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(Note: this is a long read. If you're short on time or don't have the patience, read the last five paragraphs since the first half is more background.)
It's June 2013, and the Toronto Raptors have finished their fifth consecutive season of missing the playoffs. The club went an uninspiring 34-48 in Dwane Casey's second season, although their record was an 11-game improvement of the previous season's humiliating 23-59 outcome. There is reason for optimism, however, as the franchise lured away Denver Nuggets' GM Masai Ujiri with a five-year, $15M contract. Three weeks after Ujiri joined the Raptors, he made one of his first moves - the under-the-radar signing of Nick Nurse as an assistant coach.
Nurse's story is, by now, well documented. He was born in Iowa and played at Northern Iowa, where he retired as the university's top 3-point shooter. He took up coaching early on, heading overseas to coach the British Basketball League's Derby Rams at 22-years old. In his one season there, he and his players travelled around the UK by van, and Nurse often found himself at the wheel. He would return to the US, becoming the head coach of Grand View University at just 23 and then moving to the University of South Dakota as an assistant.
The allures of Europe, however, will reel him back to the continent, where he would stay for the next eleven year. Then with the launch of the NBA's D-League, Nurse would return to the US and become the coach of the Iowa Energy, who won a championship and three division titles in his four seasons. For the next two seasons, he coached the Rio Grand Valley Vipers, winning his second G-League title in 2012-13.
On June 22, 2013, Nurse finally made it to the big show, joining Casey's staff as the man responsible for the Raptors' offence. After four seasons of the DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry show, Nurse was thrust into the spotlight, as he was put in charge of orchestrating a significant part of Ujiri's "culture reset" vision. The NBA had become faster and quicker, as the pace of play accelerated. Teams were spreading the floor more and attacking the paint with abandon, as analytics showed the best shots were those taken at the rim or beyond the arc. But with a mid-range demon in DeRozan driving the team's offence for the past four seasons, could the Raptors make a successful and smooth transition to the new NBA?
The Raptors went a franchise-best 59-23 in 2017-18, finishing second in the NBA and first in the Eastern Conference. They averaged 111.7 points per game (4th overall), made 11.8 3-points per game (4th), and took the third-most 3-pointers in the league (33 a game). Their net-rating of 7.8 was second behind Houston. The Raptors had evolved, and this "new" team was well-positioned to change its post-season narrative. Until it did not.
A four-game sweep at the hands of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round led to a second "culture reset". Gone were Dwane Casey, who would be named the 2017-18 Coach of the Year; DeRozan, who transformed his game to be more of a playmaker en route to his fourth All-Star appearance; and third-year pro Jakob Poeltl. In came former NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner Kawhi Leonard and 3-and-D specialist Danny Green. Expectations were raised, as anything short of an NBA Finals appearance would be deemed a failure. Leading this revamped team was Nick Nurse, who at 51-years old would be one of the oldest rookie head coaches in the past decade. The Raptors were betting on literally a coaching journeyman to take them to a place they had yet to experience.
Through the 2018-19's regular season, Nurse constantly altered starting lineups and rotations. Injuries to Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Jonas Valanciunas plus the load management implemented to keep Leonard healthy contributed to the shuffling of the deck chairs. Nurse, too, wanted to experiment, viewing the regular season as a laboratory to determine what lineups worked well as well as to give the players opportunities to play with different guys and in all sorts of situations. He wanted the team to be prepared for the unpredictable in what was a very unpredictable season.
What concerned a lot of pundits and fans, however, was the team's lack of identity, especially offensively. The team didn't appear to have a specific offensive strategy. With Leonard in the lineup, the Raptors played a lot of isolation - or more specifically, give-Leonard-the-rock-and-get-out-of-his-way approach. Without him, the free-flowing, passing-oriented team of the previous season was revealed. These 22 games without Leonard, in which the team went 17-5, saw the Raptors take an "all-for-one-and-one-for-all" approach. But which Raptors team would show up in the playoffs?
In Round One against the Orlando Magic, the Raptors were a well-oiled machine offensively with the Game 1 loss being a hiccup. Round Two versus the Philadelphia 76ers, however, saw the Raptors return to the isolation-oriented style of the 2013-14 to 2016-17 teams. With several players struggling against Philadelphia's length and bulk, Nurse threw out the modern-day NBA offensive playbook and went back to the mid-1990s. He played more big lineups with Leonard at the 2, Pascal Siakam at the 3, Serge Ibaka at the 4, and Marc Gasol at the 5. After trailing 2 games to 1, The Raptors would win three of the final four games to take the series in 7. The adaptability that Nurse preached in the regular season paid off, although with some good fortune on the Raptors' side (i.e., Leonard's four-rim game-winning shot in Game 7).
Nurse would make his mark in a very different and unexpected way in the next two series. With this team down 2 games to none to the Milwaukee Bucks, Nurse opted to put Kawhi Leonard on soon-to-be MVP Giannis Antetokoumpo. This one move changed the entire series. After averaging 27 points on 47.2% shooting, 15.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, Antetokoumpo would only average 20.5 points on 43.5% shooting, 12.5 rebounds, and 5 assists. The Raptors would win in 6 games.
Against the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, Nurse made the adjustment of putting Fred VanVleet earlier in games and to start the second half to guard Stephen Curry, realising that the Wichita State alum was Curry's kryponite. Curry shot only 33.3% from the field and 28% from three with VanVleet as the primary defender. Nurse's greatest (and most eye-popping) move, though, may have been throwing out the junior high school box-and-1 defence in Game 2 to defend a Durant- and Thompson-less Warriors team. He would use this defence again in Games 3 and 6.
