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Why Toronto should be careful about blowing up the Raptors, the sentimental choice in the West, and Gregg Popovich’s role in Milwaukee

After a team-record 59 wins in the regular season and a number 1 ranking in the Eastern conference playoffs, the Raptors put up a hard fight in two games of their second-round loss to Cleveland - and surrendered in the other two. Where do they go from here?

They could replace the coach. How unfair would this be to Dwane Casey? In seven seasons with Toronto he transformed DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry into an All-Star backcourt while elevating a young franchise that had known very little success in the previous 16 years.

Casey was named Coach of the Year in a vote by his fellow NBA coaches Wednesday because he overhauled the Raptors’ style. Instead of isolating DeRozan and Lowry to attack off the dribble, they played faster and shared the ball while developing their promising young bench. But those new efforts resulted in the same old result in the playoffs – another beating by LeBron’s Cavaliers, who have now won 10 straight postseason games against Toronto.

If Casey approaches next season with another redesign of their system – a necessity following their recent collapse – will his players believe in the strategy? Or will the Raptors need a new voice?

Fans in Toronto who are hoping for a change in coaches should be careful what they wish for. The Raptors job is going to be relatively unattractive because there is so little room for improvement. The most appealing opportunities for NBA coaches are with teams that have underperformed. Everyone wants to be the new coach in Milwaukee because the underachieving Bucks can only go up in the standings, and their young star Giannis Antetokounmpo has the potential to win a championship someday. 

The job in Toronto has none of that upside. A new coach is unlikely to show improvement on Casey’s 59 wins, and the Raptors’ stars – Lowry and DeRozan – have proved they can’t beat LeBron in the playoffs. If Casey is fired, then good luck to his replacement.

The Denver Nuggets were in this position five years ago. After winning 57 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs, they fired coach George Karl and replaced him with Brian Shaw, who was charged with installing a new style that could enable the Nuggets to win in the postseason. Shaw went 56-85 and was dismissed within two years. If Toronto is searching for a new coach this summer, many potential hires will wonder if the Raptors have peaked and there is only way for them to go – down. 

Casey’s achievements should be respected. The Raptors are in much better shape now than when he was hired in 2011. It’s true that he has failed to lead his team past Cleveland – but it may also be true that no coach could have steered this roster through LeBron.

Option number 2: They could start over by trading DeRozan. He’s 28 years old, a four-time All-Star and their leading scorer. By moving DeRozan, who has three years left at $83 million, they could try to acquire a new star to pair with Lowry in hope of remaining in contention with a different blend of leadership. 

They could also exchange DeRozan for younger players, which would force the Raptors to slide backward as they launch a slow rebuild. 

It will be hard for Toronto to trade Lowry as a 32-year-old point guard who is owed $64 million over the next two seasons. The Raptors know Lowry’s trade value is low because he received surprisingly little interest from other teams when he was a free agent last summer. Lowry would keep the rebuilding Raptors competitive – he wouldn’t allow them to lose 60 games – which would help their young players to develop good habits and enable them to fulfill their potential more quickly. Even so, this would be a painful option for a team that has won 166 games and four playoff series over the last three years.

The third option: Go all-in and keep trying to win now. The strength of the Raptors is their deep bench. What if they offered several young players in order to trade for a third star to go with DeRozan and Lowry? 

Here’s one example: Package 26-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas (who can become a free agent after next season) with a couple of youngsters for LaMarcus Aldridge, the 32-year-old big man of the Spurs. It’s fair to say that the Raptors would still be playing if the versatile Aldridge had been on this roster. 

If not Aldridge, then maybe the new GM in Detroit will be interested in trading Blake Griffin. Will Marc Gasol be available? How about Kemba Walker, who would create problems defensively alongside Lowry but would provide an explosive (and highly competitive) boost at the other end? 

In the meantime, the Raptors could continue to invest in DeRozan in hope that he will turn the corner as a 3-point shooter. Other stars have learned to shoot from the arc late in their careers – including Jason Kidd and Michael Jordan – and DeRozan showed progress this season. If Raptors president Masai Ujiri can’t trade Lowry for the next two years, and he believes that DeRozan will continue to extend his range during that time, then doesn’t it make sense to keep trying to contend around them instead of tearing it all down? Give it two more years, win a lot of regular-season games along the way – and then rebuild in 2020 if necessary.

Of the three options, this is the best way forward. With the exception of Lowry, the Raptors are a young team. Improve the dynamic by adding a third star – but don’t break up a 59-win team. The assumption is that LeBron has broken Toronto’s spirit. But it’s also possible that the Raptors simply weren’t talented enough, and that the best response is to add more frontline talent.

In other news, the Warriors and Rockets will meet in the Western conference finals. Is this news? We’ve only been waiting all year for this to happen.

The Warriors ought to be favored. The return to health of Steph Curry gives them more weapons. Plus they’re strong defensively and they know how to win.

If you’re an objective fan – let’s say you don’t love either team – then you’ll probably find yourself rooting for Houston. Coach Mike D’Antoni and guard Chris Paul have never reached the NBA Finals, and their Rockets are playing well enough defensively to get there.

You’re going to hear a lot of talk that Warriors v. Rockets is the series that will decide the NBA championship. But it will be a mistake to agree with that argument, especially while LeBron is playing the best basketball of his career. If he succeeds in reaching an eighth straight NBA Finals, the viewing audiences will be enormous – because fans around the world will be wondering if LeBron can win in spite of his team.

Coaching hires. The Suns hired Igor Kokoškov as the first NBA head coach to be born and raised outside North America. Kokoškov, a 46-year-old Serbian, had been an NBA assistant for 18 years. Last summer he coached surprising Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship. Kokoškov’s timing with Phoenix may be good: After eight years in the lottery, the Suns are signaling that they’d like to stop tanking and start winning (or at least try to win).

The Charlotte Hornets hired James Borrego, the 41-year-old former assistant of the Spurs. The Bucks, meanwhile, are in the process of meeting with several other candidates with connections to San Antonio, including Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon, the first woman to interview for a head coaching job in the NBA. And so it will be interesting to learn whether the Bucks reach out to Gregg Popovich for his insights.


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