The most highly anticipated season in Toronto Raptors franchise history is well on its way. Media day took place at the Scotiabank Arena on Monday — yes, that’s going to take some getting used to — and while Kawhi Leonard erased the possibility of any nervous chatter with a laugh and Masai Ujiri told the city of Toronto to believe in itself, new head coach Nick Nurse had plenty to say about the possibilities with this 2018-19 iteration of the franchise.
He was up first on this eagerly awaited day and plays as vital a role as any in keeping Leonard in Toronto. Over the course of the season, he’ll be judged on his relationship management, player rotations, strategy, crunch time execution and perhaps even his ability to dole out some Nurse-isms. Those Casey-isms will be sorely missed.
What stood out once again is the no fear attitude he has in pursuing greatness in his own way. This is someone who — for better or worse — comes across as a person with tremendous self-belief in his process and will go down swinging having explored every possible means to the end that is winning a championship.
I’ve broken up several key quotes into categories, and look into what they tell us about the upcoming season.
Nick Nurse: Doing whatever it takes to get it done is kind of the philosophy. These guys — especially the guys that are really, really good — I’d like to give them some freedom. There’s a framework of what we’re all doing together but I’d like to give them some freedom. You’ll see this with me a lot, I listen to a lot of music and stuff, and the freedom is where they sometimes become really great and they know that. I talked to them about it, our offense is set up that way, even our defense is set up to win in the freedom moments.
So, yeah, there’ll be some give and take, I always say we need to share ideas to get to a common goal and togetherness and putting our arms around each other and all that other stuff to get us to where we’re going is kind of our philosophy on that stuff.
The Raptors have lost guys like Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and Bismack Biyombo over the past couple of seasons but it didn’t stop the second unit from becoming the Bench Mob last year. A big part of that was actually giving the young guys a chance to prove themselves and getting through periods where they struggled.
Think of Fred VanVleet over the first month of the season. The guy couldn’t sink a bucket to save his life, but managed to keep himself on the floor by continuing to play hard and still provide leadership and defense. Once the shot came along, he was as complete a bench player as any and finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting.
Think of Jonas Valanciunas being asked to do more with the ball at the top of the key and help the team get into their offensive sets. Shooting the three-ball without consequence. Those are the types of things that can markedly improve a player’s happiness and all of a sudden he’s got a bounce to his step on the defensive end and becomes more dependable in crunch situations.
That’s what’s most exciting about Nurse saying he intends on giving players the freedom to be explore their games and maximize who they can be as basketball players. Eradicating that fear that any and every mistake moves you to the back of the line can go a long way in helping this roster maximize its potential and go deeper than any previous edition.
Nick Nurse: I love teams that play really hard, that go out there each and every night with a commitment you can see to win the game. If you asked me what’s my philosophy, it’s kind of an entrepreneurial philosophy, right, an entrepreneur will do whatever they have to to make sure things get done. Our coaches will be that way, our players will be that way, just do what it takes and, aesthetically, let’s move the ball, let’s guard people and let’s fight, that’s basically it.
Don’t mistake having freedom with players think they can do whatever they want. Everything they have the freedom to do will be predicated on those decisions being in the best interests of the team and helping them win. Whatever the players choose to do to express themselves has to fit within the framework of, ‘does it get the job done?’ Casey talked a ton about “hard mistakes” and it sounds like that’s what Nurse will be comfortable with as well.
Nick Nurse: First of all, I think it’s exciting adding three (or four) new pieces for sure: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Greg Monroe, but also Lorenzo Brown and Malachi Richardson who we know a little bit who could impact. That’s always an interesting thing of how does this filter out, how does the chemistry, how do these guys work together, who plays what role, that’s the exciting part for me of getting on that plane today. We’re gonna go out there and see some things that I have a feeling a lot of them are going to be really good.
I think our team is really versatile, I think we’ll be able to move a lot of pieces around which in this day and age in basketball a lot of teams are playing a lot of different lineups, we’re going to be able to do the same. I’m excited about it all, trying to integrate these new guys. Does it take some time usually? Yeah, but we understand that, we’ve got the time, we’ve got the time and the work ethic and all that stuff to see it through.
A season ago, patience was preached because the Raptors imposed a culture change to try and rid themselves of their playoff woes and play a brand of basketball that could carry over from regular season to playoffs. While they surprised most by taking like a fish to water with the new egalitarian approach to scoring, things could have gone the other way or at least taken much longer to click on all cylinders.
This time around, turnover will be the main reason for patience. A new coaching staff, a new franchise player, and some likely changes in schemes on both ends to go with it. With so many lineup permutations at Nurse’s disposal, that combined with his comments about being willing to try different things lend to the possibility of some growing pains early.
