Correct: Nick Nurse finishes top-three in Coach of the Year voting
Nurse not only finished top-three, he was the runaway winner for Coach of the Year, drawing 90 out 100 first-place votes to secure the award. The argument for Nurse was easy to make: Toronto finished the year with a higher win percentage despite losing two key starters in the offseason. Tack on month-long injuries to six of its top-seven rotation players, and it was clear Nurse deserved the award.
But it was Nurse’s innovative tactics that turned this award race into a blowout. Toronto had the second-ranked defence in the league without a single All-NBA Defensive Team player on the roster. Nurse got the best out of his team by being more creative than the rest of the league. He regularly ran zone defences, whether it was the 2-3 look that bothered Boston, the box-and-one, or even a triangle-and-two. He also used a full-court press to fuel the 30-point comeback, on top of all the standard strategies like switching or trapping. Opponents had no idea what the Raptors were going to run, because sometimes the Raptors would use all of it. In just the first two games of the Brooklynn series, Nurse had used seven different defensive strategies against Caris LeVert’s decimated Nets team.
Raptors off-season must include long term contracts for Masai Ujiri & Nick Nurse
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nurse’s fellow coaches voted Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan ahead of him for Coach of the Year, but they didn’t hesitate to copy Nurse’s strategies. After scouting the conference semifinals, the Heat leaned heavily on zone defences to eliminate the Celtics. The Warriors pulled off a stunning upset over the Rockets on Christmas Day in a game where Steve Kerr copied Nurse’s bold strategy of trapping James Harden at halfcourt. Even the lowly New York Knicks tried to deploy a box-and-one defence in one of their losses to the Raptors. Nurse took outdated concepts and adapted them to the modern game, and it helped him not only win Coach of the Year but also to secure a lucrative extension with the Raptors.
How Far Will the 2020-21 Raptors Go?
It’s possible, depending on how free agency shakes out, that the Raptors run it back with their same core seven guys, if Fred VanVleet returns and Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol take one-year deals to stick around. If VanVleet and Siakam continue to improve, if OG Anunoby, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas continue to develop, and if Kyle Lowry remains Kyle Lowry, sure, next year’s team might have a shot. (Though of course the Bucks, Celtics, Heat and 76ers will have something to say about it).
Chances are, though, that next year will be a transition year for the Raptors, as they look ahead to 2021 free agency, which is where many of us have our hats hung as the real path to the Raptors remaining in title contention.
But while this “We the North”-era iteration of the Raptors is better poised than ever to lure a big-name free agent, I’m still a “believe it when I see it” guy. It’s never happened. I hope it does! But what if it doesn’t?
Let’s also consider the future of Masai Ujiri with the Raptors. He still hasn’t signed a contract extension (and neither has Bobby Webster, despite Masai saying that deal was “close” two weeks ago). If Ujiri becomes a free agent right when 2021 free agency opens, that’s a disaster; he’s part of the draw of coming here, for one thing, but also, if Ujiri is planning to leave, is he even going to be recruiting free agents to come here at all? Or will he be forging relationships with an eye on his next job?
It’s in his nickname. It’s in his game. Nearly everything that’s ever been written about him mentions it: Chris Boucher is thin.
Boucher’s head coach at the University of Oregon said that he was initially concerned by the forward’s stature, but that Boucher’s immediate intensity and “ridiculous” motor outweighed his, er, weight. So far that’s been the case in the NBA, as Boucher’s best qualities have earned him solid minutes on a 50-win team.
Boucher has more room to grow, however, in order to earn more consistent minutes. And sure, he can make improvements like working on his handle and developing a mid-range game (he took six shots all season between 10 and 19 feet). But the most crucial thing the Slimm Duck can add to his game is strength.
As Sports Illustrated’s Aaron Rose points out, Boucher’s stature at a listed 200 pounds made him a target for defenders looking to post up. He allowed one point per possession on post-up plays, putting him in just the league’s 36th percentile of post defenders — no Raptor other than Boucher and McCaw finished below the 73rd percentile. This clip from Christmas 2019 shows Jayson Tatum backing down on Boucher, who just doesn’t have the strength to hold his ground, leading to an easy bucket:
The disadvantages posed by his slenderness aren’t exactly breaking news — least of all to Boucher himself.
Using the NBA’s four-month hiatus as a time to work on his body, Chris Boucher gained around 15 pounds before entering the Bubble. “I feel it when I finish,” Boucher said of his newly added muscle. “I was falling on the ground a lot, when I was dribbling the ball I was getting off balance or just focusing on contact so much I feel like I was scared of the hits.” Unless he was attacking the rim at full speed for a mostly uncontested dunk, his stature hindered his ability to finish in the paint as he was outmuscled by the league’s stronger bigs. In fact, Boucher shot just 43 percent on layup attempts in the 2019-20 season — the lowest mark by a Raptors player.
