Nick Nurse
Current position
TitleAssistant coach
TeamToronto Raptors
Biographical details
BornJuly 24, 1967 (age 47)
Carroll, Iowa
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
UNI (NCAA) (assistant)
Derby (BBL) (player-coach)
Grand View (NAIA)
South Dakota (NCAA) (assistant)
Birmingham (BBL)
Oostende (Belgian League)
Manchester (BBL)
London (BBL)
Oklahoma (USBL) (assistant)
Brighton (BBL)
Oklahoma (USBL) (assistant)
Iowa (NBA D-League)
Rio Grande Valley (NBA D-League)
Toronto Raptors (assistant)
Accomplishments and honors
NBA D-League (2011, 2013) NBA D-League Division Champion (2010, 2011, 2013) BBL playoff Championship (1996, 2000)
Quote 0 0
Pretty nice interview. A lot of good details that haven’t been hit on before.

Quote 2 0
So anyway, from that interview I found it interesting that he felt like he was getting a job as a head guy somewhere. That had to play some part in how the decision finally came together, and that makes it a pretty solid decision if they saw Casey not lasting much beyond his final year if at all.

I also liked how he talked about DeMar. He loves him, but he is looking to see where he can become a legit superstar. Which is great, and not really down a drastically different path, but if it feels like a bit more like a new path for DeMar then it maybe has a better chance of being taken decisively.

I also like how his sensibilities do not seem to be all that far from Casey’s, and how they both share a similar path with a fair amount af time outside of the US.
Quote 3 0
THANKS! Really fun to hear. Like how he talked about the game with a lot of love, including the time when driving the van was part of the job. And love that he mentioned DDR's All-NBA status, a true DDR stan just like me. Already growing on me.

If peaking at the right time is the only effective result of the coaching change than that change was the right move. The key for me is he is looking to continue to build on top of everything instead of tearing it down like most of this fanbase wants to, sudden enormous appetite for destruction. Glad that is just an internet bubble thing that was always bound to burst come training camp and first few games.

After a while, this is the first thing that has me beginning to trust Nurse with the job. Don't get me wrong, he deserved it and gets his chance and benefit of the doubt from the moment he was hired. But this is more than that.

And DDR's support was never in question, how he described their conversation really tells a lot about DDR. If Lowry shows similar kind of support, and I'm positive he will, than rest of the team has no chance but to do the same and that means we get to keep large portion of the continuity and chemistry. That buy in from stars is a huge deal, seems like he traveled coast to coast to make sure he gets it and that is another good sign.

Quote 1 0
The wonderful and frightening algorithms at youtube recommended this video from more than a month ago. Iowa news. It doesn’t get much better.

Quote 1 0


While Nurse and Casey had a productive, functional relationship, the two coaches have very different mentalities, despite their similarly circuitous routes to their lofty jobs. In Toronto, Casey preached the importance of structural integrity and role definition, wanting all of his players to know what was expected of them and when they were likely to come into any given game. Nurse prefers a more free-wheeling approach, hoping his team will be able to adapt on the fly and believing his players will benefit from a system that encourages — that cannot work without — their improvisation.

In his office in the Raptors’ training facility, backed by pictures of the hoops he shot on in small town Iowa, Nurse (NN) took some time to answer 20 questions from The Athletic, talking about the peculiarity of basketball in Great Britain, the enduring lessons of Casey, the rumours of his prodigious talents sitting at a piano and more.

1. What am I doing with a free day in Carroll, Iowa?

NN: Oh my goodness. Well hopefully you’re a golfer and hopefully it’s the summer. There are two 18-hole courses, and they’re both very nice. You get a little golf in. Maybe a ride up to Swan Lake. It’s a couple miles out of town and has some scenic views. There are some buffalo there, things that are interesting to see, other animals. Then you’re probably going to Godfather’s Pizza and calling it a night.

2. Who is the most beloved Nurse brother at the University of Northern Iowa, given that all five played, coached or worked there?

