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Along with famed shooting coach Chip Engelland, Forcier was assigned to work closely with Leonard. Asking him to meld the mechanics of Kobe Bryant and Richard Jefferson, the coaches outlined how they planned to tweak his shooting technique, but the NBA lockout put an end to their work after just a few sessions. That was in June, and it wasn’t until late December, when the NBA resumed, that the Spurs got to check back with their top rookie. They were surprised and encouraged to see that Leonard had almost completely reworked his shot, based on the few days of instruction from Engelland and Forcier. “He was a sponge who was very eager to learn, very willing to listen,” says Forcier. “But as we got to know Kawhi, it was obvious that he had a deep burn as well. No matter how quiet or reserved he may be, the competitive streak inside of him is hot and his desire to grow and become a great player was evident.”
Leonard quickly won over Popovich, who started the rookie in each playoff game that 2011–12 season and began putting the ball in his hands more on offence. His game just kept expanding, Forcier recalls. He would soak up new skills — like scoring from the low-post — sometimes even picking up fresh techniques at shootaround and deploying them in a game later that day. With his offensive attack sharpening and his defensive instincts second-to-none, Leonard was becoming arguably the league’s premier two-way player.
That success brought more confidence, which manifested both on and off the court. Leonard began to offer glimpses of personality that had previously been reserved for his teammates, friends and family. He co-starred with a few fellow Spurs in a string of commercials for H-E-B, a Texas grocery chain. In one he nonchalantly palms a giant ball of laundry while his teammates stand in awe and compare his hand to a bear’s paw. In another, dressed in a smoking jacket he shatters his reputation for monosyllables by uttering a single word: “indubitably.”
As his celebrity grew, more was asked of Leonard away from the court. He was flooded with interview requests, most of which he turned down. Potential endorsement deals, H-E-B aside, mostly got the same treatment. When he was asked in the summer of 2014 whether he felt companies had offered enough money for his services, Leonard told the San Antonio Express-News, “Not as much as I want for me to not shoot the basketball that day.”
Nurse isn’t totally ruling out finding a starting five and staying with it. That could happen or it could not, but he’s pretty sure the days of the same five starting the second half who started the game are over in Toronto.
“I think there’s gonna be opportunities to share it and move it around a little bit,” he said speaking strictly of the starting five. “That’s my mindset right now. That could change two weeks from now. There’s certainly some prestige that comes with starting. I would also say that you’ll probably see different guys starting the first half and second half depending on how the first half went, depending on what we think the matchups might be in the second half, depending on maybe somebody got on a roll in the first half and we wanna get ‘em right back out there, I don’t know.”
That would seem to suggest that the days of five-man units or, in last year’s case, two five-man units, eating up the majority of the minutes are over. Again, time will tell. VanVleet, who was a member of last year’s bench mob that was such an advantage for the Raptors, points out they didn’t start the year thinking it was going to be two separate five-man units then.
“Maybe it’ll be a different five-man unit this time,” VanVleet said of the 2018-19 version. “Maybe a mix of two bench guys and two starters. You never know what it is going to be. We didn’t know what it was going to be like last year, it just worked out that way. We found something that worked for us and we ran with it. I think this year will be the same, we’ll take some lumps and get knocked down and have bad games and we’ll lose some and throughout that process, we’ll find ourselves and keep building.”
Nurse has an idea that this is going to mean a number of different looks and combinations for Raptors opponents but he’s not stubborn enough to say it has to be that way. Looking at it now, before a game of consequence is played, that’s just how he sees it happening.
As the Raptors aim to get over another embarrassing post-season elimination – now under the guidance of new head coach Nick Nurse, Casey’s long-time assistant – their intention is to be more open-minded, this time before it’s too late.
Nurse’s team just wrapped up its pre-season schedule, having played five exhibition games. In 10 halves of basketball, the Raptors started nine different lineup combinations made up of 15 different players. Context matters here, of course. The regulars didn’t play in each game, and pre-season is the time of the year where you’re supposed to tinker.
What’s noteworthy is Nurse has indicated that the experimentation is likely to continue into the games that matter. According to Toronto’s new head coach, who is known for his innovative mind and willingness to adapt on the fly, the Raptors may change up their rotation, including the starting lineup, on a game-to-game and perhaps even half-to-half basis throughout the season.
It would be an unconventional way for any team to manage its roster, let alone one that sees itself as a title contender, but Nurse’s inclination to think outside of the box is one of the things that earned him the promotion in the first place. It was a mandate for president Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office during their search this summer. If they were going to finally get over the hump they would have to do things differently. Nurse has been beating that drum since he got the job back in June.
“I think what’ll happen is you’ll throw a starting lineup out there and you’ll win a game and [think], ‘oh we don’t wanna change the starting lineup,” Nurse said following the team’s Sunday afternoon practice. “It’s almost like a superstition thing. I’d like to keep it a little fluid, only because I think this is a super versatile team and I’d like to keep us in a versatile mindset, especially starting out here.”
“I’m a guy that when there’s something rolling out there, the predetermined rotations might go right in the garbage can. You know what I’m saying? You may think ‘ah, I’m gonna give ’em a 6-minute stint’, and all of a sudden it may turn into a 12-minute stint, and that changes everything.”
