2020-21 Coach Review: Nick Nurse

It's hard to blame Nick Nurse for any of Toronto's misfortunes last season. The only thing that he really fumbled on (and I'm hard-pressed to mention this) was not realizing the limitations of his personnel sooner, rather than later.

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What a descent from greatness for good ol’ Saint Nick. He reached the pinnacle of NBA glory after leading the Raptors to their first-ever championship. He then won the NBA Coach of the Year the following season, and in his third year at the helm of Canada’s lone franchise… he obtained a highly coveted lottery pick. Of course, that’s not what the intention was but injuries and COVID-19 protocols left him empty handed. Even Nick Nurse himself was forced to sit out a hand full of games in Toronto’s most futile season.

But was it a total blunder?

Let’s be honest. That season felt like a VIA Rail train coming at you with full speed ahead, as Nurse tried to scheme up a game plan without any legitimate size to rebound and protect the paint. It’s alright dude, you tried. In a league where the coach is the scapegoat, Nurse is probably the last one to blame for the disappointing season that was. His rotations were never consistent and a serviceable roster option to clog the paint didn’t exist until there was only a month left before the playoffs began. So after winning a championship and Coach of the Year in consecutive seasons, what prize did Nurse accrue in his third season at the helm of Canada’s lone NBA franchise?

We learned a lot about “position-less” basketball as Nurse planted six-five DeAndre’ Bembry as a center multiple times. He also had Pascal Siakam at the top of the key in a lot of his 3-2 schemes, and he lead the Dinos to a respectable 15th place, 112.0 defensive rating. A lot of things were completely out of his control. When you’re put in that position, it’s frustrating. However, you have to do what you can with the pieces you have… which is exactly what Nurse did. Losing Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, VanVleet, and Siakam for 91-man games did absolutely nothing in the Raptors continual quest to silence the doubters. 27-45? The eighth-worst winning percentage that Toronto has ever registered? All these elements combined led to a disastrous season and although there’s a lot of gelling for the remaining pieces, Nurse’s seat is nowhere near being hot. It’s insane to be talking about how Nurse could’ve done a better job. I really feel like there’s nobody who could’ve done better with this roster (or lack thereof) with everything that transpired.

Nurse also struggled to figure out his rotations when the season began. It could also be that the team was tired after having a short off-season. Regardless, the personnel wasn’t available and Nurse wasn’t able to figure out an adequate small-ball rotation. But, nobody’s free from blame.

Drastic defensive drop-off

As I mentioned before, the Raptors ranked 15th in the league for defensive rating after ranking second last season. A lot of that can be attributed to multiple missed games and several key pieces being unavailable. The five-man lineup that played the most minutes together included Lowry, VanVleet, Norman Powell, Siakam, and Aron Baynes. Across the board, that lineup had a plus/minus of 2.7, and lost out on a multitude of categories against their opponents, including giving up more than nine turnovers. That’s anywhere between 18 to 27 points, and it’s astounding simply because Nurse isn’t a coach that spends too long on a lineup combo if it doesn’t work. He loves to experiment, and maybe in that sense, he fell on his own sword.

I’ll give it to him that he didn’t have much of a choice but to mix things up. However, thinking that the Raptors could replace the production and defensive mindset of Gasol and Ibaka with guys like Baynes and Alex Len was a huge error in judgement. Baynes’ footwork drove me specifically drove me crazy and I often thought he might fall down trying to defend some of the quicker guards. I don’t say that as a way to disparage him because the role he was expected to fulfill was not one that should’ve been thrust upon him.

But regardless of a players ability, it’s the coaches job to mask a players weakness. With that being said, if Nick Nurse couldn’t do that, then I don’t know who could’ve. Baynes spent too much time on the court, even after it became apparent that his capabilities were so limited for the assignments he was given. As a result, Toronto averaged a third-worst 41.6 rebounds, a far cry from their 10th ranking 45-board-average last season. The difference between four boards is pretty significant when you factor the point possibilities for each possession.

The level of concern for Toronto’s interior defense can only be rivalled by the lack of perimeter pressure that was put on opponents. Against the Raptors, 29 other teams shot 38 per cent from beyond the arc. This is largely because of the teams inability to guard the pick-and-roll. Forget about teams shooting three’s now more than ever. This is an issue of communication and while that falls on the players, it ultimately comes back to Nurse and the positions that he’s putting his players in. Ultimately, he had no choice.

Build confidence

When the season started on a bad note, the Raps were able to turn things around and right before the halfway point of the year, Toronto had scratched and clawed their way to a 17-17 record, sitting at fourth in the east. However, COVID-19 reared it’s ugly-ass head, keeping Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby and Malachi Flynn away from the rest of the team, effectively setting in motion what was the longest losing streak for the team this season.

The four previously mentioned players returned to the lineup on March 17 in a loss to the Detroit Pistons but the L’s continued to pile on until the eve of the trade deadline on March 24, when they finally pulled out a huge win over the Denver Nuggets in what was suspected to be Lowry’s last game in a Raptors uniform. That didn’t happen but even after the win, Toronto lost four in a row and 13 of their last 14 games. I talked about the inconsistency of lineups but after a miserable March that sunk them from fourth to 11th, I think that’s where certain guys need more run in order to see what they’re really made of.

I’m not talking about Johnson or Bembry. However, I would’ve loved to see Flynn on the court more. He got significant run near the end of the season and while we knew he was a defensive ace coming out of college, his asides from his sometimes questionable shot selection, his offense was better than expected. This is where Nurse should’ve instilled more confidence in his young point guard and given Flynn more run throughout the season. The same goes for Jalen Harris (although he’s now banned for one year). This might’ve been a great opportunity to hit the refresh button and develop the younger players while resting the core. It’d be a short-term loss. But in the bigger picture, with their development, Flynn and Harris could’ve become solid rotational pieces that form a supporting cast.

Soothing things with Siakam

There was reportedly an intense verbal altercation between Siakam and Nurse and when teams lose, every option about who stays and who goes is assessed. With that being said, there doesn’t seem to be any imminent movement on the verge for either the coach or the player. I truly believe this was a one-off incident where the weight of the season was just too much on every Raptors personnel. Whether it be playing in Tampa and getting boo’d as the “home team”, or dealing with the inconsistency of lineups, there has been no report about tempers flaring before… or at least the franchise was unbelievably tight-lipped about it.

If there’s one thing that keeps every player, coach, and staff member united, it’s the goal to always win. The organization has never shied away from denouncing any speculation that a tank job might be on the table. Instead, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have focused on asset management and cap flexibility. Making moves for now and for the future.

Speaking of the future, this is precisely why tensions need to be soothed. They say winning heals everything and although I don’t know the specifics about the argument between Siakam and Nurse, I’m sure they’ve both buried the hatchet, realizing the turbulence experienced this season was unlike anything they’ve had since becoming the Raptors focal points.

Overall, I place very little blame on Nurse because he had very little control over the circumstances he experienced. That’s not to say he didn’t make any mistakes at all. But rather, he relied on strategies that worked before, with personnel that was limited in their abilities.

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