Some arguments answer themselves in the asking. Self-evident, though, doesn’t necessarily mean explanation of the argument isn’t required. America’s founding fathers’ truths required a fairly lengthy treatise, after all. To say that Nick Nurse is the leader in the race for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is not in itself a revelatory statement. In fact, it’s fairly clear why the coach of the 42-15 Toronto Raptors deserves his named mentioned in the award discussion. But the shallow argument doesn’t pry into the depths of Nurse’s success.
Because of the difficult of judging the value of a coach, being Coach of the Year is not about having the best team of the year. The coach is not on the floor playing games, so it’s hard sometimes to see what they do. The award is really for the team that most outperforms pre-season expectations. To that point, only two coaches in the last 20 years have won Coach of the Year and and NBA championship in the same year. (Strangely enough, it was Gregg Poppovich with the San Antonio Spurs both times, in 2014 and 2003.) Winning Coach of the Year doesn’t always mean you coach the best team in the league, or even that you are the best coach in the league. Ask Dwane Casey. If he doesn’t answer the phone, ask Sam Mitchell.
To that end, Nick Nurse has the Raptors certainly outperforming expectations. Before the season began, the collection of experts at ESPN predicted the Raptors would finish sixth in the East, with a record of 45-37. To repeat, the Raptors have already won 42 games. Some predictions were even less kind to the Raptors after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
And despite losing Leonard and Green, the brunt of the team’s wing rotation last year, as well as practically every member of the top-eight in the rotation to injury for a double-digit number of games, Nurse has the Raptors humming. Everything and nothing, of course, can be attributed to coaching. On teams stocked with talent, the praise usually goes to the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the world. On teams full of rookies and journeymen, the criticism — or at least the joblessness — usually goes to the John Beileins and J.B. Bickerstaffs of the world. The Raptors fall right in the gooey middle. They lost their MVP-caliber talent who received an outsized share of praise for Toronto’s 2019 NBA championship. Players like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, or Fred VanVleet are wonderful players, but at least before the season, they didn’t profile as traditional superstars. Yet the team has the third-most wins in the league, with a better record at this point in the season than last year when it employed Kawhi Leonard. And Toronto continues developing its young talent, with blue-chip youngsters like Terence Davis and OG Anunoby set in place as building blocks for the long-term future. As a result, the team wins, develops for when it may no longer win, and seemingly makes no mistakes. There’s enough praise to go around the roster twice over.
So why are the Raptors so good? Defense, mostly.
And that is the domain of Nick Nurse. It’s easy to look now, see the Raptors as the second-best defense in the league, and assume this was fated to happen. But there have been bumps along the way. Before the season, Nurse publicly criticized the effort level and defensive understanding of the team’s incoming players, including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. With Hollis-Jefferson’s reputation as a defensive player, it was surprising that Nurse so publicly flogged him. At times, Nurse has questioned the fouling habits of Siakam. Nobody is immune to criticism. Nurse has fostered buy-in from the guys while staying honest about their performances. Those expectations matter. The team’s defense is stellar because players are held accountable, but also because every rotation player ranges from good to great on the defensive end. There are no weak links for opponents to target, and that helps tremendously. On top of that, Nurse has a lot to say in why the defense has succeeded.
Nurse has used strange zones, box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos. He has at times intentionally put his guys into rotation, trusting that the offense will make a mistake — despite being offered a seeming advantage — before his defenders screw up while flying around the floor at top speed. The team doesn’t just win playing straight-up. It wins playing funky, and it wins playing creatively, and there most of all is where Nurse’s fingerprints can be identified.
It’s not just defense. Toronto’s offense is top-10 in the league. Siakam has exploded as a superstar this year, especially as he continues getting reps initiating in the post. Undrafted players like Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis, and Chris Boucher have developed into talented and important contributors. G league graduates — Siakam and VanVleet among them — have become some of Toronto’s most successful NBA players. Nurse isn’t responsible for all of it, but he has overseen the success and thus deserves some portion of praise. Really, as much of the praise as a coach can get.
The point remains, though, that it’s hard to assign credit for success to different members of a team.
A team cannot be separated into its disparate parts. It’s difficult to give praise to a coach without offering recognition of players, assistant coaches, front office members, and others. The Raptors are more than the sum of its parts.
If any single person were to receive the highest portion of praise for Toronto’s achievements, the uninitiated may not even include Nurse in the conversation. It might be team president Masai Ujiri, who has chosen this combination of players to fill out Toronto’s roster. It could be Kyle Lowry, who has led the team to the playoffs for an eternity, and is one of the best and most underrated players of his generation. He defines the Raptors in a way that a coach never can.
“I say this a lot, his compete level, I’ve never coached or seen anybody play as hard as this guy does in basketball, it’s the ultimate compliment,” said Nurse of Lowry after the Raptors set a franchise record in a 46-point win over the Indiana Pacers. “And it rubs off on the other guys, and not only does he do it that way, he plays it smart, he knows the coverages, he knows the opponents, he studies film, he gives his body up, right? All those things kind of transfer to the other guys… [That’s] leadership, right?”
Nurse’s name belongs with Ujiri and Lowry. Nurse recognizes the importance of Lowry, and that too is one of his greatest strengths as a coach. It’s almost a truism to say that a player deserves more credit than a coach; the player is actually on the floor hitting jumpers and taking charges, while Nurse only steps on the court to yell, red-faced, at officials. Toronto’s success belongs to a variety of members of the organization. But as much as a coach can impact his team’s play, Nurse has done it. He is crucial on the court and off of it. His players trust him, and he trusts his players. Empowerment and support, creativity and structure, success and development: Nurse has toed every line as a coach this year, traversing multiple tight-ropes with aplomb while guiding his team.
It’s possible that the Raptors finish second in the East and still under-perform expectations when the games matter. Because of improvements that Siakam and VanVleet, especially, have made to their offensive games, that’s unlikely. But there’s a chance that Toronto lacks a high-end half-court offensive performer needed to unlock the clamping defenses of the playoffs. That shouldn’t matter. The Coach of the Year award is meant to award regular season excellence beyond what was expected of a team. Because of Nick Nurse, the Raptors personify excellence beyond what was expected of a team.
There is more to basketball than winning in the playoffs. There are all sorts of victories to achieve, from development of youngsters, to beating rivals in the regular season, all the way to capturing the NBA Championship, and everything in between. It’s telling that the Raptors, with Nurse at the helm, have won each of those victories in turn. There’s nothing that Nurse has failed to accomplish, including boasting the highest winning percentage of all time for an NBA Head Coach. Nurse has his team competing for a championship at the end of the year while out-performing pre-season expectations more than any other team in the league. So no matter which way you cut it, the argument is almost too self-evident to bear repeating. Nick Nurse should be the NBA’s 2020 Coach of the Year.