In 20 years of Toronto Raptors history they have had a total of 8 head coaches. So, it is clear that being the head coach for this franchise has never been looked upon as a long-term gig. Most of these coaches came from the ranks of being an assistant coach, and many have returned there after their run in Toronto. Of those 8 coaches, only a select few have had a truly positive impact on the team.
Let’s take a look at the Raptors head coaches:
Brendan Malone (21-61)
Brendan Malone wasn’t around for long, but he was certainly memorable because he was the first head coach in Toronto Raptors history. Malone was a headstrong, defensive minded coach who did everything he could to make the expansion Raptors play a respectable brand of basketball. In the end, that may have been his downfall.
Malone was hired after being the lead assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons during the “Bad Boy” era. He was the assistant for both of their NBA Championship teams and was widely respected for being the brains behind some of the best defensive strategies against Michael Jordan.
In Toronto, he tried to win games with an expansion team by playing veterans over the rookies to get it done. He even got into a shouting match with president Isiah Thomas before a regular season game over playing time for younger players. These “philosophical differences” were the reason for his tenure with the club coming to a quick end.
Some of the highlights from that first season were the first ever win against the New Jersey Nets and a huge upset win over the Chicago Bulls who went on to win 72 games that year,
Malone has not been out of work since leaving the Raptors. He’s been a lead assistant in Indiana, New York, Sacramento and Detroit. He’s been a favourite of Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy following him from Orlando to his current position in Detroit.
Malone remains a widely respected coach, but one who is clearly better suited to his role as assistant.
Darrell Walker (41-90)
Darrell Walker replaced the fired Brendan Malone and lasted for a year and a half as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors. He previously served as an assistant under Malone and played professionally with the Pistons during the time Raptors then president Isiah Thomas played.
Walker was a well-respected NBA player, but he just couldn’t get it done as Raptors coach. He focused a lot on developing the young players on the Raptors team, but became a victim of circumstance as team president, and good friend, Isiah Thomas left the Raptors in a failed bid to purchase the team and Walker wasn’t far behind.
Walker was replaced by assistant Butch Carter and the team, under new GM Glen Grunwald, traded Damon Stoudamire, thus beginning a new era in Toronto basketball.
Butch Carter (73-92)
Butch Carter was quite possibly the best coach in Raptor history and definitely one of the best coaches out there not to have a job. He got a lot out of the younger players on the team, most notably Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and led the team to its first playoff berth against the New York Knicks, where they were swept in three games.
Butch led the team to an impressive record in the lockout shortened season and then came back the following season to took the team to the playoffs. Had he not screwed up in the media he would have stayed on longer and there is no telling what could he could have accomplished.
Coach Carter got results on the hardwood, but lost huge points in the court of public opinion. First he called out Indiana Coach Bobby Knight for making racist remarks, which drew the ire of GM Glen Grunwald (an Indiana alum). Then he got into a verbal spat with former player Marcus Camby and even went so far as to file a lawsuit against the former Raptor. Then in the final career death-blow Carter attempted to “re-gig” the management of the organization and take on the title of GM. This last move, while perhaps misunderstood, was the eventual reason for his termination.
It was unfortunate, because for all that he lacked in the PR department, he was one hell of a coach and definitely raised the level of play for the franchise. He led the team to a 68-64 record over his tenure, but more importantly the team gained a reputation as a young team on the rise.
His departure was followed by the departure of Tracy McGrady and the franchise was forced to adjust.
The coaches that followed him may have won more games, but Butch was a coach with so much talent and ability. There’s no telling what he could have done had he stuck around and it is a shame that his outspoken nature prevented him from coaching again.
Currently he is not coaching, but might just be one of the best things about the FAN590 right now.
Lenny Wilkens (113-133)
After a playoff berth and tough first round exit, the Raptors organization aimed to get better. After losing T-Mac to the Magic in free agency, GM Glen Grunwald decided to swing for the fences anyway. He landed Hall-of-Famer Lenny Wilkens as the new Raptors head coach. Wilkens came in as the winningest coach in NBA history (later passed by Don Nelson) and led the team to unprecedented success.
He took the team back to the playoffs and this time was able to lead the team passed the Knicks. The Raptors came within a Vince Carter three-point shot of making the Conference Finals. Wilkens would lead them there two more times, but never got past the first round again.
His old school style suited the Raptors in his first couple of seasons, but didn’t win many fans when the Raptors started to lose. Injuries to Vince Carter hurt the teams chances and as they kept losing Wilkens slowly faded away. During this time he also became the losingest coach in the NBA.
The Wilkens era was inconsistent from year to year and would ultimately lead the franchise into its darkest period ever.