As it stands, Leonard and Lowry – the team’s all-stars and two best players – are obvious locks to start. Green, who started three of the four exhibition games he played in, would appear to have the inside track for another spot. Miles, Siakam and Anunoby (the presumed favourite) have all gotten a look at power forward, where it seems Nurse intends to start small. Meanwhile, Ibaka and Valanciunas have been alternating roles as starting and backup centre.
It will take a leap of faith from the players to make sure Nurse’s plan works. There are egos and histories involved. Some players have been starters their entire careers and habits form in preparation — habits that will have to change. It may not seem like a huge thing, but it’s a thing at some level and Nurse is aware of the possibility that such an abstract idea might not be entire welcome, or familiar, right off the bat.
“I think there’s going to be opportunities to share it and move it around a little bit — that’s my mindset right now,” the coach said. “That could change two weeks from now. There’s certainly some prestige that comes with starting. I would also say that you’ll probably see different guys starting the first half and second half depending on how the first half went, depending on what we think the matchups might be in the second half, depending on maybe, somebody got on a roll in the first half and we want to get ’em right back out there.”
It perhaps gets to Nurse’s overall coaching philosophy, which is coming to light in his first NBA head coaching job. He’s been a head coach in several other circumstances, throughout Europe and in the G League, and now he’s bringing lessons learned there to the bright lights of the biggest league. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers, but he seems to have a willingness to try unorthodox moves.
“I think it’s putting our guys in the best positions matchup-wise and really going from there,” he said. “It may be some other factors. It may be health. It may be heaviness or lightness of the schedule.
“I’m a guy that, when there’s something rolling out there, the predetermined rotations might go right in the garbage can. You know what I’m saying? You may think ‘Ah, I’m going to give ’em a six-minute stint’ and all of a sudden it may turn into a 12-minute stint, and that changes everything. Matchup-driven mostly, and then feel it out.”
The Raptors seem less concerned about Boucher’s immediate NBA utility. Their main roster is deep, and while they’re thin at centre by traditional positional archetypes, they have four players who could conceivably soak up minutes there. Barring an injury to Jonas Valanciunas or Greg Monroe, the Raptors can play it methodically with Boucher’s development, giving him a substantial G League run and tutelage under Jama Mahlalela without leaning on him for NBA minutes or seeing him wasted in street clothes. It’s true that Boucher is already 25, but given how late a start he got in basketball and how stop-and-start his path has been so far, there’s logic in viewing Boucher as the long-term upside play in this group.
As a refresher, a two-way contract allows Boucher to stay with the Raptors until G League camp opens on Oct. 22, join them once the G League regular season ends, and spend up to 45 days on the NBA roster in between. He can earn up to $386,125 if he maximizes his NBA days, none of which counts toward the Raptors’ cap or tax situation.
Essentially, this choice came down to using the team’s second two-way slot on someone who can provide immediate NBA depth on a team that’s already very deep or someone who might be able to develop into a bigger piece down the line. Either would have been justifiable as a tax team in win-now mode, and with Boucher, the Raptors have opted for the latter approach. Not only can they see what he looks like with a healthy season of development in their incubator, they’ll also hold his rights in restricted free agency next summer if he lasts the year and have the option to convert him to a standard NBA contract at any point this season. (The Raptors could then sign someone else into the two-way slot; they could also do this if Boucher doesn’t work out, as two-way deals can be waived without any impact on the luxury tax). Having another Canadian on the NBA and 905 roster certainly doesn’t hurt as a hairsplitter, either.
This time a year ago, Sanders was an obvious fit for his previous role, too. The 32-year-old has built up quite a resume in a short amount of time, first as the manager of the University of Kentucky’s basketball program from 2006-2009 under Tubby Smith and then as John Calipari’s graduate assistant for two seasons after that (Sanders earned a double-major in finance and management and has master’s degree in education focused on sport leadership).
Once Sanders earned Calipari’s trust, the opportunities opened up, and Calipari brought Sanders along to the Dominican Republic for one of his stints as the head coach of the country’s senior men’s basketball team. Sanders quickly assumed more responsibility, effectively working as the team’s basketball manager. The Dominican national team is run by a federation but financed in large part by donors, and the two most prominent of those donors wanted to keep Sanders behind to serve not only as the national team’s general manager but also as general manager of the 2016 LNB champion Leones de Santo Domingo team and as a sort of import-player manager for the ownership group’s baseball team.
“They kept my guy!” Calipari said with a laugh. “I brought Chad down there and said, ‘Hey man, why don’t you help us with this?’ And he became like the manager of what we were doing. And they said the job he did was amazing, so they kept him.
“He just gets things done, and he does it in a way that brings people together. He had a way about him where everybody liked him. He didn’t have an ego about him where he made it about him, he made it about, ‘Alright, how can I help you? What can I do?’ He had a way about how he did his job, and we need more people like that, who can get it done and don’t think it’s solely about them. He was good, and he’ll do great there with what he’s going to do, how Toronto will use that, you know, he’s going to work well with Masai. He’s going to do great.”
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