MINNEAPOLIS — Once the words "coach of the year" reach his ears, Dwane Casey begins shaking his head adamantly.
Thirty-five years in the business have taught him to stay in the moment. Besides, the last NBA coach to earn that distinction is now an ESPN analyst.
"That’s not a good list," the Raptors head man said before his team’s game Sunday at Minnesota. "I’m not into that. I’m just worried about tonight’s game. I promise you, I’m not worried about job, not worried about coach of the year, none of that individual honor; it’s about the team, and I preach that all the time, and I truly mean that.
"I’ve been in this too long to get caught up into that."
Casey became very familiar with the unpredictability of his profession long before leading Toronto to the top of the Atlantic Division this season. After just a year-and-a-half helming the Timberwolves, he was let go in January 2007 by vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale.
The team was 20-20 but in the early stages of a playoff drought that currently stands at 10 years and counting.
Immediately after his firing, Casey said there were no hard feelings. Sunday at the Target Center, following his customary gamut of handshakes and greetings from media and team staffers he’s known since his NBA head coaching debut season here, he said the same thing.
"Even leaving here wasn’t a big issue" said Casey, who began his coaching career as a Kentucky assistant in 1979, "because I knew I was gonna be back in the NBA somewhere, some way."
The former Kentucky team captain was right.
After three years as an assistant — and an NBA Finals win in 2011 — with Dallas, Toronto brought him in to replace Jay Triano heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. The Raptors went a combined 57-91 in Casey’s first two seasons but entered Sunday 34-26 and third in the cushy East standings.
Before trading away Rudy Gay and some auxiliary pieces in exchange for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, Toronto began the season 7-12. Since the deal, it’s gone 27-14.
But the Raptors’ rise goes beyond one early-season transaction, Casey said.
"That’s a little bit simplistic," Casey said when asked if the team’s success boiled down to the Gay trade, "but I think a lot of it is just the chemistry that it has had, I think the defensive buy-in that is kind of hitting right now. The guys that we got in the trade add to the chemistry. It wasn’t about Rudy Gay or what Rudy was doing or not doing when the trade happened; I think it’s just an addition, the right fit of different guys that came in."
Thanks to Toronto’s improved depth and cohesiveness, the Raptors came into Sunday’s contest with the NBA’s No. 4 defense and five players, led by DeMar DeRozan, averaging double figures in scoring.
Casey, meanwhile, has a contract that’s up for renewal whenever the Raptors’ season ends. A favorite for the NBA’s coach of the year award, he has Toronto in prime position for its first postseason berth in six years.
But as the Nuggets’ canning of 2012-13 coach of the year George Karl exhibits, nothing is certain in the world of professional hoops.
That’s no news to Casey, though.
"I think my thing is as long as you’re doing the best you can do, preparing these guys the best I can, give them the right information, try and put them in the right place to be successful, you always gonna be employed in this league," said Casey, whose Timberwolves teams went 53-69. "Believe me, my approach has been the same (as) when we was getting our tails kicked every night, trying to turn things around and build."