Depending on your perception of time’s onward march, it might seem like yesterday that Jose Calderon arrived in Toronto as a spindly, smiley rookie, a wonky jump shot on a 27-win team. The former Raptors point guard is suddenly in his 14th season in the NBA.
“How much longer? I don’t know,” Calderon was saying recently. “I don’t have a number in my head. I’m going to go by my feeling, and by whether they call me or not.”
Talent wins in the NBA, but it’s also a relationship business. And there’s no doubt the Detroit Pistons called the 37-year-old Calderon on July 1, offering him a one-year deal worth $2.4 million U.S., on account of Calderon’s relationship with Dwane Casey. The two were first acquainted here in Toronto, of course. And this past summer Casey — who’ll make what he says will be an “emotional” return to Toronto Wednesday night — was in an odd predicament. Though he was the NBA’s reigning coach of the year, he was also restarting his career after being fired by the Raptors and replaced by former assistant Nick Nurse in the wake of an unprecedented seven-year run of success. You know how it ended, in LeBronto, in another sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, in Masai Ujiri’s change-seeking ire.
So you’ll understand why Casey, as he reset his table in Motown, wanted Calderon around. In an ever-younger league, veteran savvy is rarer and rarer. And so, too, is a player who can occasionally step back and laugh about old times.
Calderon, speaking courtside in Detroit a while back, recalled a training-camp practice in Detroit wherein the Pistons weren’t performing to Casey’s liking. Calderon had flashbacks to Casey’s early days in Toronto, a defensive stickler taking over the league’s worst defence.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, if this happened seven years ago when I was with (Casey), we would still be running right now,’” Calderon said.
Calderon relayed his bit of nostalgia to Casey, who, in a subsequent interview, nodded guiltily at the charge. Sure, a bad moment in practice might still spur the coach to unfurl “a few choice words.” But in the span of the bulk of a decade, players have changed and so must a coach. Eternal punishment runs are out. Compassionate profanity doled out within the science-prescribed practice window is in.
“Those days — the dictatorship days — are gone,” Casey said. “For me, I want all our coaches to grow and be involved. You’ve got to be open to change, or it passes you by.”
That the Raptors felt the need for change at the helm is well-documented. And so, too, is the change’s fallout. Heading into Wednesday, Casey has made it clear he and Nurse haven’t spoken since Casey was fired, never mind that they spent five years sitting next to each other in Toronto. It’s a cold story of silence that Nurse will neither confirm nor deny.
“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with,” Nurse said Tuesday.
If Nurse doesn’t feel the need to explain anything — well, Toronto’s NBA-best record of 12-2 (compared to Detroit’s 6-6) doesn’t call to mind much skepticism. But there’s an upside to the underlying tension between Wednesday’s head coaches. As Nurse pointed out, there’ll be “juice in the arena,” some of which will come from the rousing ovation that’s sure to envelope Casey, the winningest coach in franchise history and still a beloved Toronto figure.
Bad blood or not, Nurse insisted he is “looking forward to seeing (Casey).” And he was wise enough to spend Tuesday unspooling a series of plaudits for the man who brought him into the NBA. He said the qualities he learned from Casey included “professionalism, diligence, the seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind. And probably most importantly is the work ethic.
“(Casey) used to say it to us a lot, that he’d put his work ethic up against anybody’s in the league, and he was right in that. The guy always had our staff prepared and our players prepared, and he taught me all those things.”
Ah, good times.
‘“We had five years together and a lot of success, man. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together working hard,” Nurse said. “(Casey took a team) from the hinterlands to relevance. That may be the hardest thing to do in this league. I’m glad I was a part of it for five years. I learned a lot from the guy and got a lot of respect for the guy, that’s for sure.”
A lot of respect, sure, but disloyalty or discord is almost assumed when an assistant is elevated without an outgoing head coach’s blessing. Nurse, for his part, insists he spent the latter part of last season hearing his name whispered as an impending NBA head coach, but that he was as surprised as anyone that he ended up as Toronto’s.
“I really thought my opportunity was coming … and I didn’t think it would be here,” Nurse said.
Nurse was asked if he’d be disappointed if he and Casey don’t eventually rediscover some semblance of a friendship.
“Listen, my first and foremost concerns are this: that I do this job to the truest of my abilities, that I serve my family first and my players next and do the best job I can,” Nurse said. “Again, listen, I have a lot of respect for the guy. I really like him. That’s all I can say. I don’t really give it much thought. What I focus my time on is getting these guys to play their asses off.”
In other words, it’s a relationship business, sure. But it’s also a cutthroat league, and most of the relationships are built out of convenience and mutual interest. On Tuesday, Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry reminisced about the fruitful evolution of his co-existence with Casey, which was at times burdened by trust issues but also brought both men plenty of success. Lowry smiled.
“I’m still going to try and take his head off — his team’s head off — and win the game,” Lowry said of Casey.
So don’t expect Lowry to be the mender of fences between Nurse and Casey.
“Whatever they have going on, that ain’t my job to get in between it,” Lowry said. “They’re both grown men.”
Calderon, for his part, is aware of the unsentimental nature of the pro sports bottom line. He’s only still hanging on in this league, playing 12 minutes a night, because he evolved. That wonky jump shot — 16 per cent from three-point range as a rookie — morphed into one of the most reliable releases in the game. His 41 per cent career mark from deep ranks 20th all-time.
“I adjusted my game. Dwane adjusts as a coach,” Calderon said. “This is 14 years for me. We’ve seen different kinds of basketball, different kinds of teams, and you’ve got to adapt. You’ve got to control what you can control. Everything happens in this league. You can be an MVP and be traded. You can be coach of the year and be fired, and then hired a few days later. You’ve just got to keep looking forward. If you start thinking ‘Why?’ it’s not the thing to do. You keep looking forward. Be happy. Keep working. Keep enjoying this, because the league doesn’t always make a lot of sense.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk