Toronto Raptors: Five Greatest Coaches in Franchise History

The Toronto Raptors have been in the NBA since 1995. There have been many great coaches since its inception. This includes coaches like Brendan Malone, the first-ever head coach of the Toronto Raptors. The second-youngest franchise in the NBA along with the Memphis Grizzlies (who started off as the Vancouver Grizzlies), the Raptors, have accomplished a lot including winning the 2019 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

The Raptors franchise has been in the NBA playoffs 11 times in its history. They will be making their 12th NBA playoff appearance in 2020.

Five Greatest Coaches in Toronto Raptors History

5. Lenny Wilkens (2000-03) – Toronto Raptors Playoff Success

Yes, Lenny Wilkens is one of the greatest coaches of all-time. However, keep in mind that this list only counts accolades and success with the Raptors. Wilkens inherited the Toronto Raptors from Butch Carter, who made the NBA playoffs in 2000. The Toronto Raptors were swept in three games by the New York Knicks in 2000.

The Memorable 2000-01 NBA Season and 2001 NBA Playoffs

The most successful season for Wilkens as a Raptors head coach was the 2000-01 NBA season. They were runner-up in the Central Division winning 47 games while losing 35 games. Furthermore, 2001 was the only year in Raptors history that two players started in an NBA All-Star Game.

In the 2001 NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors faced the Knicks again. This time the Raptors won winning the series 3-2. They would then face the Philadelphia 76ers, where Vince Carter missed the shot that could have sent the Raptors to their first-ever NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

This is what Antonio Davis, then an NBA All-Star for the Raptors said about their future according to CBC.ca.

“I think if we continue to work as hard as we’ve been working and go even further in the playoffs, we will turn some heads,” said veteran Antonio Davis.

In the same article, Wilkens was also positive about the Toronto Raptors.

“We have shown that basketball can be big-time here in Toronto and I think everybody has a chance to see that,” Wilkens told reporters a couple of days later.”

The Fall of the Toronto Raptors

Unfortunately, this would be the height of Wilkens’s career with the Toronto Raptors. In the next two years, the Raptors experienced several injuries. However, the Raptors were able to grab the seventh seed in the 2002 NBA playoffs. They lost to the Detroit Pistons in the first round.

4. Butch Carter (1997-00) – Toronto Raptors Makes NBA Playoffs

Butch Carter was the last head coach in the 20th century for the Toronto Raptors. Yes, Wilkens had more playoff success than Carter. However, Butch Carter was responsible for building players like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.

Butch Carter’s Ability to Develop Players

That alone puts him as one of the top head coaches in Raptors’ history. He started off as an assistant coach with the Raptors organization in the 1997-98 NBA season. However, he took over as head coach after Darrell Walker resigned as head coach of the Raptors. They would end up with an abysmal record of 16 wins and 66 losses in the 1997-98 NBA season. Butch Carter’s record as head coach in the 1997-98 NBA season was five wins and 28 losses.

In the shortened 1998-99 NBA season, the Raptors finished with a record of 23 wins and 27 losses. Then they finally broke through in the 1999-00 NBA season. In that season, the Raptors finished with then a franchise-high 45 wins and 37 losses. They would also make the NBA playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Butch Carter established a reputation for developing young players like Vince Carter and McGrady. McGrady went from averaging 7 points in the 1997-98 NBA season to 15.4 points per game in the 1999-00 NBA season. Furthermore, his rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game were higher in the 1999-00 NBA season compared to his 1997-98 NBA season.

In Vince Carter’s 1998-99 NBA rookie season, he averaged 18.3 points per game. In his sophomore 1999-00 NBA season, Carter averaged 25.7 points per game. Furthermore, his assists went up from 3.0 in the 1998-99 NBA season to 3.9 assists per game in the 1999-00 NBA season. In that same period, Carter also improved his rebounds and steals per game.

However, credit should also be given to Raptors management for getting Vince Carter. The trade to get Vince Carter in the 1998 NBA draft was one of the greatest trades in Toronto Raptors history.

The Fall of Butch Carter

However, unfortunately, his rise was short-lived. According to the Associated Press of ESPN, this is what Butch Carter said after losing against the Knicks 2-0 in the NBA playoff series:

“The biggest advantage the Knicks have over us is that their top eight guys are all under contract and focused on winning,” Carter said. “Winning is the only thing they think about. It’s not the case here.”

This did not sit well with his players. This may have been the reason why he was fired in the off-season in 2000 according to ESPN.com.

3. Sam Mitchell (2004-08) – Wins NBA Coach of the Year Award

Sam Mitchell was the head coach of the Raptors for five years. The coach with the second-longest reign with the Raptors, Mitchell deserves a spot on this list. He was part of the rebuild of a team that did not make the NBA playoffs since 2002. In the first two seasons of the Raptors, Mitchell had a winning percentage of .402 and .329 respectively. In both years, the Raptors did not make the NBA playoffs.

Sam Mitchell and Chris Bosh

More importantly, though, all that losing was used for Mitchell to develop Chris Bosh. He was hard on Bosh then the Raptors’ best player. It was needed as the Raptors were struggling to get wins. Bosh was upset in the Raptors locker room after one game holding players accountable. Mitchell did not want anyone interrupting Bosh. This is the reason why:

“No, stay out because, in order to win, I cannot be the policemen in the locker room. I’m the coach. Winning teams police themselves.”

