The Toronto Raptors new head coach has a verbal tick. In every interview and every post-game address he says “right” the way Canadians say “eh.” His Midwestern mannerism is ingratiating, much the way former head coach Dwane Casey used old Kentucky metaphors. It’s a fitting tick because after a quarter of the way through the season, it appears that the Raptors might have got this coaching change right.
If you listened to the talk around this team before the season, everyone posited that this Raptors team was good, assuming Kawhi’s health. That was the biggest question, along with how the new additions would mesh with the ones here (how will Lowry respond without his best friend?). But not far behind those comments was the coaching change. A rookie head coach for a team competing for a Finals berth?
Much like the trade for Kawhi, it wasn’t a choice without risk. Many fans and commentators questioned the move. Nurse was not without qualifications, and he’d earned a lot of credit for changing the Raptors offense last season, dragging them (as much could be done with DeRozan) away from the mid-range game and to something resembling the new NBA. But being the voice at the top is different. Nurse himself reflected on this earlier this season about how much more responsibility a head coach assumes. You aren’t running a division in the company any more, you’re the CEO. And so what you say and how you say it becomes even more important.
There’s no question that Casey will always be loved in Toronto. He was instrumental in building this organization to its greatest heights. He was in charge for seven years, and outside questions regarding his in-game adjustments, his missteps were rare. Following that would be difficult for any rookie coach. Let alone one who had sat as Casey’s assistant for five years.
In most companies, being promoted from within is relatively common. You work your way up and assume more responsibility. In sports, that rarely happens. The truism is that assuming a new role with the same players is difficult. How will the players hear you? Will they accept the change? Will they still look at you as an assistant?
What’s clear a quarter of the way into the season is not only do the Raptor players accept Nurse, they’re playing for hard for him. It helps that it’s the nature of their stars, both Lowry and Leonard, to be gamers whoever is coaching. They’re both consummate professionals, like Danny Green and CJ Miles and JV and Ibaka.
That said, why has the transition been so seamless?
Just Play, Man
If there’s been one surprise this year, it’s the play of Ibaka. (We saw Siakim’s summer workouts) One could make the case for Ibaka as a borderline all-star, and Nurse is directly responsible for that. By refusing to play his two big men together (except in certain matchups) he is getting maximum production out of both of them. And quite frankly, he’s not getting enough credit for that. While it’s true that Siakim has made a huge leap in his third season, Casey could have made this move last year. He didn’t, and as a result, we saw Ibaka decline last year and disappear in the playoffs. Because of Nurse, the Raptors not only get terrific production from their center position, but both veterans have bought into their coach’s insistence on flexing the lineup. This is a big deal. They trusted Nurse, to their credit, and the rewards have been evident.
The changes on offense are still evolving, but what’s clear is that Nurse is prefers fluidity to defined roles. He is willing to tinker with lineups and actions without hesitation. So whether it’s putting Kawhi with the bench to start the second and fourth quarter (a recent adjustment) or putting Siakim in a situation to succeed (keeping him in the dunker’s role on strong side action, letting him leak, elevating his ball handling duties), he’s shown a fearlessness that creates an adjustable environment.
In every sport, players stress the importance of roles. Nurse has done the opposite, fittingly in the new NBA, by insisting that there are no roles. He even changes his assistants’ responsibility every ten games. Just like his superstar, he expects greatness by committing to fullness. There are no specialists, and his message is both consistent and simple: Just play.
And that last quality might be his best attribute, the manner in which he encourages his players to just play. (That’s been mentioned numerous times by the players this year) And whether the team wins or loses, he remains cool, just like his predecessor. Nurse has shown in the past he’s capable of the X’s and O’s. You aren’t a lead assistant without that. But can you get your team to relax? Can they trust you to just let them play? Can you get your stars to buy in? And the answer so far has been a resounding yes.
It can be difficult for fans to remember the grind, both mentally and physically, of an NBA season. As a coach, you have to be able to balance things to keep the team performing at a high level. Nurse has been an NBA assistant for five years, so he understands. And as a head coach, he’s kept it light. In the preseason practices, he introduced championship belts for different drills and a round circle ala King Arthur. Some of it may seem corny, but if the players buy in, nothing else matters.
As for the in-game stuff, his rotations and actions are consistently better than Casey’s were. (And that’s no shade on Casey, who’s a terrific coach) Granted, having Kawhi and Green helps a lot, but his flexibility and how he’s established that environment with the deepest team in the league has been impressive.
When the season began, there were questions, and until the playoffs, the questions will remain, no matter their regular season success. But it’s fair to say at this point, the Raptors got the coaching change right.