While the 2018-19 NBA season three weeks away, it’s important to remember there are more changes in Raptorland than DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl leaving, and gaining Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Greg Monroe.
Head Coach Dwane Casey was fired after falling to the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third season in a row. During Casey’s tenure, the team had many accomplishments, including a first eastern conference finals appearance in 2016 and securing the number one seed in the east last season. Casey’s success helped him find a new coaching position quickly with the Detroit Pistons this upcoming season.
Offensive-minded Assistant Coach Nick Nurse was upgraded to Head Coach of the Raptors.
Assistant Coach and defensive-minded Rex Kalamian left, heading back to Los Angeles to work alongside Doc Rivers with the Clippers.
Kalamian and Raptors All-Star Demar DeRozan had built a solid relationship during their time up north, and they still keep in contact despite being with other organizations. Upon hearing about the trade, Kalamian said he was a little surprised and sad for DeRozan because he knew how much he put into the team, and how much he loved the city. “I saw DeMar a few days ago here in Los Angeles, and he’s doing great,” Kalamian said of DeRozan, a few weeks before the start of the preseason. “I think he’s excited about his opportunity now. The shock has worn off [of being traded]”.
But in July when changes were being made, there was speculation reported by Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk that there had been tension and drama between the coaching staff since the playoffs.
The Toronto Star reported that Nurse, who was the brains behind the offense for the Raptors, was not heard as much compared to the defensive-minded team of Casey and Kalamian.
Kalamian would say that that wasn’t the case. “I think we all had an equal amount of input on both sides to the game,” he said. “To say that someone had more impact than somebody else – I don’t really buy into that because we [Raptors] won 59 games, we were fourth in the NBA in defense, second in offense. We had the best home record in the NBA, and we were first in the east.”
The Raptors remained amongst top 3 teams in the Eastern Conference during the 3 seasons under Casey, Kalamian, and Nurse.
During playoffs, the team felt good coming out of the Washington series. But the second round was a sweep at the hands of LeBron James.
“I would say that everybody from the coaches to players, we were all very disappointed in the outcome and how we performed,” Kalamian reflected. “If I could do it over myself, would I make changes? Absolutely.”
Game one against the Cavaliers at home should have been Toronto’s. They were able to guard James well as he was held to 12/30 of his shots that night. But the Raptors couldn’t make shots. Every fan remembers the last 11 shots of the fourth quarter bouncing around and off the rim.
During game two, the Raptors were up nine points at halftime. Coming back to the game, James had a monster second half.
“We tried to double team him a bit, but he’s such a good passer and he’s so smart, so the double teams weren’t good against him.”
Despite any records stating otherwise, the communication was healthy between the coaching staff during the playoffs, and especially during the Cleveland series.
“A series can go anywhere from EIGHT days to TWO weeks long,” Kalamian said. “Within those periods, there are a lot of meetings and a lot of opportunities [to be heard].”
“If I had a game plan and Coach Casey wanted to change something or discuss something, he would. Or if Nick Nurse had an opinion on something we would discuss it and I think that’s what you do in any healthy situation. It’s not just one person’s voice – it’s multiple people making the decision.”
Nurse reiterated this during the Raptors Media Day, by saying this upcoming season’s offense and defense is set up to win in “freedom moments.” Give and take, they will need to share ideas for a common goal.
The level of respect and communication between the coaching staff remains the same for each individual’s new journey.
Kalamian worked with Casey in Minnesota before working for him here in Toronto. “Not only is he [Casey] a good coach; he’s a good person,” Kalamian said proudly of Casey. “My relationship with him won’t change.”
Kalamian took the position as Doc Rivers’ assistant coach with the Clippers a day before Masai Uriji announced that Nick Nurse was chosen to be the head coach. “Nick said congratulations. We were tight for the past three years,” Kalamian recalled. “We’ve been co-workers, friends, bounced a lot of ideas off of each other offensively and defensively because we’ve both been in basketball for such a long time. I think we relied on each other for a lot of input both ways.”
Kalamian congratulated Nurse when the news was announced the next day. “I think he’s going to do an excellent job. They’re built now offensively for what he [Nurse] would like to do. They were a good defensive team already and adding Kawhi and [Danny] Green to the mix means they will be a top three defensive team.”
So, is there truly bad blood between the coaching staff?
“Not on my end!” Kalamian said. “Everyone came out successful in my opinion. Dwane got a good job with a team that has a lot of talent in Detroit. Nick is going to stay there and I get to work for a tremendous coach in Doc Rivers. That’s what they say when you win, everyone prospers.”
Despite all the negativity this team has faced in the past, the numbers speak volumes about what the Raptors team were able to accomplish under Casey, Kalamian, and Nurse together.
Kalamian says the players deserve all the credit for the way they were able to change and adjust. He predicts the Raptors will be a top two team in the east this upcoming season.