Kevin O’neill (33-49)
The Kevin O’Neill era was another short and strange one for the dinos. He was another highly regarded assistant who just didn’t get the job done as the head coach, though it probably wasn’t his fault. The Raptors personnel was a mess at the time, there were key injuries to Alvin Williams and Vince Carter and mid-season trades didn’t create the impact needed to get the team back into the playoffs. As a result O’Neill was fired at the end of the 2003-04 season.
Like Butch Carter, O’neill was very outspoken and it may have been his candid comments about the Raptor organization that ultimately cost him his job. His disparaging comments about the winning attitude in Toronto and the lack of initiative in the front office was a definite nail in his coffin.
His defensive approach never seemed to suit the team, though they did have a vastly improved defensive team during his tenure. He couldn’t get the team to score without Vince. Even after the Jalen Rose trade.
He went on to fairly successful runs as an assistant in Indiana and Memphis and then moved into the college ranks as a head coach for Arizona and USC.
Sam Mitchell (156 – 189)
With Sam Mitchell it was the best of times and the worst of times. He coached some pretty terrible Raptor teams when he first came aboard though the blame there was pointed squarely at GM Rob Babcock who made questionable decision after questionable decision and gave Mitchell a pretty terrible roster to work with.
Bryan Colangelo came in and retained Mitchell even though it seemed like Colangelo would’ve preferred to hire his own guy.
The Raptors won their first Atlantic division championship in 2006 under Mitchell’s leadership and returned to the playoffs the following year. Neither year produced a playoff series win and the following year with the team struggling Mitchell was let go in favour of long-time Raptors assistant Jay Triano.
Many believed at the time of Mitchell’s firing that Colangelo was looking for someone to do what he was told. That just wasn’t what Sam Mitchell was about. Sam wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion or telling you how he thought things should be done. Triano was a guy that Colangelo could ask to come in an do what was asked of him.
The Mitchell era will be remembered as one of excitement, but ultimately failure as the team could not find a way to build a team around Chris Bosh.
Mitchell has gone on to become a wonderful commentator on the sport. He was one while he was playing and while he was coaching, but his role as commentator after his playing and coaching days was as natural a fit as there has ever been.
Currently he is back coaching as an assistant with Minnesota where he started his career as a player.
Jay Triano ( 87 – 142)
Jay Triano was the first ever Canadian head coach in the NBA. He served as an assistant under Lenny Wilkens, Kevin O’Neill and Sam Mitchell and took over for Mitchell when he was fired during the 2007-08 season. Triano stayed on for another two seasons leading the team ever so close to the playoffs, but never actually getting them there.
Triano was plagued by an inability to successfully create a winning team with Chris Bosh. Many players were brought in to help including Jermaine O’Neal, Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic, but each experiment ended with the same disappointing result.
Triano was eventually fired and replaced in the off-season by Dwane Casey.
At times the raps looked solid under Triano, and they certainly had the talent to succeed, but the team could not find a way to make things work with Bosh as the centrepiece and the constant roster changes made it difficult to develop any kind of chemistry.
Triano would go on to become head coach of the Canadian National team for a second time after briefly serving as an assistant with USA basketball and is currently an assistant in Portland, a role he seems better suited too.
It’s unfortunate the only ever Canadian coach didn’t have better success coaching the only NBA team in Canada.
Dwane Casey (140 – 142)
Casey came aboard during the 2011-12 season after an impressive championship run as an assistant in Dallas. He was credited with designing a defense that brought out the best in Dirk Nowitzki and it was hoped he could do the same for Andrea Bargnani in Toronto.
Casey came in preaching defense and used his mantra “Pound the Rock” to inspire consistency in his team. He definitely had his work cut out for him, both because of Bargnani’s lack of defensive ability and the fact that he inherited a rebuilding team with a roster full of question marks. The former Dallas assistant did not quite get the memo that the team was trying to rebuild and like other Raptor coaches before him, went about winning as many games as he could leading the team to a better than expected record and much lower draft choice than anticipated.
This was an impressive feat especially considering the lack of obvious talent on the team, but certainly not what the front office wanted. There was a clear lack of communication between Casey and GM Bryan Colangelo.
The Raptors had mixed results in his first two seasons but was retained by Masai Ujiri after Bryan Colangelo was let go. Many thought Casey was a “dead man walking”, but rewarded Ujiri’s faith in him with a strong season in 2013-14 winning the Atlantic Division title and leading the team to strong playoff run.
He is a consistent presence and yet frustrating at the same time for Raptor fans. Casey’s substitution patterns and use of his younger players is sometimes mind-boggling, however he is a calm, rational, steady hand for this young Raptors squad and it’s hard to argue with the results he has produced.
Casey has guided the team to success and has brought out the best in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan .
He is certain to become the all-time leader for wins as a Raptors head coach, which is amazing considering he almost didn’t make it past his second season.
His legacy is still being written.