NN: Steve Nurse by a long, country mile. He’s been there 20-plus years. He’s the head equipment manager. He’s one of those guys that almost everyone who goes to school there ends up knowing, bumping in to, befriending. He’s a legend there.

3. Give me the scouting report to stop Nick Nurse, the point guard.

NN: You’d better take away the three-ball and make me put it on the floor. That’s it. I was pretty much a one-trick pony. (Laughs) I could shoot the ball and that’s about it.

4. What was the most memorable game you ever played in?

NN: For sure my high school state championship. It was 1985. We were in the big school class, kind of the small town team in the big school class. We ended up playing Waterloo West in the state championship. They were a very good team, very athletic and fast-paced. We were kind of a fundamental, halfcourt, guard-you type of team. They came out and got out to a really big lead. You might have thought they were gonna run us right off the floor. Then we just grabbed control of it and kind of got the tempo in our favour and shot a super high percentage. I come from a town of 10,000 people. The entire town was at the game. That place was going bonkers. After the game, everyone stormed the floor, the whole thing. It was the one and only time for our high school ever, still to this day. It was pretty cool. It was a pretty big deal.

5. There is a famous story from the expansion Raptors where the noisemakers were handed out on the wrong end of the SkyDome, so the fans used them when the Raptors were shooting free throws instead of the opponents. Do you have a similar basketball-in-Britain story?

NN: I was the player-coach of Derby the first year. In my first official game, we were playing against London-Docklands. It was at this small leisure centre. They weren’t the big London team. They were one of the lower-level London teams, but they were in the first division. They were announcing the starting lineups, and this guy went out to centre court with a microphone to announce the lineups. He started in and you can hear him, “Ladies and gentleman,” and all of a sudden the mic went out. There was no mic so he just set the mic down and shouted them out. (Laughs) He shouted them out. I remember leaning over to the other American on the team and saying, “Whoa, we’ve really made it to the big time here.”

6. What was the rivalry between the Sheffield Sharks and the Manchester Giants like?

NN: It was awesome. For basketball in England, it was really at the forefront. It was two really good teams, two really good organizations. We were about 30 miles apart. I was driving over there every night I wasn’t playing to watch them and Chris Finch, who was their coach, was driving over there to watch us. The teams were one and two, one and two, one and two the whole time for two years. There were a couple of big games. I’m sorry to say the biggest one of all was on a Good Friday. The league was tied, it was the last game of the year, the game was on Sky Sports and somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 people were there. They beat us on a shot at the buzzer. It was a double timeout. The ball got tipped out of bounds underneath their basket and Finch called timeout. They came out and set up and then I called timeout, and drew up the exact play. Finch didn’t change the play, he told them to run it anyway. And of course my guy guarding the guy who shot ended up looking the other way when the referee got it. And the guy got open.

7. How hard was it to convince Jerry Crawford to pony up for a D-League team in Iowa?

NN: It wasn’t, “Jerry, D-League team,” yes, snap your fingers, done. In fact, his first comment on the phone when I told him was, “Not another bleeping minor league team.” There had been the IBL and all of this stuff. I had to meet him and from the NBA, I collected some data about where they projected the D-League to go. Having the NBA behind it more, I don’t think he understood it at first, or believed it or whatever. I was able to put him in touch with the NBA and he started to do his own diligence. He was really smart after that. He got a bunch of groups in town to split the pie up a little bit.

8. Before you went to Rio Grande, how much were you monitoring what (general manager) Daryl Morey and the Rockets were doing with analytics?

NN: Very closely. I had recommended Chris Finch to them. Obviously then I really started to follow them closely because we were playing against them. We played against them in the final (in 2011). I was watching them very closely, but I didn’t have the inside scoop and I wasn’t getting the reports or in the meetings or getting the data. I was really intrigued.

9. During your five years with him, what were the biggest things you learned about being an NBA head coach from Dwane Casey?

NN: Professionalism, seriousness of the league and the day-to-day mental toughness you have to coach or play in this league.

