As the Eastern and Western Conference finals are nearly upon the NBA community, there are more and more teams who have stepped into the 2018 offseason with many questions to answer. One situation — the Toronto Raptors — is eerily similar to something that the Denver Nuggets went through five years ago.
George Karl was just 29 days removed from earning NBA Coach of the Year honors before Josh Kroenke — not Masai Ujiri — gave him the ax. Now, Toronto is now “leaning towards” making a coaching change, according to Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports, despite accomplishments and accolades that Dwane Casey possesses.
The similarities between the two situations are almost comical.
George Karl was fired after a franchise-best 57-win season. Casey just led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-win season.
George Karl won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award the year he was fired. Casey is in the running for the Coach of the Year award and just won the NBA coaches’ pick for Coach of the Year, as Marc Stein reported, which is different than the normal Coach of the Year award because it is instead voted on only by current NBA head coaches.
George Karl showed sustained high-level regular season success with eight-consecutive years of making the playoffs and Denver won at least 50 games in five of the final six years that Karl coached the team — the only outlier being during the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season. Casey has led the Raptors to five-straight playoff appearances and won at least 48 games in each of those years.
Then, Karl was fired most notably for his lack of postseason success. In Karl’s eight years as the head coach of the Nuggets, Denver made the playoffs all eight years but was only able to get out of the first round of the playoff on one singular occasion. After four consecutive years of first-round exits from the playoffs, the Nuggets’ ownership group grew restless of being unable to compete for a title regardless of roster construction and elected to part ways with Karl ahead of time as opposed to waiting for things to sour.
Now, with the report that Toronto is now “leaning towards” making a coaching change, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to Karl’s exit from Denver in 2013 and the potential dismissal of Casey in Toronto in the coming weeks. Toronto is coming off of three-straight years of being eliminated by LeBron James and the roster may have reached its peak. Even after a complete philosophical overhaul with the sole intention of being able to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the Eastern Conference, James — with arguably his weakest supporting cast in the past three seasons — waltzed to a four-game sweep of the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Toronto team. That complete collapse has left the Raptor’s front office asking themselves what is next.
When Denver decided to part with Karl after losing Ujiri to the Raptors, it signified an immediate change. While ‘rebuilding’ was not the token term thrown around, after five years of missing the playoffs, developing young players, rebuilding the fan base, and losing many more games than anyone is comfortable with, Denver had to get through the strains of a rebuild to put themselves back in position to get into the playoffs once again. Even now, they have no certainty that this team will be able to get them what they want — a deep playoff run.
Now, Ujiri and the Raptors face a similar decision. Do you try to cut your losses early to get ahead of a potential rebuild by parting with the coach that led the team through its best three years in franchise history? Or do you let fate run its course with the core that has won tons of regular season games? That answer is not nearly as easy as commenters on the internet will make it seem.
While there are many similarities between Karl’s and Casey’s situations, there is an elephant in the room that separates the two entirely. While Casey is well-respected by his team, front office, and ownership group, Karl was known to feud with his players; especially his most talented. That is a massive discrepancy in the two situations and should be treated as such.
The Nuggets represent more of a guideline for the Raptors, and no one is more in-tune with that process than Ujiri. Denver had to sustain many years of losing basketball as fans consistently wondered what could have been if Karl was just given the extension he wanted and he continued to coach the team. Luckily, Denver acquired young players through the draft on their way back to relevance, but would have never arrived so quickly without the randomness of acquiring the Serbian sensation Nikola Jokic in the second round — and it still took four years for Denver to secure a winning record.
The Raptors still have plenty of talent on the roster, players who love the city and organization, and a coach who has grown with his players. There is still plenty to be excited about and it has been less than 12 months still the complete evolution of the Raptors offense. Arguments can be made that there is still untapped potential.
Regardless, while there are merits to either firing or keeping Casey, let the path the Nuggets have already taken serve as a guideline — a warning, if you will — as to what could be next for Toronto Raptor basketball.