While Boucher didn’t get a ton of playing time in the Bubble, we caught glimpses during his 25-point performance vs. the Bucks of how his added muscle allowed him to finish stronger. In one play, Siakam passes to Boucher as the latter cuts to the basket. Boucher is met by all 281 pounds of Robin Lopez, but maintains control in the air and sinks the layup. Later on, Boucher finishes with a forceful dunk despite being pushed in the air by Ersan Ilyasova. He’s no Chuck Hayes, but Boucher has shown promising signs of increased balance and finishing ability with his weight gain.
Worse: Superstar play-maker Pascal Siakam
Can’t let a drive-by diss of Siakam like that slide without defending it. The Raptors came out in full force to defend Siakam after their seven-game second-round loss to Boston, and much of what Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry and Co. argued was true. Siakam is young and proved himself as a winning player already. He will also get better from the failure of these playoffs.
But there is no doubt he failed. After a regular season in which he finished in the 50th percentile in total halfcourt offensive efficiency per Synergy Sports play type data, Siakam was even worse in the postseason. He shot just 39.6 percent from the field and a putrid 18.9 percent from deep. All-in-one defensive metrics pegged him as nearly neutral rather than the common (and earned) perception of his All-Defense talent. Because they had no better options, Toronto repeatedly went to Siakam in isolation and in the post, but the Celtics wrapped him up.
The unheralded forward has improved greatly each season he’s been in the league, so we should expect him to get better going forward. But at age 26, Siakam is getting closer to a complete product, and this playoff run showed it’s unlikely he is the type of scoring hub who can replace Kawhi Leonard and lead the Raptors back into championship contention.
On the very day that Silver made his first appearance inside the bubble’s ‘Tier 1,’ where players, coaches, executives, staffers, and media members alike have been since early July, the gravity of what’s to come in the months ahead was laid bare. With COVID-19 having taken upwards of 200,000 American lives, the effects on the economy continue to worsen too.
Disney, coincidentally enough, announced on Wednesday that it laid off a quarter of the employees from its theme parks (approximately 28,000 people). That news hit many of the bubble citizens on a personal level, including yours truly. I instantly thought of the driver who I met during my first days here in late August, when he asked how long we would be staying and shared the harsh reality that the bubble’s very existence meant a delay of forthcoming furloughs.
On the NBA front, the Sacramento Kings announced layoffs in their basketball operations department on Wednesday — the latest sign of the impact on the bottom lines across the league. Meanwhile, the latest NFL news — a game rescheduled based on positive COVID-19 tests from players — was seen by league officials as a concerning sign when it comes to plotting out their next move.
There’s a reason Silver made it clear that a bubble next season — however undesirable it might be — is still being considered.
As Silver said in his presser that was broken down by our Joe Vardon here, there are “difficult negotiations” ahead between the league and the National Basketball Players Association when it comes to the collective bargaining agreement and everything that surrounds it. In fact, Silver said in this long and substantive window into his world, those talks have already tipped off.
“The process has begun already,” Silver said. “In fact, we identified this probably in July, when we talked to our teams. They actually said to the league office, ‘You’re all working so hard, we want to make sure that you’re also focused on next season.’ And so within the league office, one of my colleagues, Amy Brooks, has been leading a separate team focused just on that, on what next season will look like, when is the appropriate time to start, what the protocols should be.
One of the options the sides are considering is keeping next season’s salary cap artificially high and matching this season’s $109 million cap number. Then, to balance the revenue split the owners and players have agreed to, every player would give up a portion of his salary.
If the players agree to this, free agents (such as the Lakers’ Anthony Davis) would be sheltered from carrying the burden of dramatically reduced revenues, spreading the losses across the players’ union. Without it, the NBA could be looking at a nuclear winter where free agents go unsigned or sign for dramatically reduced salaries.
Typically, 10 percent of players’ salaries are held in escrow each season until an audit of revenues is conducted. When the pandemic hit, players agreed to put 25 percent of their remaining salaries into escrow for this season. That agreement could extend another season.
But if it does, players with massive guaranteed contracts — like, say, LeBron James, at $39.2 million — won’t see all of their money.
There are myriad issues for the owners and players to discuss, including a start date for next season, what to do about the Olympics next season, possible play-in games for future playoffs and social-justice initiatives. But it’s the cash issue that is front and center.
The owners still hold the ultimate “Force Majeure” hammer in their hands, where they could cancel the current collective bargaining agreement because no team played 82 games this season. If they were to do so, the NBA could be looking at a work stoppage. The league lost about $1 billion this season, due not only to the pandemic (lost games, no fans), but also an October political controversy in China.
The Toronto Raptors had planned to open their home arena so Americans living in Toronto could register to vote, but announced Thursday that due to the global pandemic, rising case numbers in Toronto and Ontario, and restrictions on indoor gatherings, voting registration won’t be held in person.
The Raptors are urging voters to request their ballots online.
Teams across the NBA and other pro sports have offered their facilities for election-related activities, and volunteers had planned to be at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena this week to assist Americans registering for absentee ballots.
Racial and social justice messages were a major theme of the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World. Coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors launched a social media campaign to encourage the some-650,000 Americans living in Canada to vote.
“I know firsthand how easy it is to register for an absentee ballot . . . it was really fast and simple,” said Nurse, who registered to vote while he was in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World.