10. Beyond going to see the Rolling Stones, what did you do in the month in between Dwane being let go and you eventually getting the job?

NN: We went to England for six days at the tail end of it. I went to Iowa for a bit. It seems to me I was hanging out up here (in Toronto) quite a bit. Not much, man, just hanging out with my kids. Both times, I had a little (time) to prepare for the interviews. When they let Dwane go, they said they wanted to interview me on Monday, so I had the weekend to prepare for that one. My second interview was in L.A. They told me about it on a Thursday, and it was coming on the next Tuesday. I immediately went to L.A., the next day and holed myself up in a hotel to prepare for a few days.

11. You’ve been considered this young, up-and-coming coaching prospect for a while, but you’re actually the oldest first-time head coach in the NBA since David Blatt in 2014. Did you ever lose faith that you’d get this opportunity?

NN: Not really. I never walked around saying, “I want to be an NBA head coach. I need to be an NBA head coach.” I was really more walking around trying to improve myself as a coach every year. I know how that sounds — ‘Yeah right.’ But especially in the D-League, I knew I was getting better and better and better. That’s a really tough league to coach in. Back then, there were players coming and going all over the place. It’s a little bit more stringent now with your roster. It was almost eight different teams you were coaching then, you know what I mean? You were having to redevelop chemistry, reteach plays, reteach principles, re-manage the guys that you’d already had managed. I knew I was getting a lot of experience as a head coach there. A lot of people said, “How come you’re not in the NBA?” I said, “I don’t know. I hope I get there someday. But I really like doing this.” I’ve tried to approach all the jobs that way.

12. Again with David Blatt — he took the Cleveland job with one roster in mind, and wound up getting a very different one, just like you. How much scrambling was involved for you after the trade went down?

NN: Hardly any. Hardly any. There is not a whole lot that I’ve changed because we’ve added two or three players. I’m still learning them and learning how I can use them differently. We’ll end up using them a little differently than maybe we would have used the other guys, but that’s only natural, I think.

13. Where were you when the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade was likely going to happen, and what was your initial reaction?

NN: I was actually at my mom’s. I was in Carroll. We just finished Vegas (summer league). I got a call from Bobby (Webster, the Raptors’ general manager). He called me in the morning and said, “Hey, it’s going down.” My initial reaction was, “Wow.” Again, I think there are so many trade talks that you don’t even react to them until something happens. And then something happens and you react. I was surprised.

14. You have a reputation as an offensive coach thanks to what you did in Rio Grande and here over the last five years. What does a Nick Nurse defence look like?

NN: I hope it looks pretty aggressive. It’s similar to the reverse of what my offence is trying to do: try to take away all those things our offence tries to get, try to create a few more turnovers and give teams unpredictable looks like we do on offence.

15. What is the best recent advice you got about being an NBA head coach?

NN: Man, I got some really good ones, but I’m not sharing them with you. “Be yourself, firm handshake.” No, I’m just kidding. I’m not giving them to you. They’re too good and nobody else gets them. I don’t want to give anybody else the good coaching advice that has been given to me.

16. Who are the coaches, past and present, who have influenced you the most?

NN: My high school coach, Wayne Chandlee and my college coach, Eldon Miller, were guys that influenced me a lot with direct contact. Another person who has impacted me a lot indirectly — this sounds crazy, and I have to say it every time — is Phil Jackson because I used to watch all these tapes of the Bulls back in the mid-90s. I was in England and couldn’t get my hands on any basketball, but I was getting Bulls tapes. I was watching them over and over to learn the offence, but I was also learning a lot about the way he coached watching those games over and over. Chris Finch goes on that list. We had a great run with the Great Britain Olympic team.

17. The dreaded expectations question: How do you define success this season?

NN: I have very high expectations for this team. I think this team can be very special. That’s what I hope to see.

18. Exactly how good of a pianist are you?

NN: Exactly? It’s great exaggerated. I’m OK. I’m OK. I love to play. I’m not nearly as good as I hope to be one day.

