2018-19 Coach Review: Nick Nurse

10 mins read

Good coaching in the NBA is nothing like pornography; we almost never know it when we see it. Coaching is one of the most opaque duties in the NBA, as the vast majority of a coach’s job is invisible to the average viewer. You don’t see the entire role of a coach on the television during games, and you can’t hear it during media availability. But coaches have a huge role in defining a team’s identity and setting the tone for the year. The Raptors’ championship is certainly a brilliant moment for Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, but the glory, too, belongs to Nick Nurse.

It’s easy to see Nurse’s glow-up through teleology. This is a man who stepped out of the airplane on the road to Milwaukee wearing shades, Beats, and a guitar. He played guitar on stage with the Arkells. The Big Nick Energy, with the benefit of hindsight, seems inevitable. It wasn’t.

When the Toronto Raptors hired Nurse to replace his former Head Coach, Dwane Casey, large swaths of fandom were upset that the Raptors didn’t jump on Mike Budenholzer when he was available. Nurse was hired to coach the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry Raptors, and instead he fell into a Kawhi Leonard-led championship contender.

The season started off as well as could feasibly have been expected. Toronto opened the season 12-1, and it seemed like no matter who was available in the lineup, the Raptors were a scheduled loss for opponents. A ho-hum 124-111 November 5 win over the Utah Jazz, without Leonard in the lineup, on a back-to-back, after beating LeBron James and the Lakers the night before, was evidence early that this Raptors ream was special.

Nurse moved Serge Ibaka permanently to the center position (in the regular season), which resulted in Ibaka’s best campaign since 2015-16. Norman Powell bounced back this year with a better defined role. Kyle Lowry finished with his highest assist average of his career. Siakam was empowered to break out, even taking the second-most shots on the team, despite far more veterans populating Toronto’s roster. The big picture, when it came to Nurse, was rosy all the way through the year.

There were some questions lingering, quietly, around Nurse during the season. He force-fed Fred VanVleet on-ball point guard reps when it was clear that VanVleet was better suited to being an off-ball catch-and-shoot threat. (That VanVleet was, basically, permanently injured all season also hurt his effectiveness.) Nurse played VanVleet-Powell-Ibaka 212 minutes in the regular season, only three fewer than Leonard-Lowry-Gasol, and the former trio generally fared poorly (winning their minutes by only 12 points total). Nurse ran almost exclusively isolation sets in crunch time. The Raptors were excellent during the entire regular season, but there were plenty of reasons for skepticism heading into the playoffs, if you were looking for reasons to doubt.

It turned out that practically every question of Nurse had an answer in the playoffs. VanVleet thrived on-ball in the playoffs to such an extent that it was he who closed out the Finals-clinching game with a series of step-back triples against hapless Warriors. Nurse coached circles around Mike Budenholzer in the Eastern Conference Finals. The trio of VanVleet-Powell-Ibaka were integral in Toronto beating the Bucks and Warriors, winning their 112 minutes against those two teams by 40 points, the most of any trio of Raptors. Nurse won an NBA Championship, and he will forever be enshrined as the best coach in Toronto Raptors history.

Nurse won two championships in the British Basketball League, with the Birmingham Bullets and Manchester Giants. He won two championships in the D League with the Iowa Energy and Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Now, he’s won a championship in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors.

Nurse isn’t afraid of being questioned, and he never loses his cool. One of the most important qualities a team needs in a head coach is calmness. If in the heat of the moment a coach loses his nerve, it’s catastrophic for a team. It’s why Shaq calling Stan Van Gundy “a master of panic” was so devastating. In past series against the Cleveland Cavaliers or Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors have lost their nerve. They’ve folded before series even ended. The Nurse-led Raptors never collapsed. Even down 2-0 against the favourite Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors never lost their confidence.

Nurse’s emotional poise wasn’t his only contribution. When Fred VanVleet struggled mightily against the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, Nurse trusted him and continued to feed VanVleet minutes. Even as the vast majority of pundits questioned the choice, VanVleet transformed into the second coming of Robert Horry against the Bucks and Warriors. Against the Bucks, Nurse moved Kawhi Leonard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Raptors won four straight to reach the finals. Against the Golden State Warriors, Nurse used – for the first time in the history of the NBA Finals – a box-and-one zone to force Steph Curry’s less offensively capable teammates score. They couldn’t, and Toronto’s defensive stringency was the most important factor in the Raptors securing their first ever NBA Championship. Nurse’s creativity was paramount throughout the playoffs.

All of Toronto’s successes were of course victories for the players first and foremost, for VanVleet, for Leonard, for Ibaka, and others. But Nurse had a huge hand in empowering his team to succeed. Nurse’s reputation as a mad scientist was perhaps overstated. He didn’t reinvent the wheel in leading the Raptors to the championship, but he did instill and enhance Toronto’s elite culture and system. When Toronto needed to win, they fell back on one of the best defenses of the modern NBA. When they needed to score, they turned to simple yet effective sets that let Leonard and Pascal Siakam attack mismatches for efficient buckets. Nurse was more Jane Austen than Mary Shelley, more Phil Jackson than Don Nelson. His leadership and conservatism were foundational qualities for the Raptors, and they were huge in Toronto winning a championship.

It’s almost impossible to evaluate the job a coach has done. We don’t know if another coach would have won a championship with this roster. We as viewers certainly have no conception of the everyday job Nurse did within the franchise. But we know that he couldn’t have done anything better. The Toronto Raptors won an NBA Championship, and they did it with a rookie Nick Nurse at the helm. We see his choices in a game, such as rotations or defensive coverages, but those are only specks of the tapestry that is being an NBA head coach. We can only judge from the results, for the process is invisible. And Nick Nurse’s results are basically poetry.

Nurse been enjoying the post-win glow as much as any player. His image has shifted from that of a friendly rural Iowan boy to a proper rock star. He has never been out of his depth. Nurse is now one of nine rookie head coaches to have ever won an NBA Championship, and that list includes Pat Riley and Steve Kerr. It’s been a long road for Nick Nurse to reach this position as NBA Champion, and it will be a long road going forward without Kawhi Leonard, but Toronto is fortunate to have Nurse as head coach for the future.

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