Report: Raptors hiring Nick Nurse as head coach

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Updating an item from yesterday that suggested the Toronto Raptors had narrowed their head coaching search down to two candidates, Marc Stein of the New York Times reports that the “growing expectation” in coaching circles is that Nick Nurse is the choice. Adrian Wojnarowski reported shortly after that the Raptors are hiring Nurse, so consider it done.

At this point, we’ve discussed all of the options to a pretty significant depth. Will and Zarar covered this in a podcast Monday (Will and I had also covered it previously), I answered a bunch of coaching-related questions in an offseason mailbag, and a few weeks back I wrote the following about Nurse’s candidacy:

All three have interesting cases, with Nurse’s resume standing as among the most decorated it could be without NBA head coaching experience, Stackhouse having an incredible first two seasons as a lead coach behind the 905 bench, and Kalamian holding a strong relationship with players and having what would seem to be the proper demeanor for the position. Nurse has earned rave reviews for his creativity on the offensive end and the role he played in reshaping the team’s offense this year, while Kalamian has helped lead a top-11 defense three years in a row and Stackhouse led the 905 to the G League’s best defense in consecutive years with an approach that would look familiar to anyone who watched Cavaliers-Celtics Game 1.

How legitimate a case any of these names have isn’t immediately clear, but they all have solid resumes and reputations. Nurse would probably have to be considered the front-runner of the group, given his track record and how the offense shifted and held up in the playoffs, but it’s always difficult to ascribe credit and blame across a coaching staff. At the very least, the Raptors would want it to be known that they at least interviewed their in-house candidate. Stackhouse had several other interviews in the past month, Kalamian has interviewed for outside positions before, and Nurse has been at the top of potential first-time hire lists for years now, so there’s legitimate flight risk here.

The short version of that: Hiring internally is unsexy, but most signals point to Nurse being a legitimately good candidate as an NBA head coach.

Despite no experience at the NBA level, Nurse has plenty of reps at the helm of a team. He spent more than a decade as a head coach in Europe, twice winning BBL titles and BBL Coach of the Year before shifting over to the G League. There, he won a pair of championships, first with Iowa and then with Rio Grande Valley, earning G League Coach of the Year honors in 2011. Winning G League championships is difficult, and doing so with multiple franchises in short order is impressive, however few examples there are of G League coaches making the eventual jump to the NBA. That experience making decisions and dealing with a constantly changing environment is invaluable, and it’s why Nurse spoke so highly of the experience when Jerry Stackhouse opted to take over Raptors 905.

Nurse joined the Raptors’ bench in 2013, spending the last five years as the team’s lead offensive mind behind Dwane Casey. In those seasons, the Raptors have finished top 10 in offense every season, peaking as the league’s No. 3 offense twice, and while it struggled in multiple postseasons, this year’s retooled system – largely credited to Nurse following a top-down edict to modernize the team’s approach – scored slightly more efficiently than the elite regular-season offense. The Raptors had long had a larger playbook than they necessarily showed, and Nurse figures to open things up even more now that he’s the one making the decisions. An assistant can only do so much under a head coach even in a collaborative setup, and it would be unfair to assume the Raptors’ strengths and weaknesses will be the same under Nurse as under Casey.

Under Nurse, the Raptors can expect an even greater emphasis on ball movement and off-ball movement, as well as playmaking from every position on the floor. The guess here is that Nurse’s approach will also shift a little more responsibility back to Kyle Lowry at the expense of DeMar DeRozan, finding a bit of a middle ground between their respective usage rates to better leverage the team’s most efficient scorer and Lowry’s immense gravitational pull, which opens up space for everyone else on the floor. DeRozan will still be featured heavily, of course, there just may be more dynamism and versatility in how the team’s All-Stars are used. The bigs can probably expect even more decision-making responsibility, too, as well as some more improvisational touches in the case of Jonas Valanciunas, who figures to see his ability as a roll-man leveraged a bit more. It would seem likely, given the roster construction, that Nurse will continue to lean on dual-point guard looks (if Fred VanVleet is back), and the development of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam as multi-faceted offensive pieces could go a long way to making further system adjustments effective.

It’s hard to know what the defensive end will look like, given Nurse’s focus has largely been on offense (in the NBA; he allegedly did a great job as the defensive gameplanner with the British national team). The offensive side is perhaps more important in the modern NBA, anyway, and Nurse and team president Masai Ujiri have surely discussed defensive philosophy at length. Maybe that means trying to work with Rex Kalamian to keep him in the fold as the team’s defensive lead, or it could mean Nurse agreeing to Ujiri bringing in a defensive-minded No. 2. The Raptors have some interesting defenders developing but also have some stylistic bottlenecks on that end of the floor, and they played a system last year that was great for the bulk of the season and then proved too exploitable in the playoffs. They’ll need to become more matchup-proof in their defensive strategy, however they approach that. Whatever the case, the Raptors want to emphasize defensive accountability under the new regime, and Nurse will be tasked with fostering buy-in from the stars amidst a new system and hierarchy.

This is perhaps where going with an internal candidate makes the most sense. There is a continuity and stability there in a tumultuous offseason, and several Raptors speak highly of Nurse (so, too, does Royce White, who played under Nurse at Iowa State). The team generally thinks of him as a bright and creative thinker, and so long as there’s an element of fairness in that consistency, the transition could be seamless. Obviously, the optics are a little weird with letting Casey go and hiring one of his assistants after a long search rather than a fresh voice like Ettore Messina, Sarunas Jasikevicius, or any number of other candidates, but optics can’t dictate Ujiri’s decision-making, and he clearly took his time landing on Nurse as his first-ever head-coaching hire. There’s some comfort in that, given Ujiri’s general track record making big decisions and how well-though of Nurse is outside of Toronto, though I’d certainly understand some not loving the idea of an internal hire, even though Nurse figures to be quite good.

There is, however, a lot of pressure on Nurse from here, and on Ujiri to fine-tune the roster further. This is a team that just won 59 games and the top seed in the Eastern Conference, then let the best coach in franchise history and likely Coach of the Year go. There’s almost no chance the Raptors improve on last year’s regular season, and so Nurse and the Raptors will have to do well enough there qualitatively to where they can show in the postseason that this was the right move. The Raptors have run intro struggles in the postseason with micro decisions – lineup usage, playing time, in-game adjustments – and whether Nurse stands as a true upgrade in those regards, and whether that change can help overcome the mental hurdle the Raptors face with LeBron James, won’t be known until April or May. That will make it a little tough to judge Nurse and Ujiri here early in the year, though the team will surely be under the microscope regardless. It’s not an easy situation to jump into, and Nurse’s first task is likely a lot of conversations with the players on the roster selling them on his approach and vision.

With two years left in this core’s window – barring Ujiri hitting the eject button when everyone is an expiring contract next summer – 2018-19 suddenly becomes one of the most interesting seasons the Raptors have faced. As with all first-time NBA coaching hires, it’s difficult to evaluate given the limited and noisy information available. Nurse has a good record on paper and a strong reputation, and whether that carries over to his own NBA gig, what his relationship is like with Ujiri and the roster, how much autonomy he has, all of these factors won’t really be laid plain until games start being played. That the Raptors took their time (I am not at all bothered by taking a month to hire internally; due diligence and making sure you get the right person are far more important than optics) and explored non-retread candidates is really all I was looking for in their search, and while I found Jasikevicius (and Messina) to be intriguing, it’s hard to call Nurse any worse a pick until we actually see him as a head coach. These are always the toughest moves to evaluate from outside.

Thoughts on Nurse as the next head coach?


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