Auburn Hills — When the NBA schedule was released, it might have been one of the first dates that made Pistons coach Dwane Casey pause.
Nov. 14. At Toronto.
One can always go home, but in Casey’s case, Toronto isn’t the typical homecoming. It’s more like a bitter divorce, where one spouse blames the other for everything and finds a new mate.
And when the first ex-spouse returns for a visit, there’s a certain awkwardness.
That’s what happened when Raptors president Masai Ujiri fired Casey in May.
Welcome to Casey’s first game back in Toronto against his former team.
“Nobody likes getting fired. If anybody expects you to like who fired you or be happy with that, that’s not realistic,” Casey told The Detroit News on Tuesday. “The fans are some of the best fans in all of sports, whether is soccer, baseball or basketball.
“From that standpoint, there are no hard feelings, but you always have a (figurative) two-by-four on your shoulder for the person who fired you when you were doing well.”
In seven seasons as Raptors head coach, Casey helped turn the franchise around, from an NBA laughingstock to a franchise-record 59 wins last season, with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers turned out to be Casey’s kryptonite, eliminating the Raptors in three straight seasons. That prompted Ujiri to fire Casey and later elevate assistant coach Nick Nurse to head coach
In that, there was an implicit message.
“It is specifically pointing the finger at me — and that’s their prerogative,” Casey said. “They said I was the problem. I know what we did over a seven-year period there and starting from the rebuilding, developing and in the lottery to where they are now.
“They can’t take that away. A lot of people can take credit for all the good and put all the bad on me — and that’s fine.”
It’s clear that Casey, 61, still holds some fury from his time in Toronto, but he’s carrying that over to the Pistons, as he returns to the city where he has his best coaching success. He stresses that his issues are not with the fans or the city, or even with the ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Media reports from the time of his firing indicated there was some friction between Casey and Ujiri, and it seems that every rebuild needs a scapegoat. Right or wrong, Ujiri made the move that he felt needed to be made to improve the Raptors, then coupled it with a blockbuster trade to send DeMar DeRozan, the face of the franchise, to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
With their 12-2 start, the Raptors have validated Ujiri’s move with the NBA’s best record. With that, Casey’s frustrations with Ujiri were clear.
“It’s not the city; it’s not the fans and it’s not the MLSE; it’s the situation,” Casey said. “I’m a big boy. I don’t want to come off like I’m not a big boy. I understand the business; I know we were winning and we did everything they asked us to do.
“They said develop young players, win games, get the defense better and offense better and we did that. at the end of the day, we couldn’t get over the hurdle of beating Cleveland. Boston didn’t and (James) went (to the NBA Finals) eight years straight, so we weren’t the only ones. To me, it’s deeper than not getting the job done. If I was there losing, (I’d understand).”
It’s not that the trip to Toronto will be untenable. Casey isn’t planning on any special dinners or reminiscing through the night with old friends. He wants to make the night about the game and not about the old memories.
“Nostalgia will be seeing friends, ushers, staff and all the people working and media we saw every day for seven years,” he said. “Once the game starts, it’ll be two Eastern Conference teams playing.
“It’s strictly a business trip.”
Business. Never personal.
Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said he’d have some feelings about seeing Casey for the first time since the split and that Casey should receive a standing ovation from Raptors fans in appreciation for all he’d done.
That’s likely, but there’s still the awkwardness of the moment.
Finding his way
In moving to their new home in suburban Detroit, Casey and his wife, Brenda, have had an adjustment. They had to find a new house and a new school for their two children and for Casey, finding his way around a new city has been more difficult than drawing up a last-second inbounds play.
During the season, he tries to limit his time to coaching-related tasks and in the first few months on the job, so he hasn’t ventured out much.
“I know how to get (to the practice facility), to the arena and to the restaurants near where we live,” Casey said. “I’m learning. I normally spend more time here and at home watching film than anywhere else during this time of year.
“I know how to get to the airport. (Brenda) knows the city like the back of her hand.”
For the children, though, it was also a transition. They weren’t in school yet when the family moved to Toronto. This time, there’s much more to consider.
“It’s been only a few months. They’ve made a lot of friends and my daughter is playing on a lot of teams. They’re excited,” he said. “This a great sports city for basketball for young kids, with a lot of great programs. It’s taken a little time but they’re excited and happy and wearing Pistons gear all over the world. It’s all good.”
After his first trip back to Toronto, Casey hopes to say the same about himself.
Pistons at Raptors
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Pistons (6-6) get their first look at the revamped Raptors (12-2), who suffered their second loss of the season, to the Pelicans on Monday, which ended their six-game win streak. Kawhi Leonard is averaging 24 points and 7.7 rebounds.