After that event, Bosh said this is what Mitchell told him:

“Sam came to me and said you are the leader of this team now. It’s time.”

The 2006-07 NBA Season was the season where the Raptors took a step up. In that season, the Raptors won 47 wins and lost 35 games. Also in that season, the Raptors won their first-ever Atlantic Division title under the guidance of Mitchell. Lastly, he was named the NBA Coach of the Year in 2007. He was one of only two coaches who won it as part of the Raptors organization.

Sam Mitchell’s Philosophy

This was Mitchell’s philosophy during his time with the Raptors according to Basketball Doc.

“By being unselfish, by being a team guy, being the guy that is willing to go the extra, it’s going to come back to you.”

The 2006-07 Raptors team was unselfish. The two best Toronto Raptors players were drafted in the 2003 NBA draft. Bosh was drafted fourth and T.J. Ford was drafted eighth. Bosh was a perennial NBA All-Star for the Raptors. He made it to the NBA All-Star Game from 2006-10.

However, largely due to a lack of playoff experience, they lost to a veteran New Jersey Nets (now the Brooklyn Nets) team that had Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd, and Carter. The Toronto Raptors lost to the Nets in six games.

The Raptors would make the playoffs under Mitchell’s reign in 2008 but lost to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in five games. This was the last NBA playoff appearance with the Raptors for Mitchell.

2. Dwane Casey (2011-18) – Sustained NBA Playoff Success

The coach who was with the Toronto Raptors for the most years in franchise history. Dwane Casey, a defensive-minded coach came to the Raptors organization at one of its lowest points. The first-year Casey took over the Raptors record was 23 wins and 43 losses.

Growing Pains and Sustained NBA Playoff Success for Dwane Casey

This was the worst record the Raptors had when Casey was in charge. However, the Raptors record improved the subsequent four seasons, making the NBA playoffs and winning the Atlantic Division three times.

This included making the NBA Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2016. Furthermore, since 2016 the Raptors have had two players in each NBA All-Star Game. This included the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Casey played a major role in that. The only other time the Raptors had two NBA All-Stars was in 2001.

In the 2017-18 NBA season, the Raptors had a franchise-record 59 wins in the regular season. The Toronto Raptors also had the best record in the Eastern Conference and second-best record in the NBA.

As a result, Casey made his first-ever NBA All-Star game appearance in 2018 and won another Atlantic Division title (his fourth with the Raptors organization) as a member of the Toronto Raptors. He also became the second coach in Raptors’ history to win the Coach of the Year Award.

Dwane Casey Gets Fired and his Impact on the Toronto Raptors

However, in what is considered one of the most controversial moves in NBA history, Casey was fired by the Toronto Raptors. This was because they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James three times in a row in the playoffs including getting swept in 2017 and 2018.

This is what Lowry said of Casey according to Alec Nathan of Bleacher Report.

“Case is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Lowry told ESPN.com’s, Adrian Wojnarowski. “We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he let me be me. He was huge for my growth as a man and an NBA player.”

1. Nick Nurse (2018-Present) – Wins NBA Championship

Nick Nurse is the current head coach of the Toronto Raptors. He has only been the head coach since 2018 but has accomplished a great deal during his time with Toronto. In the 2018-19 NBA season, the Raptors won the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference Championship, and lastly the NBA Championship.

He was also part of two NBA All-Star Games with the Toronto Raptors. This included once as an assistant coach in 2018 and the other time as the head coach in 2020.

Nick Nurse and his Role in the Toronto Raptors NBA Championship Run

Most notably, Nurse made the right call in the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Nurse had Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. Then in the NBA Finals, Fred VanVleet did his job guarding Stephen Curry according to Scott Cacciola of The New York Times.

As a result, VanVleet got one NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award vote. All the other NBA Finals Most Valuable Players Award votes went to Leonard.

A lot of credit should be given to VanVleet. However, the credit should also be given to Nurse for trusting VanVleet to guard Curry. Would Casey have done the same thing? No one knows.

Nick Nurse and his Impact on the Toronto Raptors Organization

However, what puts Nurse as number one is not just his accomplishment as head coach. It was his role as an assistant from 2013-18. During that time, the Raptors had unprecedented NBA playoff success including making the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

Overview of the Five Best Coaches in Toronto Raptors History

There is no dispute on who are the two best head coaches in Raptors’ franchise history. It was hard to choose between the two. However, after much deliberation, Nurse was given the nod, most notably because he contributed to the team’s success before he became a head coach.

It is important to note that Nurse could win another Atlantic Division banner and also the NBA Coach of the Year Award. Nurse will most likely win his second Atlantic Division title as head coach of the Raptors. Yes, the Boston Celtics currently hold the tiebreaker over the Raptors winning two of three-season games this season.

However, the Raptors are currently 4.5 games ahead of the Celtics. Also, the Raptors have five games left while the Celtics only have four. Do not discount the Celtics, but it will be extremely hard for them to catch up to the Raptors.

Butch Carter and Wilkens played a role in the Raptors becoming an NBA playoff team. Furthermore, Mitchell won the NBA Coach of the Year Award. However, these coaches never took the team to the Eastern Conference Finals or the NBA Finals. This is something only Casey and Nurse has accomplished with the Raptors organization.

It is also important to note though that these head coaches also had talented players. The Toronto Raptors throughout its history has produced many great players including Carter and Lowry. However, it does not take away what these coaches have done in developing players within the Raptors organization.

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