Nick Nurse has been open in publicly criticizing his players this year, which is especially unlikely as the Head Coach of such a successful team. He was ruthlessly honest about newcomers’ lack of effort before the year. He didn’t blame Pascal Siakam’s foul trouble early in the year on referees, but instead on Siakam’s own mistakes. And it was on November 18, before Toronto’s blowout 132-96 win over the Charlotte Hornets, that Nick Nurse offered some transparent words about Norman Powell’s talented yet inconsistent style of play.
“We’ve seen some really great play, right? A little bit up and down. I mean, listen, I wish we could pencil him in for about 16 [points] each night, rather than 26 one and zero the next. 21 and four, or whatever. But he’s certainly, he’s capable. Obviously.”
The words were considered a surprise, but they shouldn’t have been. Nurse is more open about his team than many coaches in the NBA, and Nurse was really only stating what’s known to dedicated viewers of the Toronto Raptors. Powell has incredible, alluring ability, yet it only seems to result in great nights one out of every several games. The question for Toronto is how better to harness Powell’s jumper, lightning quickness, and vertical athleticism.
“You don’t expect him to do it every night, 20+ [points] every night, but maybe we could get it maybe one out of four, we could be at one out of three,” Nurse continued. “And we chip away at it. And then maybe three out of four. Then three out of five. We chip away that it becomes more of a consistent thing.”
Consistency has always been a buzzword for Powell, an element that Toronto fans and Toronto staff alike have had on their Christmas lists for Powell. Against the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs last year, for example, Powell notched three straight games scoring in double-figures, before scoring zero in a stretch of three out of four games against the Golden State Warriors. Powell varies as much, from game to game, as any player in the league.
One element that coincides with Powell’s inconsistency is his varying output when he’s a starter and when he’s a bench player.
Powell’s points per minute as well as efficiency splits are far superior as a starter than a bench player. This has been a theme as long as Powell has been a Raptor.
Nurse’s comments on Powell in mid-November were preceded directly by a 26-point game against the Dallas Mavericks and a two-point game against the Portland Trail Blazers, so there was recency bias in Nurse’s mind when he explained Powell’s shortcomings. And Powell, for his part, responded exceptionally. He scored 17 points against Charlotte, dishing six assists, which are a career high. In fact, since Nurse’s comments, Powell has played eight games, scoring in double figures in seven of them. That’s the longest such streak of Powell’s career since March of 2017. It did, of course, coincide with his continuing to start for Toronto as Lowry was out with a thumb injury. Powell attributes his consistency to knowing his role and where his minutes will be.
“Consistency comes with being able to be out there, and being able to get a feel, get a flow, get a touch for the game,” he explained.
Starting and playing more minutes, knowing when he’ll be on the floor, as well as what’s asked of him: those have long been the keys to unlock Powell. But a funny thing happened on Tuesday night against the Miami Heat. Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup, and Powell went back to playing off the bench. Yet Powell played magnificently. He scored 23 points, shooting four-of-eight from deep, including the two biggest shots of the night for the Raptors, both corner triples. He had eight rebounds, tying his season-high. Powell was Toronto’s best player and the biggest reason why the Raptors even had a chance to win. And he did it off the bench.
Powell’s continued excellent performance, in a shifting role, did not go unnoticed by his teammates: “I know how hard it is to go from starting all those games to [being] right back on the bench,” said Fred VanVleet. “To see him slide back into the bench role and still continue the same type of play he was doing before is very encouraging.”
Nurse said that he spoke with Powell before the Miami game. With Lowry back in the lineup, Nurse wanted to be explicit about Powell’s role going forward.
“I just kind of told him, I said ‘Norm, great job, you know, great great job filling in but this is in reality your role, your role is an off the bench guy for this team so let’s go kick some butt in this role and start getting used to it,'” said Nurse. “And I was proud of him for doing that last night. And he was huge. He led the comeback, I thought.”
Nurse knows that it’s tough for Powell to go from starting to being back on the bench, but Powell said all the right things when discussing the change with Nurse: “He understood,” recounted Nurse. “There’s a closeness between he, Kyle and Fred, there’s a respect there, they’ve been through a lot of wars together. I think he understands, and thank goodness for the sake of the chemistry of our team. He accepts it.”
Powell didn’t just say the right things to his coach. He’s said over and over to media that there’s total buy-in no matter where and when Nurse chooses to play him. He went so far as to give the classic “whatever role they have me in, I go out there and give it 110 percent. The most important thing for me is winning.” (That is an actual quote.) Powell understands his role for the healthy Raptors will be off the bench, and his teammates and coaches appreciate his flexibility.
The important aspect is whether Powell will continue to thrive. He hasn’t, for much of his career, been a reliable microwave bench scorer. Yet Powell exemplified that role on Tuesday against Miami. It was only one game, but it was an important showing as Toronto re-adjusts to veterans Ibaka and Lowry returning to the lineup. Powell needs to remain aggressive despite Toronto having so many more shot creators on the floor.
Toronto has been one of the best teams in the league this year because they maximize each player within his role. The Raptors have less talent at the top of their roster than they did last year, but they’ve been practically as successful through the first 20 games as the 2018-19 Raptors. Before this year, Powell had long been a player without a consistently defined role for Toronto. That is different in 2019-20. He knows what’s expected of him, and Toronto is expecting him to deliver. Fans have long bemoaned a lack of consistency from Powell, but perhaps it’s simply consistency from the organization that Powell has required. He has that now. Powell is no longer competing for a starting job with the Toronto Raptors, so it’s time to see how consistently he can perform now that his role and minutes will finally stay the same.