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We Judge NBA Coaches Too Quickly

There will be three head coaches making their NBA debut next season with Taylor Jenkins in Memphis, John Beilein in Cleveland, and Ryan Saunders in Minnesota (who shed the “interim” label and is now officially the head coach); three more coaches will be joining new teams next season with Frank Vogul in Los Angeles, Luke Walton in Sacramento, and Monty Williams in Phoenix. No new coach will inherit a roster nearly as complete as the one Nick Nurse inherited last season with the Raptors in terms of depth and versatility, yet all six will be judged by the end of the season — and some even sooner than that — in regards to how good of an NBA coach they are. 

Like many aspects of professional basketball, it isn’t entirely fair how quickly we judge coaches in the NBA — and by “we” I mean fans, media, and front offices. Look no further than the situation in Phoenix — a team that just hired its fifth coach in less than five years — with Igor Kokoskov last season, who was given just one season before being fired despite the fact that he inherited a young, incomplete roster that battled injuries throughout the year. Yet the speed in which NBA coaches are judged can be a blessing or a curse for the coach, depending on the situation. Nobody exemplifies this narrative volatility better than Nurse, who inherited a talented Raptors roster last season and led them to a championship, acquiring the perception of a smart, risky, and ultimately exceptional NBA head coach along the way. But things didn’t seem so assured throughout the 2018-19 regular season, and a few unlucky bounces could have completely changed the narrative surrounding Nurse.

When Nurse was hired to replace Dwane Casey as the Raptors head coach in June of 2018, he became Masai Ujiri’s first head coaching hire since taking over the team in 2013. Nurse was characterized as an innovative offensive coach who wasn’t afraid to take risks or draw up unorthodox plays or lineups. Because of that perception, fans were caught off guard midway through the Raptors 2018-19 season when, despite winning games, the Raptors were not playing the beautiful basketball that was promised. In fact, Nurse was walking on eggshells with many Raptors fans all the way up to the Marc Gasol (and even until the start of the playoffs for some) as the offense was mediocre, with Kawhi running his own offense and the rest of the Raptors running a different, more movement-oriented offense of their own, and Nurse’s out-of-timeout and end-of-game plays weren’t nearly as innovative (or effective) as Raptors fans expected (and hoped for). It’s easy to forget with the passing of time and a championship, but the perception of Nurse as an NBA head coach was a polarizing topic not long ago. 

It’s important to note that Nurse wasn’t hired to be a regular season coach. In fact, he was hired to be the exact opposite, and he coached the entirety of the regular season with the idea that he wanted the Raptors to be best prepared for the playoffs in mind. He rested his players, skipped film sessions and practices, rarely roasted his players and kept the team even-keeled. He played all types of different lineups and gave guys like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet the freedom to create their own shots. His ability to keep the team level-headed and have them peak at precisely the right time is perhaps his best quality as a head coach, but most new coaches don’t have that leeway. Most new coaches don’t walk into a situation where they can coast through the regular season with a guaranteed spot in the playoffs in mind. Not to take anything away from Nurse, because the way he prepared the Raptors for the playoffs took a lot of smarts and hard work, but it’s important to remember how he was viewed before the playoffs began and especially before the trade for Marc Gasol helped change the offense. 

When I mentioned in the introduction that Nurse’s perception and even job security could be entirely different if not for a few lucky bounces, I was talking, of course, about the game 7 buzzer-beater that Kawhi Leonard scored against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Final. After a relatively simple Orlando Magic series, Nurse had trouble matching up against the 76ers due to their size at every position and the fact that his shooters weren’t knocking down open shots (or sometimes even taking them). As Zach Lowe has noted several times, Nurse’s inability to match up Gasol’s minutes with those of Joel Embiid until halfway through the series was perhaps the biggest mistake he made all playoffs, and it was one of the reasons the Raptors almost lost that series. He also continued to play ineffective small lineups with both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and ineffective bench-heavy lineups with three bench players at a time. Despite the fact that Nurse’s options were heavily limited against the 76ers, if Leonard’s buzzer-beater didn’t fall and the 76ers won game 7 in overtime, the collective perception of Nurse would be very different as would the perception of the entire Raptors season, which would have been considered a failure. 

Fortunately for Nurse and his perception, he, like the Raptors players, got better as the playoffs went along. Nurse coached his best two series’ against the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. Against the Bucks, Nurse made Leonard the primary defender of Giannis Aneteooukoonpo starting in game 3, which was ultimately a difference maker in the series, as was him sticking with players like VanVleet and Powell, who struggled against the 76ers but were given the coach’s confidence to regain their form. Against the Warriors, Nurse defied convention by playing uptempo, betting on his players’ decision-making and the Warriors thin roster fizzling out. He also started VanVleet in the second half of games 3, 4, 5, and 6, which proved to be a difference maker due to Fred’s ability to guard Curry and create his own shot. Now the Raptors are champions — unexpected ones, too — and Nurse is considered an exceptional NBA head coach who will likely have a job in the NBA for a long, long time all because of one historic playoff run.

The developed, social media-addicted world of the 21st century is an increasingly judgemental one. That judgment has seeped into the world of sports, where new NBA head coaches are judged with increasing fervor and speed. Don’t get me wrong: coaching in the NBA has always been an extremely volatile job, but the narratives surrounding coaches (and players) have never been subject to so much rapid change. As I said earlier, that can be a blessing or a curse.

For Nurse, who came into a great situation in Toronto — coaching a team he has been around since 2013 with an extremely talented and complete roster — it was a blessing. He can use this past season as an example going forward as he negotiates new contracts, recruits free agents, or convinces players to buy into his way of doing things. However, the stark reality is that fans, media, and front offices judge NBA coaches too quickly and it isn’t good or fair; what if the Raptors lost to the 76ers and Nurse was labeled a failure? Would that be an accurate title? And how would it affect the way he coached going forward? 

Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves before we judge new NBA head coaches going forward, including the three making their NBA debuts next season in Memphis, Cleveland, and Minnesota. It’s important to remember that it takes a long time to develop relationships with players and to fit those players into a system that best highlights their strengths and hides their weaknesses. It took Nurse an entire season and two playoff series’ to do that, but most new coaches don’t have the luxury of so much time. 

So, in the name of fairness, let’s withhold our judgment of new NBA head coaches until enough time has passed that an accurate perception can be developed. Next time before you tweet, “John Beilein SUCKS! I could coach the Cavs to more wins than him WITH a blindfold on!” consider that the Cavaliers roster is made up of two undersized, score-first point guards who together equal 39 years of age. Before you tweet, “Get Frank Vogul out of Los Angeles NOW!!!” consider that Jason Kidd is next in line. 

We judge NBA coaches too quickly. It’s time to hit the breaks. 

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