On a glowing-hot day in the summer of 2012, you could wander into the Hofheinz Pavillion, the arena at the University of Houston where Great Britain was hosting a pre-Olympic warm-up, and bear witness to the origins of the modern-day Raptors for 10 dollars a pop.
It’s where former Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey
first met current Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse was an assistant coach for Great Britain’s national team, back when defensive gamesmanship buttered his bread. Lithuania was invited, bringing Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas
, and by proxy, Casey, into Nurse’s orbit.
Nurse and Casey bonded when Casey audited Great Britain’s practices and scrimmages, run by head coach Chris Finch (now an assistant with the New Orleans Pelicans).
“[Casey] was always a guy that liked to learn from watching other coaches and watching practices and stuff like that,” Nurse tells SB Nation in his office. “That was something he encouraged us to do.
Nurse couldn’t have known then that by the summer of 2015, he’d be on Casey’s coaching staff, accompanying him on a practice excursion to Seattle, to watch Pete Carroll run the Seahawks by day — “the single best practice I’ve ever seen in my life by any sporting team ever,” Nurse recalls — while immersing himself in Casey’s inner life by night.
“You get to go to his home, see his family, see where he hangs out in the summer.”
At dinner, Nurse’s pre-teen son, Noah, a theater junkie, gave the toast.
“He was going on and on, probably quoting some play or film.” Just before wrapping up, he read the room. ‘Oh wait, I forgot,’ Noah added. ‘To the Raptors!’
Nor could Nurse have imagined he’d soon be taking semi-regular trips to Lithuania, conceiving of the summer regimen that turned Valanciunas’ from a prodding post-up big to an occasional offensive nucleus at the top of the key. Or that this summer, Nurse would have to explain to Valanciunas, a career starter, that he wanted him to come off the bench some games.
That last part, nobody dreamed of it even six months ago. The Raptors, at 59-23, had just finished their greatest regular season in history. Casey was a heavy favorite to win Coach of the Year. The modernized offense was humming at No. 2 in the league. The restructured defense was switchable and strong. All Star DeMar DeRozan just had a career year.
“I didn’t think it would be here,” Nurse told reporters at Tuesday’s practice prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons
, the franchise Casey took over as head coach. “I really expected to be a head coach in this league, and I didn’t think it would be here.”
But the Raptors looked listless in a four-game sweep against the Cavs in the second round of the playoffs, always a chess-move behind LeBron Jamesand coach Tyronn Lue. By June 25, when Casey collected his Coach of the Year award, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri had shown him the door.
Ujiri went unnamed in Casey’s acceptance speech. So did Nurse, who was named his replacement 11 days earlier, flipping from understudy to adversary. Nurse has been mum on their communication since, considering it private. Casey told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, “I think he texted me once I got the job here, but haven’t talked to him or spoke to him since then.”
Despite the fact that the Raptors also swapped DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, Casey felt the implicit message of the shake-up was about him. “[It was] specifically pointing the finger at me — and that’s their prerogative,” Casey told Rod Beard of the Detroit News. “They said I was the problem. I know what we did over a seven-year period there and starting from the rebuilding, developing and in the lottery to where they are now.”
“They can’t take that away,” he added. “A lot of people can take credit for all the good and put all the bad on me — and that’s fine.”
It’s true. While the Nick Nurse-era has spawned its own intricacies — looser, more collaborative practices
, and an open floor with one of Valanciunas or Serge Ibaka
coming off the bench nightly — Casey was the one who built the foundation with which the Raptors have glided to a 12-2 record.
He landed soft, inking a 5-year, $35 million with the Pistons, but all he has to do is peer over a bridge to see the spoils up North and the border that divides them from him.
“It’s the hardest thing to do in this league, to take a team from irrelevant to relevant, or from obscurity to big time relevancy,” Nurse says. “And he deserves a lot of credit.”
April 27, 2013 was a career-changing day in Nurse’s pro coaching life. He was the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets
’ D-League affiliate. On a damp, hazy morning in Santa Cruz, Calif., Nurse was sitting at breakfast with his staff, conspiring to steal a road victory in Game 1 of the Finals against the Santa Cruz Warriors
, coached by current Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren.
That’s when Casey’s name flashed on Nurse’s phone. “Win the championship,” Casey said. “And then I’ll have you come up to Toronto to talk.”
Maybe it was the morning fog. Probably it was game ahead, which the Vipers won en route to a ring. But it took Nurse a few days to realize he was going to be interviewing for an NBA assistant coaching job. He was merely happy to be recognized.
“When you’re in the D-League and you ever hear from an NBA coach, it’s always an uplifting moment. A lot of times, you’re down there, people don’t really know you exist,” Nurse says.
Casey was willing to pluck him away from hinterlands of basketball, from jammed 22-seaters and cheap airfare and eery half-empty arenas.
Nurse didn’t secure the gig until just before summer league, but in the intervening months, he and Casey hit it off.
“We were watching the playoffs,” Nurse says. “Talking about the games all the way through. We were developing a relationship.”
