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2019-20 Coach Review: Nick Nurse

Waxing poetic about the coach's regular season and analyzing what he could have done differently against the Celtics.

15 mins read
Nathan Denette, Canadian Press.

Nicholas David Nurse. Who doesn’t love the guy?

Not long after Nick Nurse took over the Toronto Raptors at the start of the 2018-19 season, it became clear that he was not only an upgrade over former head coach Dwane Casey, but that he had the coaching chops to lead the Raptors to their first ever championship, which he did that season.

But after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason — and replacing them with the likes of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, which is to say not really replacing them at all — the 2019-20 season became an even bigger test for Nurse: how would he get this depleted roster to defend their title?

Although the Raptors fell short of their ultimate goal of a championship, Nurse passed the test with flying colours.

He proved that he could consistently get the most out of his players — no matter who was injured and who was healthy — and find different ways to win games at home and on the road, bookmarked by statement wins against the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angelos Lakers. The Raptors achieved their best win percentage in franchise history, the No. 2 record in the entire league (behind only the historic Milwaukee Bucks), and the No. 2 record in the bubble (behind only the historic Bubble Suns), despite missing the 219 man-games to injury — the fifth most in the NBA — including significant injuries to everyone in their top-seven besides OG Anunoby.

Nurse — once known as an offensive coach — helped craft the second-best defense in the league with the No. 2 defensive rating and the least points allowed. Nurse built a system around the strengths of the players rather than the other way around. He was fortunate to have the likes of Kyle Lowry (the mind), Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol, but it was Nurse who organized them and developed the gameplans, and it was Nurse who helped the Raptors maintain that elite defense throughout all the injuries. 

The Raptors struggled to score in the half-court throughout the season, but Nurse and his staff were smart enough to encourage the Raptors to play fast and score in transition when they could (A lot of the credit for their decent offense also has to go to Lowry, who drives the offense night after night and is one of the smartest players in basketball, which often gets missed in the conversation around Nurse and the Raptors).

In terms of the regular season, there is nothing I can point to and say Nurse could have done better. It was practically flawless: he gave the young guys room to develop while winning at an astounding rate. But the Raptors failed to defeat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semi-finals and it was a disappointing end after proving to be a slightly better team over the course of the regular season. The Celtics were a bad matchup for the Raptors, and Siakam and Gasol playing so poorly in the bubble was not Nurse’s fault, but the Raptors came up short of their goal and if the praise is going to go to Nurse when they win, the blame has to go to him when they lose. 

The following are some ideas as to what Nurse could have maybe done differently in the Celtics’ series in order to give the Raptors a better chance to come out on top. 

Give the bench a chance

A lot of people have critiqued Nurse for the fact that his starters looked exhausted by the end of game 7 against the Celtics, which they did. VanVleet, Lowry, and Siakam all averaged more than 40 minutes per game that series, and with the way the Raptors defense is set up, those players are responsible to score on one end and run around and defend their asses off on the other. 

That they got tired should not be a surprise, but I don’t blame Nurse for riding his best players — and his top-seven in general — that hard. In fact, I wrote about how the Raptors would go as far as their top-seven takes them back in July, and I think it’s safe to say that Nurse agreed. 

Plus, if we are going to hash out blame for the starters getting so worn out, I think the front office deserves some of it: They failed to find bench players outside of Ibaka and Powell who Nurse could trust on both ends of the floor. The Raptors opted not to make a trade at the deadline or pick anyone up off waivers, and that’s not Nurse’s fault.

With that being said, I understand the sentiment that Nurse should have given more minutes to the likes of Terrence Davis II, Matt Thomas, and maybe even Hollis-Jefferson or Chris Boucher. Thomas was good in the 6.9 minutes he averaged throughout the series, shooting 54.5 percent from the field, and TDII had a good enough of a regular season that he deserved a chance to play more minutes and potentially find his rhythm in that series. But the margins are so small, and each of those players comes with their flaws (I reviewed TDII’s season here), so I understand why Nurse didn’t trust them to play big minutes against the Celtics. 

It’s hard to blame him. 

Trust in Ibaka

I do blame Nurse, however, for not fully trusting Ibaka against the Celtics after one of the best seasons of his career. I think Ibaka should have gotten more minutes and shots against the Celtics because he adds a dimension to the Raptors’ offense that no other big man does.