The man brought in to transform the Raptors' offence had become a defensive mastermind. A defensive guru if you will. And the Raptors bet on the soon-to-be 52-year old Iowan paid off with an NBA Championship.
The 2018-19 season now presents a different challenge for Nurse and his staff. With Leonard and Green departing, the assumption among the majority of talking heads and fans is that the Raptors are in a transition year. With the contracts of 30+ year old veterans Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka as well as Fred VanVleet set to expire, the Raptors could be facing a rebuild in the near future. The signings of 23-year old Stanley Johnson, 24-year old Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and undrafted free agent Terence Davis also indicate that the team is looking to retool and hoping to hit the lottery with another low-risk, high-reward signing.
Assuming no one is traded, the Raptors should still be a playoff team and battle for a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They'll be a defensively stout team with several young players posed to be on future NBA All-Defence Teams, including Pascal Siakam and Anunoby. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are also noted for the defence, as are the aforementioned four pending UFAs. But it won't creating a defensive identity that will Nurse's challenge - it will be the offence.
Just like when he was first hired six years ago and responsible for overhauling prior to the 2017-18 season, Nurse will have to revamp the team's style of play and find new ways to put points on the board. The club no longer has the benefit of Leonard bailing them out at the end of the shot clock - or the end of games - so a new closer or closers will have to emerge. The expected declines of Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka will place more responsibilities on the young group to create and score.
In Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson, the club acquired two young players with erratic (and that's putting it generously) offensive histories. Finding ways to have them contribute offensively will be at the forefront of Nurse's off-season preparations. Will he utilize Johnson more with the ball in his hands, which he showed some potential with New Orleans a year ago? Will he try to use Hollis-Jefferson in a lot of screen-and-roll situations, as RHJ is an excellent screener? Can Nurse and his staff fix their shots and make them at least respectable from distance? Beyond these two, the club has relatively raw players in Anunoby and Patrick McCaw while Norman Powell is looking to be more consistent on both ends. Davis has an array of talents, yet is unproven. Then there is second-round draft selection Dewan Hernandez, who is the rawest of the seven 25-and-under players the Raptors have signed (including partial contracts) for next season.
The Raptors are betting on Nurse being able to transform at least two - if not more - of them into solid rotation players and maybe even stars, which in turn should keep the Raptors contending for postseason berths for years to come. The challenge before Nurse is a difficult and even daunting one, especially for a team fresh off raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but the Iowan has seen and done it all. He's won at every level and overcome every conceivable roadblock, so no one should count Nurse and the Raptors out. At the very least, no one should be betting against him and the franchise.
We will be competing the chip again this year.
What a fun read! Kudos NN!
Some of Nurse's ex colleagues talked about him actually being better even defensive coach despite the reputation of being really gifted offensive coach. That was mentioned a few times after he was promoted last year, I remembered it for some reason so his maneuvers against the Bucks and GSW were not that surprising to me.
I think he has a really positive effect on the team. Green mentioned a few times that the coaching staff is very fun to play for. Guys do seem to have fun and play together and willingly sacrifice on Raptors, be it with Casey or Nurse. Overally,
IMO, with Leonard and Green leaving, there are a few hidden positives.
One: There's still a ton of veteran leadership. The core group of young guys really went through everything last year. Filling in for injuries and load management, getting in and out of series when needed and of course, winning it all. The young guys also seem mature and really professional. Hopefully that positively impacts the new comers. Together, I think there's a good foundation for great chemistry.
Two: There isn't any pressure in term's validating the franchise or Canada or Toronto or any of that mambo-jumbo. Got the trophy, the golden mark on the jersey, the banner and the rings. So that is all done. Now, the team can focus on playing and having fun, maximizing their potential.
Three: Continuity. Six years of being a really good team, fully established winning culture.
Four: Opportunity - our veterans in Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka have made their dollars and won their championships. Don't think they are after any individual accolades at this point. Ibaka could be looking for new contract but the best way to secure his, IMO, is to be really good, impactful, flexible veteran leader who is a star in his role. With that, I think they'll get behind Siakam and helping him fully ascend as the franchise player. With Siakam and new opportunity for Powell and OG, I'm expecting a lot of growth from them in terms of consistency. OG doesn't have to take on any kind of creator role all of a sudden, he has to play consistent defense, rebound well, shoot with confidence and be active cutter and finisher. Especially in the starting line up, there is a ton of playmaking around him in Lowry, Gasol and Siakam. Similarly with Norm, consistency is knowing his role is the key. He was great against the Bucks in the playoffs once again showing that he really belongs as a high level role player in the NBA. After that, I'm intrigued by McCaw, RHJ and Boucher. Johnson - I'm not sure if he has gotten over himself yet - when he was drafted he proclaimed he is the best player in the draft and often played like he had that approach even though the results are not there. If he can keep a healthy dose of that confidence while adjusting to reality, he'll have a chance to be good but that is never easy.
Five: Clarity - Outside of the unexpected injuries and games missed here and there - there won't be any cloud of load management or free agency worry hanging over the team. The roster is what the roster is, the foundation will be established in camp and with it, a new clear hierarchy on the team. With that, clarity and consistency of roles might help the younger guys perform better and consistently so as well as establish the style of play, on both ends.
There are a lot of questions but a lot of ways those can be answered. IMO, that is good, this team is far from stuck and far from mediocrity. I welcome the challenges and look forward to the growth. Yes, there will be some pain but there is no other way.
In all of that, Nurse seems like a good choice for the job. He is calm despite being supremely engaged. As long as he can benefit from new clarity and less pressure and slowly build and develop and focus more on details as the broad strokes establish, he should be the perfect fit for it. He too will benefit from facing less doubt and pressure after a hectic first season (in both good and bad ways) and winning it all.
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