They were both basketball lifers, dogged in their refusal to do anything but coach, with the air miles to show for it.
At 23, Grand View University in Iowa made Nurse the youngest head basketball coach in the country. He spent the next 20 years picking up acronyms and experience, as an assistant in the NCAA and United States Basketball League, and a head coach in the British Basketball League, the Polish Basketball League and the D-League. By the time Casey gave him a shot, Nurse accumulated two decades worth of head coaching experience.
In 1989, his 10th year as an NCAA assistant, Casey was the subject of an NCAA investigation that banned him from coaching for five years and sent him looking for a job in Japan. He won the defamation suit and the ban was lifted within a year, but perception haunted him. He spent five years bouncing back and forth from Japan to the NBA’s minor league, until George Karl hired him as an assistant with the SuperSonics. He spent 11 years there until getting his first head coaching gig in the NBA.
“I think we’ve both got a certain degrees of toughness because of that same scenario,” Nurse says. “It’s been kind of a long fight for both of us in a lot of scenarios and I think we coach our teams that way, with a certain level of toughness and discipline and preparation.”
That’s true. Call Casey what you want: stubborn, old-fashioned. Say his teams underperformed in the postseason. Pin some of that on his lack of in-game adjustments, for good measure. But this is a guy who had a reputation for watching more game tape than his assistants. The Raptors improved every year on his pillars of defensive tenacity and player development and never looked back.
Well, until they did.
In an office lined with books and posters of jazz musicians, Nurse sits silently in the dark — his way of fending off unnecessary stimulation — pondering the differences between him and Casey.
“Coaching philosophy-wise…” he pauses and turns to the side, his wrinkled eyebrows lining eyes that peer down thick-framed glasses.
He wraps his hand on his closed MacBook a couple of times. Nurse comes off as a terminal thinker. When media members ask him a question he hasn’t pondered before, he’ll often turn his gaze to the ceiling and bob his head back and forth. The gears are constantly grinding.
“I don’t know. I can’t really think of what the differences are,” he says, playing into an obvious question: Why fire Casey and hire Nurse, an assistant who is presumably similar to him?
But they are different, right? Casey was a merchant of order. Nurse seems to embrace chaos.
“I wouldn’t phrase it that way either. I embrace structure, right? But I do believe in freedom of action and freedom of choice a little bit. But I’m not comparing that, that [Casey] didn’t either.”
There is truth in what Nurse is saying. Casey proved adaptable when Ujiri called for a “culture reset” last summer. The defensive architect shifted his focus to offense. Summer scrimmages featured a four-point line. Casey wrangled two stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, into sharing the ball and economizing their shot selection. He mandated 30 triples per game. He grinned and bore it when they clanked off the rim for weeks. He held up his end of the bargain.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Maybe with Leonard and Green, two shooters replacing two non-shooters in DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, Casey’s sensibilities would have been enough. With Poeltl and Lucas Nogeiura no longer causing a log-jam at center, maybe he would have moved Valanciunas to the bench and elected to play more small-ball.
Maybe Casey would have changed the starting lineup, but he certainly wouldn’t have changed it nearly every game on the basis of matchups, like Nurse has. Casey settled into three main lineups last year: the starters, the bench mob, and the closing lineup, which featured Fred VanVleet in place of O.G. Anunoby, with an occasional mix-and-match of big men. He believes in continuity. Nurse wants the Raptors lineups to be so interchangeable by the end of the year that he’s trying to eradicate the word “unit” from his vocabulary.
In Monday’s loss against the Pelicans, Nurse tried to go super-small in the fourth quarter, playing Pascal Siakam and Anunoby at the big man slots. It didn’t work out — sometimes Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore are just going to hit threes in your faces — but he was willing to try it, and it could be an option down the line. These are little things, but little things, increment by increment, can become big things in the flash of an eye.
“Our differences probably come in our backgrounds,” Nurse says. “I coached in every little league— little league, literally.” He laughs. “You can think of in the world, and was forced into having to try a lot of things.”
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey intended for the Vipers to be a hotbed of innovation, and Nurse answered the call. After watching Russia win a national hockey championship, he fiddled around with hockey substitutions, offsetting his roster’s talent imbalance by asking his players to go all-out for a three or four-minute increments at a time and promising quick breaks. Then, there’s the fly-by closeout. Instead of contesting 3-point shots, defenders would run by the shooter and sprint to the other end of the floor, with the defensive rebounder ready to make an outlet pass on misses.
“Sometimes experimentation will lead you to things you wouldn’t necessarily see,” Nurse says. “I am still tinkering with lineups, still tinkering with offenses and defenses, and that’s probably just more my personality. It’s more fun for me and it’s more interesting just to see where our potential can go.”
The difference between Casey and Nurse is analogous to the difference between last year’s roster and this years: pieces that were straining to become modern vs. pieces that are naturally disposed to be. Casey was a stabilizing force that imbued work ethic, character, a consistency of purpose onto the Raptors.
Nurse isn’t so much a 180-degree flip as he is a pivot away from Casey. When you’re this close to the rim, sometimes all you need is a different angle.