19. What’s your best concert experience?

NN: 1984, Prince, Minneapolis, Purple Rain tour, without question. It was his absolute heyday: The movie was out. The album was out. He was in his hometown. He wouldn’t get off the stage. It was unbelievable. He went on until like two in the morning. It was unreal.

20. Complete the following sentence: “By the time I’m done coaching…”

NN: By the time I’m done coaching, I hope I am at peace and can walk away without looking back.

Quote 0 0
A pretty good long read and more love from SI.


Quote 1 0

Replacing your fired mentor is weird. Here’s how Raptors coach Nick Nurse is handling it



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 summerNurse 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.

Quote 0 0
Shams Charania: Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for publicly criticizing officiating on his star Kawhi Leonard. – via Twitter ShamsCharania

Quote 0 0

Steph Curry couldn’t be muffled. He drilled 30-footers, slinked through the defense, dropped pretty floaters, and almost single-handedly powered the Warriors to a victory in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He whipped perfect, quick passes out of traps that played into the Warriors’ hands. They looked like the vintage Dubs. When Curry is on, modern defenses have the resistance of cardboard against a tidal wave.

Trailing by 11 with the game dwindling down, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was desperate. The youngest of nine siblings, an unknown interloper who played at the University of Northern Iowa, bouncing around the British Basketball League and the then-D-League before landing in Toronto as an assistant, Nurse was never supposed to be here: under the bright lights of the NBA Finals as a rookie coach, on the precipice of losing one of the biggest games of his career. 

He certainly coached like he was playing with house money, whipping out a whiteboard and drawing up a scheme most playbooks abandon after junior varsity: the box-and-one, where one defender — Fred VanVleet, in this instance — hounds the scorer, while the other four defenders form a box around the paint that gravitates toward the threat. The Raptors’ mercurial leader and resident smartypants, Kyle Lowry, immediately co-signed, and they were off to the races.

Despite the fact that the Raptors lost the game, the ploy worked. They almost erased the deficit, and they bumped into a strategy that paid dividends throughout the rest of the series. 

Eight months later, the box-and-one has become a weapon for coaches across the NBA looking for ways to slow down ball-handling scorers like James Harden and Trae Young. For the Raptors, whose spate of injuries has put them face-to-face with desperation routinely this season, the box-and-one became a stepping stone to more schemes rarely employed in the NBA: the triangle-and-two and two-three zones morphing into three-two zones. Down 30 points against the Mavericks in December, they came back behind a diamond full-court press. Despite their top six rotation players missing over 10 games this season, the Raptors are 40-15 and the East’s No. 2 seed, with a better record than they had at this time last year, when Kawhi Leonard was still on the team.


Once upon a time, Nate Bjorkgren was a walk-on at the University of South Dakota, where Nurse was an assistant. Thirteen years later, he hassled Nurse until he let Bjorkgren join the then-Iowa Energy of the D-League as a volunteer assistant. Bjorkgren eventually made the payroll, and they won a title together, cementing a bond that’s turned Bjorkgren into the in-game Nurse whisperer. He is infectiously positive, always seeing the pathway to a comeback, and he has enough leeway to get on his boss. “When I’m constantly saying we’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us? Blah, blah, blah,” Nurse said. “I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say, ‘Do something then! Change defenses or something!’”

From there, Nurse might tinker with one of assistant coach Adrian Griffin’s defensive sets. “I think the one thing that's special about Coach Nurse, from working with him, is that he always enhances what you bring to him,” Griffin said during the NBA Finals. “We all have thoughts and they're always good, [but] he seems to make them great.” He is the only former NBA player among the core assistants, the survivor turned lifer who has seen it all as a coach and a player, making hay on defense and wrangling mercurial players.


