Since Dwane Casey was hired all the way back in June of 2011, the Toronto Raptors have seen unmitigated stability at the head coaching position for the vast majority of the last decade. Virtually seven years later, after heaps and hordes of broken franchise records — Toronto, led by team president Masai Ujiri moved on from Casey in what became a highly controversial, franchise-altering decision.
Let’s begin with a comprehensive timeline of the path the franchise has taken up until the North’s version of “The Decision”.
May 7th, 2018: Toronto Raptors are officially swept in a four-game series by the Cleveland Cavaliers with a final score in Game 4 of 128-93.
May 9th, 2018: Masai holds private meeting with HC Dwane Casey, two hours before the season-ending press conference.
May 9th, 2018: Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey hold season-ending press conference.
Masai Ujiri:“… collectively, we’re going to evaluate”
May 11th, 2018: Toronto Raptors fire Dwane Casey after seven seasons with the team.
May 26th, 2018: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Toronto Raptors have interviewed Spurs assistants, Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina.
June 5th, 2018: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Toronto Raptors have interviewed “young EuroLeague coaching star and former NBA player” Sarunas Jasikevicius.
June 11th, 2018: Dwane Casey named head coach of the Detroit Pistons, agreeing to a five-year deal.
June 12th, 2018: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Nick Nurse will be hired by Toronto imminently.
June 14th, 2018: Nick Nurse officially named new head coach of the Toronto Raptors, agreeing to a three-year deal. Introduced shortly after.
To put that all in clarity, within just five weeks of arguably the most disappointing and utterly humiliating playoff defeat in franchise history, Toronto moved on to a new era with Nick Nurse as the franchise’s new head coach. Shortly after, the Raptors fanbase was split into two halves — one side totally against Casey being fired, and the other with a full desire to move on from DC.
The question comes in now as “Why?”. Why make that move? What was Ujiri’s method of thinking? Well to be frank, Ujiri explained in-depth what his thought process was throughout the course of development. Firstly, he believed status-quo just simply was not good enough for the franchise. Despite team, coach and player records all being shattered during Casey’s reign, Ujiri made it clear the franchise has much larger expectations than to make fruitless, deep playoff runs. And to make it clear, Ujiri couldn’t be more correct.
Enter Nick Nurse.
Some would peek at his history and say Nick Nurse was simply born to be a basketball coach. Nurse possesses a deep basketball pedigree stretching from the U.S. to Australia to the UK, back to the U.S. and finally landing in Ontario’s capital.
Nick Nurse served as an assistant coach to Dwane Casey for four seasons, and spearheaded the offensive reformation the Raptors underwent in 2017. This exact “innovation” Ujiri kept referring to and itching for — well, it just so happened that the man behind it all at the offensive level, was going to be his next head coaching hire.
Nick Nurse immediately says the new Raptors coaching staff will focus primarily on innovation & creativity pointing to being ahead of trends. Nurse is known for his offense, but big ? is what will happen to address defense/grit (both were lacking vs. Cavs) #RTZ
— Tamberlyn Richardson (@TTOTambz) June 14, 2018
My colleague and Raptors Republic writer, Tamberlyn Richardson had a great point while watching the introductory press conference of Nick Nurse. Nurse was known around the league as one of the brighter offensive minds. However in the Raptors case, what exactly would be done defensively — especially the way the season abruptly ended versus the Cavaliers.
Enter Kawhi Leonard (and exit LeBron James).
Nurse’s first big acquisition to his team’s roster was quite literally the biggest acquisition in team history. Toronto traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected top 20 first-rounder for Leonard in an absolute megadeal. Soon after, Nurse was meeting with Kawhi privately and came away “thoroughly impressed”. I mean, Nurse himself couldn’t contain his excitement by praising Leonard in almost every media opportunity.
The feeling happened to be mutual between both Leonard and Nurse.
It was clear as day. Nurse had his weapons, now how would he use those weapons to their full capabilities?
It’s no secret Nurse is known to rely heavily on movement (primarily off-ball) and spacing in his pass-friendly scheme. In the next few clips, I will display the type of sets Nurse frequently uses which demonstrates the crux of his system.
First off, we have your typical NBA staple — a high pick-and-roll executed to perfection by each and every Raptor player. Watch closely on the spacing of the other three non-involved players on the court. For such a standard, well-versed basketball play, Nurse knows execution for a high PnR is vital. DeRozan and Wright mirror each other on opposite elbow-corners, while Nogueira sits deep but allows a clear path for Ibaka to roll to the basket. Result? Easy Ibaka layup.
In this next clip, VanVleet motions towards the top of the three-point circle while Delon Wright subtly moves behind Poeltl and prepares to set the first of two well-executed off-ball screens. Meanwhile, CJ Miles sprints through and adjusts his body, deliberately curling around the screen as tight as humanly possible to allow separation on each screen. VanVleet plays the waiting game and finally hits Miles. Result? An open three-pointer for CJ.
The next clip is simple as simple gets. Jonas Valanciunas handles the ball, while DeMar DeRozan curls around from an initial post-position. Valanciunas sets a clean, elementary screen. Result? An open three-ball from DeRozan. Keep in mind, this season — that attempt will be taken by none other than Kawhi Leonard, instead. Now that’s good news.
This next clip is the complete antithesis of what Toronto basketball suffered from for many, many years. The inability to share the ball, rather opting for low-percentage isolations and little to no ball movement. With Nurse leading the offensive charge, things changed to say the least.
Enough with the offensive sets, if Nurse truly wants to take this team to the next level, it will take dominance on both ends of the court. And lucky for him, he has the exact roster needed to accomplish that goal. In this clip, Kay Felder and Robin Lopez attempt an elbow screen-and-roll. Poeltl makes the correct decision to step up, pressure Felder (a non-playmaker at the NBA level) into making a split-second decision. He does, tries a jump-pass to Lopez, but OG Anunoby reads the play perfectly, cuts Lopez off and the rest is history.
Nurse has plenty of high-IQ, high-motor defensive players at his disposal, however that doesn’t mean they’re not prone to mistakes from time to time. In this playoffs clip, LeBron James directs a high pick-and-pop with Kyle Korver. At the nine-second mark, Toronto must not only make a decision — but a collective one, at that. Korver lays the screen, Miles switches onto LeBron and James finds JR for the easy jam. What went wrong? I mean, everything for starters. Other than Miles and Anunoby, everyone was caught ball-watching, with all of their focus on LeBron. This caused both DeRozan and Ibaka to close-out on Kevin Love, leaving JR wide-open.
With Kawhi Leonard, Toronto enjoys arguably the best perimeter defender on the face of the planet, who will undoubtedly have a direct impact on team communication and leadership on that end of the floor. Despite Leonard being known for not saying much, his presence and instincts will surely rub off on his teammates.
As much as Nurse has to work with this upcoming season, difficult tasks still lay ahead of him. Naturally, he coaches a roster that rivals all but the Golden State Warriors, in terms of sheer talent and depth. We know who the stars are, we know who the role players are, and we recognize the core values of the system. Come playoff time, who will emerge as the much-needed third option (after Leonard and Lowry)? Will any players take a further step in development under the Nurse regime?
The expectations are large — larger than anything Nick Nurse has came close to dealing with in his professional coaching career — especially with Toronto’s longtime kryptonite, LeBron James exiting the conference this past summer.