The NBA’s Toronto Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey on Friday, just two days after his peers voted him the league’s Coach of the Year.
Casey’s ouster also came four days after the Raptors were swept out of the NBA playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight season.
The postseason result was a disappointment given that Toronto finished the regular season at 59-23, the second-best record in the league behind the Houston Rockets.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Ujiri said. “In terms of collaboration, I don’t think I’ll work with a better person. Maybe my dad. This guy is phenomenal. A listener, a learner, a performer and a real person.”
Ujiri denied reports that Casey had precipitated his firing by seeking a contract extension. Casey had one year remaining on the three-year, $18 million deal he received in June 2016.
It was reportedly the first time Ujiri fired a coach in more than a decade as an NBA executive.
“Nothing in particular that coach Casey did wrong, but I think it was time for this to happen,” he said.
Casey, 61, posted a 320-238 record in seven seasons with Toronto and is the franchise’s winningest coach. The Raptors entered the league in 1995.
He previously coached the Minnesota Timberwolves and was an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks and Seattle SuperSonics.
As a college player, Casey was a member of Kentucky’s 1978 national championship team.
Despite the firing, Ujiri said Casey deserved the Coach of the Year award. The team’s all-star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen, also spoke highly of Casey.
Casey is “one of the best coaches out there,” Lowry said.
“We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he let me be me,” Lowry told ESPN. “He allowed me to go out and express myself as a player, and both DeMar and I ended up becoming four-time All-Stars and leaders here. He was huge for my growth as a man and an NBA player.
But Lowry was still dejected by the team’s playoff performance, calling it a “wasted year” after a third straight elimination by the Cavs.
“We felt like we could possibly make the NBA Finals,” Lowry said. “That was our goal.”
Under Casey, the Raptors won four Atlantic Division titles and advanced to the playoffs in five consecutive seasons. But Toronto couldn’t get past LeBron James and the Cavs.
But Casey said Wednesday that “the gap is closing” between the two Eastern Conference powers.
“A lot of folks have run up against Cleveland in the last few years and had the same challenge and it went down the same way,” he said. “That’s the mountain this organization has to climb.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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