This is going to be fascinating to me because it will be interesting to see where the line is in terms of experimenting and learning as much as he can about his team over the course of the regular season but also ensuring the Raptors are in the upper echelon of the league. If winning is what’s going to be at the top of Leonard’s priority list, Nurse is going to have to prove he can do it.
STARTING LINEUP AND ROTATION
Nick Nurse: We’ve got a lot of guys who could start, that’s what they call a good problem in this league. I’m not really caught up into that, it doesn’t mean that much to me who’s gonna be starting opening night but if you have some ideas I’d appreciate them but I’m not going to get into that. I’d like to leave some suspense.
I would hope again we’re gonna play a deep rotation. I think we played a pretty deep rotation last year, pretty consistently 10, sometimes 11, 12. To me, guys deserve to play and when they get their chance to go out there and do positive things we’re going to play as many as we can. When it comes to winning time, the guys who have been playing well that night and the guys who can take it home will be out there.
OK, so he’s not going to reveal the starting lineup and I’d imagine we’d see some different combinations over the course of preseason. Part of keeping the Bench Mob rolling is going at least 10-deep and it sounds like that will continue in 2018-19 as well.
Serge Ibaka talked about how he met with Nurse and discussed being less of a pick-and-pop guy and getting more touches in the post and being more active in the paint, which doesn’t make too much sense if he’s going to play alongside Valanciunas. It does, however, make a lot of sense if he comes in as a new member of the Bench Mob. I guess we just have to wait and see.
Nick Nurse: We could, I think on the surface — or on paper — our team has gotten better from behind the line. Hopefully we can continue to create more open looks, it’s not so much that we’re trying to shoot a ton of threes, we’re just trying to get good, high value shots.
Some nights it happens to be a lot of threes and some nights it happens to be a lot of rim, right, but we’re trying to create those opportunities. I think we’ve got more guys who can shoot it at a higher percentage that would probably favour that we’re going to shoot more of them but we’ve got to create them first. Create them with great ball movement, cutting, rhythm, chemistry, if we do all that then we’ll see a little jump up, yeah.
Masai Ujiri has improved the three-point shooting depth of this roster tremendously with the trade. We’re talking about going from DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to Leonard and Green. It’s to the point now where there could be some real competition between C.J. Miles and Norman Powell because the roster can cover up for their biggest weaknesses.
Powell struggled to hit from the outside a season ago as well as at the rim. With the improved perimeter shooting, there should not only be more opportunities for him to get to the basket, his shot won’t be a make or break in terms of playing time either. For Miles, he’ll be the beneficiary of the improved defense around him. Gone are the days where we’ll see him have to try and deal with Kevin Love in the post.
The emphasis on creating the right shots as opposed to just chasing three-pointers is nice to hear as well.
Nick Nurse: Kawhi bases himself in San Diego, obviously, and was out there a few times to set up some workouts and see him. Kawhi, as we know, is a man of few words, but his actions this summer are similar to what you’d think. He’s a serious guy with a great work ethic and I was impressed with what he was doing out there, getting ready to go. We’re gonna see here when we go to Vancouver and get to integrate him in but love what I’ve seen so far…
He’s (Leonard) a versatile guy but he’s not alone. We’ve tried to make a lot of these guys — Pascal and OG and Delon — these guys are playing two, three, four positions. That’s what he does, he scores it in, scores it out, we’ve worked hard on all of our guys becoming a bit more versatile because that’s what we want to be and what we thinks the most effective thing we can do.
I think he (Leonard) brings everything to the table but a lot of these younger guys, they’ll see his game as well and be able to emulate some of those things he does. Both ends, he can guard bigs and guards and score in and out, that’s really cool.
Yes, Kawhi can do it all. Get hype.
Nick Nurse: He’s ready to go to work, that’s what I do know. He’s in town and ready to go. Kyle’s the guy that, I get amazed sometimes just sitting there on that bench at how hard he plays and how badly he wants to win, none of that’s changed and when we get to work, we are all going to see that again and looking forward to it.
So, some of you are worried about Kyle Lowry and whether he’ll act out in the absence of best bud DeMar DeRozan. Frankly, he’s in an awkward position in terms of talking about his team being better without a guy he’s grown tremendously close to but for a guy who’s proven to have a high basketball I.Q., it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t realize what’s in front of him.
Nurse says it best, at the end of the day, Lowry only knows one way on the basketball court. He wants to win a championship, will know those chances have increased with LeBron James departing to the West, and only has so much left of his prime. Why throw it away?