Out with the old and in with the still old but in a marginally new way, as the wise adage goes.
This isn’t about Nick Nurse. This is about the opportunity that presented itself to the Raptors after the front office effectively jettisoned a by all accounts great coach. An opportunity that was then also jettisoned. Coaching shakeups, at least by stable teams, don’t happen that often. Replacing a head coach is disruptive and time consuming. Assuming management already has a candidate lined up, which really seemed to be the case with Ujiri’s choice in Nurse, then there’s the time that needs to be spent in acclimatizing a team first to the idea of a new coach and then the reality of one. If there’s no real standout then the amount of interviews that need to be undergone by GMs and ownership will cannibalize every hour of the offseason, with speculation abound, and the pressure of that undoubtedly weighing down on the decision. This decision falls outside both of those categories.
You want to believe that the decision to fire your coach is one that’s been thought through, and that the decision to fire your coach of seven years was for a greater purpose. After another tired showing in the conference semifinals there was, strangely, not a clamouring for Casey to get canned. The thinking seemed to be that if it hadn’t happened last year, then coming off of a franchise record 59-win regular season wouldn’t be the justification for it this year.
Masai Ujiri is not a person who ever appears to make a decision based on anything besides the facts and the long game, of which he holds the cards to especially close. He is patient, steady, intelligent and savvy, which is why the decision to remove Casey from the position as Toronto’s head coach was all the more worrying. It was the first time it seemed like Ujiri glimpsed into the abyss that the rest of us so regularly stare into with the Raptors. When you take a long look and lose the plot a little bit and instead start to worry what is going on with this team. It was the first time it appeared that Ujiri wasn’t five to fifteen steps ahead, and instead was perhaps looking to the parent organization, who would inevitably be looking to profitability, and that kind of upper echelon profitability only comes from playoff money.
The worry wasn’t helped by the fact that there weren’t exactly the best replacement options on the market at the time the conversation around letting Casey go would have been happening, or following the decision being made. For a little while it was even possible to think that perhaps Ujiri knew of another high calibre coach that would soon be available, and was only biding his time interviewing a host of assistant coaches from around the league before the big fish came swimming by, but there were no new options. And there had to be some concern with the postseason coming to a close and the first whiffs of what is promising to be one wild summer as far as free agents, and other big questions that need to be answered for the Raptors, growing fast on the horizon. Ujiri needed a coach in place to start planning the rest of the moves he wants to make and the options were getting slimmer, with the other big Raptors alumni contender Jerry Stackhouse gone to Memphis and the earlier considered Mike Budenholzer taking up with Milwaukee. Plainly put, the decision to drop Casey and then pick up one of his assistants seemed rushed.
I’ll be clear about where my hopes were quietly biding their time during the search and now how my regrets are spelled (B-E-C-K-Y-H-A-M-M-O-N) and I don’t pretend to hide that bias. I think the Spurs assistant and protege to Popovich would have been a phenomenal option and much needed breath of fresh air for Toronto but who knows, maybe she’s due the keys to the San Antonio kingdom sooner than later. The underlying concern remains: is this choice the right one to inject the Raptors with some sorely needed confidence and a new framework to build from?
Because this still isn’t about Nick Nurse. This is about the potential there was to put in a fresh set of eyes to scrutinize this team for what they are lacking, and while knowing a team can be powerful, can form a foundation of trust, knowing a team that well can also cause a certain blindness to their bad spots. Fresh eyes also work both ways. A large part of the Raptors playoff self-combustion can be attributed to coaching that frequently lost the thread, or else ended up fraying it so badly that the bigger picture got blurred. Coaching that lost the players in the moment they most needed a magnified look at what was going wrong and the ingenuity and brashness to ask for something different. So often the same plays were executed to the same or staggeringly worse results. Casey had his faults and that was a huge, if not the biggest, one. And that lack of imagination and versatility eventually meant the team stopped responding with fresh, or any, enthusiasm. A change from the top down doesn’t have to mean blowing up the team, it could have come in the form of a new coach with an entirely new background to pull from. Off the bat, that’s something that is going to get players to pay attention. How many times have you been in a situation where the same thing was explained over and over to you, to no avail, only to have someone else come in and take a crack at it from a slightly different angle and a lightbulb suddenly burst over your head?
Ok, this part is about Nick Nurse. Nurse is not a bad coach. He’s coached overseas, including a stint in the UK where he had a direct hand in attempting to revitalize any kind of a professional league there, and has bounced around the G League enough to know the NBA landscape from a bottom up perspective. He played a huge role in the culture reset and onus on better ball distribution that the Raptors benefitted from this year, and tightened the whole team up defensively. He’s a contender, he’s smart, and he seems to have a lot of grit and energy. He’s still essentially moving from one floor down up to the proverbial penthouse, though, and the view from there isn’t going to be all that different. Nurse is already in the system, and no matter how good that system showed itself to be this past season, there are some deep flaws and troubling disconnects within it, and while his talents certainly won’t be squandered having now been handed the reins to the team, there is a worry that they aren’t going to result in doing things all that differently.
Potential, perhaps, is the thing that comes around very briefly, in flashes and flourishes, within basketball. Whether that’s with a prospect player, an all-star having a career year, or a team on the precipice of losing or gaining. Potential is the counter balance to super teams, to tanking, to staying in the exact same and being happy that while your team may not be at the bottom, it does keep hitting up against the top enough times to turn a bruise into what could be permanent damage. Is this the case with the Raptors? The potential to shuffle a new coach into an already decently put together deck could have been the move that shifted it into a stacked one, but this team has gone with taking a card from the bottom and placing it on top. Wasted potential has a way of coming back to haunt, but whether this was the move to invoke that ghost or make the Raptors give it up, the one thing both decisions have in common is we’ll have to wait until October to see.