I understand what Gasol did in the previous years’ playoffs, earning him the right to start and close games, and I understand Ibaka’s defensive liabilities, especially when they are compared to Gasol’s elite defense. But the Raptors didn’t need defense against the Celtics; they needed offense. And there are not many centers in the league who had better offensive seasons than Ibaka did. 

Ibaka shot 52.5 from the field and 48.4 from three in the Celtics series with a true shooting percentage of 67.1, yet he only averaged 22.5 minutes per game and attempted just 8.7 field goals per game. Gasol played almost as many minutes (21.2) despite shooting just 39.5 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from three with a true shooting percentage of 44.1. Of course, Gasol is a much better passer, averaging an assist more per game than Ibaka and a much higher assist percentage, but the Raptors’ half-court offense never got going, even with Gasol on the floor. In a series where the Raptors struggled to score, Nurse could have pulled Gasol earlier and played more minutes with either Ibaka at center or OG Anunoby at center. It would have required the Raptors to change how they maneuver in the halfcourt, since a lot of their offense is based around Gasol, but they never even tried a different strategy for long stretches. 

It wasn’t like Ibaka was horrible on defense, either. The Raptors had a better net rating with Ibaka on the floor (-7.4) than with Gasol (-9.0) against the Celtics despite Ibaka playing more minutes with the bench. Plus, Ibaka averaged 1.4 blocks per game and 6.3 rebounds, which is 1.7 more than Gasol averaged, along with a rebounding percentage of 13.2 compared to Gasol’s 9.6, which is significant in a series where the Raptors were outrebounded (even after acknowledging that Gasol boxes out for his teammates more than he grabs his own rebounds). 

Gasol is a great player who helped the Raptors win a championship and is necessary against certain matchups like Joel Embiid, but he didn’t serve as much of a purpose as Ibaka did against the Celtics, which is why I thought Ibaka should have been given more opportunity by trying to outscore the Celtics. 

Dictate the offense

VanVleet and Siakam both had great regular seasons, and VanVleet was the Raptors best player in their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, but they both struggled significantly against the Celtics and, instead of controlling more of the offense himself — trying to dictate who takes the shots and doing a better job finding the hot hands of Lowry and Ibaka — Nurse trusted VanVleet and Siakam to get the job done and they came up short. 

VanVleet shot just 34.8 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from deep, which was not surprising against a team as long and athletic as the Celtics, especially after he struggled so much against the Philadelphia 76ers a year prior. To his credit, VanVleet averaged as many assists as Lowry (6.4) and fewer turnovers (2.4), so it’s not like he was a zero on offense. But he was given such a big leash despite never finding his rhythm, even getting the final shot in game 7:

Siakam never looked right in the bubble, and while that’s not an indictment on him as a player (he will be fine), he was given too big of an offensive leash against the Celtics despite shooting 38.2 percent from the field. What was most frustrating was that he kept shooting the three-ball (4.6 attempts per game) despite them only going in 12.5 percent of the time. Siakam also had a 0.56 assist to turnover ratio in that series, which isn’t great. 

The fact that VanVleet and Siakam had usage percentages of 23.7 and 21.2, respectively, while shooting the ball so poorly doesn’t bode well for Nurse and the Raptors’ coaching staff. To be fair, no one was shooting the ball particularly well, and no one seemed to demand the ball as much as VanVleet did (maybe because he had the most energy?), but Lowry was the Raptors best player throughout that series and Ibaka was playing really well offensively — as was Anunoby (59.5 true shooting percentage) and Norman Powell (55.5 true shooting percentage) — that Nurse had other offensive options had he tried to dictate the shots more. 

He chose not to, instead trusting the players that got the Raptors to that point in the first place. It’s hard to blame him — especially since Lowry looked gassed and the rest of those players have never proved to be able to take on such a big offensive load — but I thought Nurse trusted his guys a little too much despite evidence piling up throughout the series that suggested the Raptors should maybe try something different. After the game 6 overtime thriller, for example, I thought the Raptors would lean on their small-ball lineup a lot in game 7, but they hardly did. 

Nurse had a fantastic season at the head of the bench, taking a depleted roster and helping craft them into a championship contender who defended their title about as well as they could have. It was disappointing to see the Raptors lose to the Celtics — and, with the benefit of hindsight, maybe there are some things that Nurse could have done differently in that series — but if you’re giving me a choice as to what team I want to root for as a basketball fan, I’ll take the 2019-20 Raptors ten times out of ten.

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