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Talk and Action

When Nick Nurse was announced as the new Raptors head coach, the common complaint would be that it would simply be more of the same for the team, after all, Nurse served on Dwane Casey’s staff and many thought that he’d simply be a different voice for the same strategies that had struggled in postseasons past. It was Nurse’s offense that had found success during the year last year, but he wasn’t known for his defensive strategies.

Also, with a first-time NBA head coach, there was some reason for concern that he wouldn’t be able to command the locker room, that he’d defer to the All-Stars at the top of the roster instead of addressing concerns with DeMar DeRozan’s lackluster defense, or his tendency to fall into old habits and force his own offense, for better or worse, late in games or in the postseason. In an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio on Friday, Nurse appeared to be trying to put some of those concerns to rest, with comments about the direction he wanted to go going forward.

There are certainly reasons for skepticism here, to start with. A new head coach has reasons to want to shake things up and make his mark on the team, and the easiest way to do so with the Raptors is to call out the obvious playoff struggles. DeRozan’s defensive issues are a hot button among the fan base, and one that inspires frequent debate, with good reason. There are limitations forced on a team by a star player who dominates the ball and struggles defensively, you need to surround that player with guys who don’t need the ball in their own hands, as well as who are able to provide answers defensively to the questions that DeMar can’t answer, and in the playoffs, that dynamic has been tough for the Raptors to solve. Against Cleveland this season, the offense cratered with him on the floor, due to his ball dominance, and the Cavaliers frequently attacked him on the other end and found success.

Nurse’s comments also appear to nix the idea of a trade, with DeRozan heading outbound, this summer. It’s certainly possible that still changes as the summer goes on and if an opportunity presents itself, with many reports out there that no one on the Toronto roster is untouchable as they search for moves to help the organization take the next step, but it’s hard to believe that Nurse would be talking so openly about changes he wanted from DeMar if he thought that he wasn’t going to be building a team around the All-Star. This could mean that a trade was never something the team was truly considering, or it could just mean that the returns were never what the team was hoping for and they couldn’t find an amicable deal that provided them with sufficient returns to justify moving a player they’d marketed as the face of the franchise. Even for those who preferred a move, as I made the case for a month ago, understood that this outcome was possible and perhaps even expected, because trading DeMar was never going to be an easy proposition.

With that in mind, Nurse’s DeMar comments break down into two parts. First, his talking about them needing to be average when they aren’t great is important. This is simple, and a really important point. It’s not so much that DeMar has never had positive moments in the playoffs, it’s about the gap between his good and bad performances, and how hard it is for the rest of the roster to account for what they may or may not be getting from their leader. Simply closing that gap allows the rest of the team to know what’s expected of them on a nightly basis and makes it easier for the role players to find their role, and know what they need to do in order for the team to succeed.

The second part of his comments are the more interesting ones, and the portion that’s inspired the most conversation. Nurse spoke on asking DeMar to guard tougher matchups throughout the season, and needing him to improve his defensive game, and holding him accountable when he doesn’t put in the work on that end of the floor. It’s always been a fair criticism of DeMar that for a player known so much for his work ethic, he falls asleep at that end of the floor and loses his assignment, and can often be caught out of position. Against the Cavaliers, he allowed George Hill to get to the cup with ease when given that matchup, and also allowed JR Smith and Kyle Korver to frequently find space for open jumpers when asked to guard them.

The complicated part here though is that DeMar is also a 28-year old player with 9 seasons and 22,000+ minutes of experience in the league, and players that far into their careers don’t often change who they are. He’s not going to become an All-Defense player, and expecting that is setting yourself up for disappointment. DeRozan is who he is, for better or worse, and as much as Nurse might want to change that, it’s unlikely he will. Asking for more commitment, and attempting to hold him accountable, might simply end in a conflict between star and coach, and coaches rarely win those fights in this league. Dwane Casey, as good as he was as a coach, didn’t hold DeRozan, or his backcourt mate Kyle Lowry, accountable when they had defensive lapses, and allowed them to freelance on offense while expecting more from the other players on the roster, expecting them to provide defensive value to earn their offensive touches. Even with a change at the helm, it might not be possible to un-ring that bell.

Which brings me to my final point about those comments from Nick Nurse, which is to say that he also has a reputation for being extremely smart. Those comments didn’t come out of nowhere, they wouldn’t have been a surprise to the organization. Nurse knows all of these things, he knows that DeMar likely won’t mold his game into something new to account for the demands of a rookie coach, knows that his All-Stars have had free reign for the last 5 years, and also knows that those strategies have provided unprecedented success for the Raptors organization. Nurse would also, then, know that if this fails, it’s on him for trying to rock the boat. That is, unless he has the green light from upstairs to make these changes.

These comments weren’t likely an indication that the Raptors will be remade in the new coach’s vision, that the players will become something entirely new. But they may have been drawing a picture of what the Raptors want to be, and a sales pitch for the next core, whether that’s this season, next year, or two years down the line, when the Ibaka and Lowry contracts come off the books and DeRozan can opt out of his contract. A pitch that the Raptors intend to be a team with defensive buy-in across the roster, and if they can’t get that from this group, they’ll find a group that will. Nurse is an interesting coach with a great reputation, but he’s not a miracle worker.

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