When Nick Nurse was hired to replace Dwane Casey as head coach of the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2018, he was regarded as an innovative, unorthodox, creative, and ultimately experiential coach who wasn’t afraid to try new things. He said as much during his introductory press conference:
“We’ve got to be innovative. We’ve got to be trying to think about what’s coming next before it comes next if [we] want to stay ahead of the game… We want to be creative. I think you’re gonna see some different things. There is probably going to be some uncomfortableness at times when we try things that are maybe a little bit too far outside the box.”
In hindsight, I think it’s fair to say Nurse’s first season as an NBA head coach didn’t go as planned. No one expected DeMar DeRozan to be traded for Kawhi Leonard later that summer, bringing Toronto it’s first real superstar. Nurse also couldn’t have expected Pascal Siakam to break out as the Most Improved Player in the NBA, nor could he have expected an injury-riddled year for OG Anunoby or a trade for Marc Gasol that changed the offense dramatically. He also probably didn’t expect to win a title in his first season.
But back to Leonard, because the addition of superstar of Leonard’s caliber drastically changed the way Nurse had to coach the Raptors in 2018-19. Leonard is so good that Nurse had no choice but to develop a style of play that fit around Leonard’s straightforward style of basketball; basketball that is played at Leonard’s tempo. Plus, Nurse had to do everything possible to please his superstar (who the Raptors wanted desperately to re-sign).
In the end, it worked about as well as it could have for Nurse and Co., bringing Toronto its first title in franchise history. But Nurse never got to be the “innovative” and “creative” coach he claimed he was going to be. He never tried anything too far outside the box that made many people uncomfortable around the team. To his credit, he did try different lineups and styles throughout the regular season in order to best prepare his team for the playoffs, but a lot of that was due to injuries and load management.
A look at the numbers demonstrates that the Raptors weren’t outliers in the most important categories. In fact, they ranked right around the middle of the league in several of the most telling categories including assists per game (13th), rebounds per game (17th), pace (15th), percentage of points from three (10th), and percentage of points in the paint (21st). The only area the Raptors were truly outliers was in transition where they were elite, scoring 26.8 points per game (3rd) on 1.19 points per possession (1st).
You could look at the fact that the Raptors played more conservatively than originally expected two ways: Either Nurse wasn’t as innovative as he envisioned because he underestimated the NBA and how hard it is to stray from the norm in a league of such parity or you could argue that Nurse wasn’t as innovative because the addition of Leonard forced his hand towards playing the simplistic style his superstar demanded.
Whatever the reason for Nurse’s reluctance to go outside the box last season, there are reasons to believe that will change in 2019-20. Firstly, Leonard’s departure means Nurse is without a superstar to please and is truly at the helm of the Raptors. Additionally, with a championship in the rearview mirror and no real expectations this season, Nurse can feel safer taking risks with his increased job security. He also has a dramatically different roster this season: one that is better suited to get weird with because it’s in a transitional state, full of young, versatile players with upside (one interesting note: aside from the veteran players on expiring contracts, the oldest Raptor next season will be Chris Boucher at 26). All of these factors together make it likely that Nurse will step outside the box next season and make things weird and uncomfortable for the Raptors and their fans like he originally said he might.
Before we get into the ways the Raptors can get weird next season, let’s look at their projected depth chart:
Point guard: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Cameron Payne
Shooting guard: Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis
Small forward: OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, Malcolm Miller, Devin Robinson
Power forward: Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher
Center: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Dewan Hernandez
The possibilities are endless when it comes to the lineups and styles Nurse can play next season. Without Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, or Marc Gasol in the long term plans, Nurse will run a lot of the offense through young players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby, testing to see what those players can do as the primary options. In terms of playstyle, the Raptors lost two of their best three-point shooters in Danny Green and Leonard and replaced them with defensive wings like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. That means the roster doesn’t have ideal three-point shooting and Nurse will have to find unorthodox ways to score efficiently.
With so many wings on the roster, Nurse can play five-wing lineups with Siakam at point. Or he can go to the opposite end of the spectrum and play small with Siakam at center, something many of us expected to see in the playoffs. He can also play jumbo lineups with Siakam at the 3, Chris Boucher/Dewan Hernandez at the 4, and Gasol/Ibaka at center.
It’s clear that the identity the Raptors are going for is a defensive-minded team with length and versatility. It will be difficult to improve on their 5th ranked defensive rating from last season, but they can at least try to make up for the loss of Green and Leonard by playing bigger lineups and giving more minutes to defensively-sound players like Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson, and Johnson. They can also play more zone defense to switch it up and throw opposing teams off balance. Or they can play multiple rebounders hopes of dominating the boards for second-chance opportunities (going big is a reversion a few teams seem to be going this summer). The interesting thing about their roster is that despite it being big and long, most guys can run and play in transition. Since they lack shooting, a lot of their points project to come in transition where guys like Siakam, Powell, Anunoby, Boucher, McCaw, and Hernandez can dominate.
The beauty about Nurse having free reign to be the innovative and creative coach he claims to be is that we really don’t know what tricks he has up his sleeve. He knows the roster better than anyone and has the reputation of being a risk-taker for a reason. Although we can’t know exactly how Nurse will go outside the box next season (no one saw the box-and-one coming last playoffs), it will be fascinating to see how he maneuvers the season without a superstar to constantly worry about and a roster better suited to play around with. Plus, aside from taking even more threes, we don’t know what the next inefficiency to exploit in the NBA is, but I’m sure the Raptors, a franchise with a big analytics department, is looking into those sort of things.
The Raptors are severe underdogs to win the East, yet the players don’t lack the confidence or championship pedigree. However, if the Raptors want to turn some heads and come out of the East next season, Nurse and Co. will have to get weird and step outside the box.
They simply don’t have the talent to do it any other way.