Or maybe Nurse’ll opt to call a timeout and run an inbounds play from Sergio Scariolo’s playbook. The head coach of Spain’s national team, a two-time Olympic medal winner, will be absent on Sunday. He’s coaching the Spanish national team through European qualifiers, a unique setup for an NBA team. Basketball, like fashion, evolves abroad before Americans notice. When Scariolo ventures abroad, instead of postcards, he brings with him fresh sets.

All four view the game through different lenses. Inside the Scotiabank Arena, their styles converge and lead to new solutions. 

“I think that it’s learning from mistakes a little bit,” said VanVleet, when asked what allows the Raptors to function despite competing opinions. “That was something that probably wasn’t the greatest when [former head coach Dwane] Casey was here. I think there were more disagreements than there needed to be. I think that turning over, starting over fresh, I think that’s something that I’ve seen, we’ve been trying to do different. That’s coming from the top down, just trying to figure out better ways to get through those disagreements and just go with a plan and see what works.” He also pointed out that the team Nurse inherited was better. Casey, after all, never got to coach Leonard, and he was dealing with younger iterations of the current roster. 

Regardless of the reason, under Nurse the Raptors’ dialogue has shifted. “Instead of worrying about whose idea it is or where it comes from,” VanVleet said, “let’s just try to put a plan together that works and go out there and be on the same page.”

Living proof that good ideas can come from anywhere, Nurse encourages an “open forum” by having the team stand in a circle instead of a huddle at the end of practices.


n the Raptors’ locker room, however, winning legitimized the coaching staff. The players met the coaches’ suggestions with skepticism “every day” last season, admitted VanVleet, but winning a championship gave them more rope. “There’s a little give and take,” continued VanVleet. “A lot of the stuff we do now, last year, it took some time to get used to. There’s ups and downs, but I think winning a championship lets everyone be at ease more so because you kinda feel validated. You feel like the stuff you’re doing is working.”

Two hours before playing the Timberwolves on Monday, the Raptors found out Serge Ibaka was going to be out with a cold. The mental and physical fortitude of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-foot-5 in shoes, was put to the test when he was asked to bump Karl-Anthony Towns off his spot. They tried more schemes in one game than some teams do all season: man-to-man coverage, then zone before finding success switching everything. They played the entire game without a center and came away with their 15th straight victory. As Nurse put it after the game, “You can reach for the panic button if you want to.” 

But the Raptors’ versatile arsenal has equipped them to pound away at obstacles, which is why they’re almost never out of a game. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but not everyone is calm in the eye of the storm. The coaching staff succeeds in these moments because they address problems rationally instead of harping on effort. They want players to exhaust every weapon in their arsenal necessary to win, of course, but they also do the same thing, earning the players’ respect.

The respect is mutual.  Beyond the coaches, the Raptors employ the intelligence of their players and ask for their feedback. “The best thing they do is we collaborate,” VanVleet said. “They’re not afraid to ask for our input. If there’s something we’re not feeling, we can speak up. Ultimately, we’ve gotta be comfortable with it for it to work. It doesn’t matter what plan it is, if it’s good or bad. If we don’t believe in it, it’s not gonna work.” VanVleet, the unofficial bench spokesman, lobbied for Norman Powell to get more run during the NBA Finals to great success.

“Nurse is the head coach,” Bjorkgren said, “but I think we’ve got a bunch of assistant coaches, and the players are all coaches, you know? It’s a group that understands the game of basketball very well.”

A series of forces coalesced to allow the Raptors’ to find lightning in a bottle, the stuff every organization aspires for but struggles to achieve. They are developed and ever developing, constantly scratching at the surface for solutions.

“We trust that the coaches are gonna come up with a game plan that we’re gonna execute,” Siakam said. “If it’s not working, we trust that we can adjust on the fly and try something else. One thing we’ve always been doing is trying different things out. We have a lot of things that we can throw at you, and we just trust that it’s gonna work, and if it doesn’t work, go to the next.”

Quote 3 0
Weird piece with some nuggets here and there. Can’t wait for the 30 for 30 feature on Nurse’s memojis.

Quote 1 0