When Masai Ujiri left the Denver Nuggets to take over basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors, many saw coach Dwane Casey's departure at the end of the season as a done deal.
Then Casey took a team that appeared to be rebuilding and steered it up the Eastern Conference ladder. He's helped the Raptors navigate a major midseason trade while presiding over DeMar DeRozan's development from a one-dimensional offensive threat into a multifaceted centerpiece. Casey is also establishing the defensive mindset he's been looking for since he took the reins in 2011.
With the Raptors (35-26) in third place in the East and improving as the playoffs approach, Casey isn't just making a strong case for a contract extension. He's getting mentioned as a candidate for coach of the year. Casey just shakes his head at the possibilities.
"I promise you, I'm not worried about (my) job. I'm not worried about coach of the year. None of those individual honors," Casey said. "It's about the team. I preach that and I really mean that. I've been in this too long to get caught up in that. Next contract, I've never worried about a next job. That's the least of my worries."
Casey has harped on his players to become more defensive minded, but he's also empowered them. The result is a team that is nine games over .500 for the first time since 2006-07.
"He's a great coach," veteran Chuck Hayes said. "He wants our feedback. He commands the locker room, he commands the bench, he commands the huddle. But sometimes he asks for our feedback on what's comfortable for us and how we can get the job done."
Here are five other things to watch in the league this week:
NOAH'S MVP PUSH: LeBron James and Kevin Durant might have some company in the MVP race. With each gutty, savvy, tremendously well-rounded performance, Chicago's Joakim Noah is shouldering his way into the conversation. Noah's latest gem came against James' Heat on Sunday, when he had 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in the Bulls' victory.
GREEN LIGHT: Gerald Green looked like a lost puppy while playing for seven teams in his first seven seasons. In his first year in Phoenix, he's averaging a career-high 15.6 points per game, including 41 in a win over Oklahoma City on Thursday.
SPURS ON TOP: The Spurs beat the Magic on Sunday for their sixth straight victory, which put them at 46-16 for the season. That's right, the best record in the NBA. And they've done it just as they always have, quietly. No one looks more ready for the playoffs right now.
ROCKETS AT HEAT: Houston has been on fire, winning 14 of 16 games to surge to third in the Western Conference. With James Harden peaking offensively and Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley setting the tone on defense, the Rockets will roll into Miami on Sunday for a showdown with the champs.
TRAIL BLAZERS AT GRIZZLIES: Two contrasting styles meet when the run-and-shoot Blazers enter the Grindhouse on Tuesday. Memphis has overcome a poor start to push back into the crowded playoff picture in the West, so every home game is important.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: LeBron James, Miami Heat: 61 points, 22-33 FG, 8-10 3-pointers, seven rebounds, five assists vs. Charlotte. King James put up a career high for points against one of the best defensive teams in the league, putting everyone on notice that the MVP race isn't over yet.
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