second thought. My heart is here, my mind is here. I’m committed to this organization and to these players going forward.”
Casey is as honest and genuine a man there is in professional basketball. Ujiri promised to give him and his team a shot this year, a chance to prove themselves and, when they did, and Ujiri fulfilled his end of the bargain as well, there was no hesitation by Casey to thank him for it.
With these two accomplished and respected men at the helm, the Raptors are in the best shape they have been in years. Perhaps ever.
There is work to be done, free agents to be retained, perhaps one or two to be added and players to be drafted and developed. But the nucleus is in place, on and off of the court.
A year ago, the Raptors’ future looked rather bleak. Today, the franchise sits on the cusp of better things.
“Our upside is there. And Masai talked about Brooklyn. They’re built for right today. Tomorrow’s not promised with them,” Casey said.
“They have a lot of Hall of Famers, but looking out on the floor the other night, you can see how much growth can be had by our guys with a strong summer, hard coaching.
“We’re not finished. We expect to get to the playoffs, minimum. That’s our goal going into (next) season ... Now we’ve got to get better as individuals, myself, the coaching staff, players. Whether it’s close-game situations, defensively, offensively, just whatever it is, we have to get better and bring something else back with this group next year to move on.”