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Watching the Olympics, it was clear that experience playing together, exhibited by France and Australia, the silver and bronze medallists respectively, was a key part of international success.
“Let’s just look at our own tournament with the Czech Republic. They deserved to win,” Nurse said. “Why did they deserve to win? Well, those same guys committed to play for several years together. That team finished, what, fifth, sixth in the world at the World Cup? And then they brought nine or 10 of the same guys back. And head-to-head with them, you could feel the chemistry, you could feel the connections, you could feel the bond that they had. And that’s super important in basketball.”
The question has always been how realistic is it to get that sort of commitment for Canada. Earlier in the summer, Nurse joked that ex-Raptor Jonas Valanciunas might run into some trouble in the streets of Vilnius if he skipped a summer of Lithuanian basketball. In Canada, a few die-hards might get upset for a few days, and then everyone forgets.
Nurse and GM Rowan Barrett, then, have already started to present a plan — buzzers should be going off in your head right now — for what a three-summer commitment would look like. Four of the qualification windows (November 2021 and ‘22 and February of 2022 and ‘23) occur during the NBA regular season, and won’t be options for the country’s best players. (For that matter, Nurse will be unavailable in those windows, too, unless something unlikely happens to his full-time gig. Gordie Herbert will continue to coach Canada in those windows.) The hope would be that the August 2022 window, which leads into September’s FIBA Americup in Brazil, would be doable for all players, with the window that bridges June and July 2022, and therefore NBA free agency and the beginning of summer league, more of a question mark. As my colleague Blake Murphy reported, there was a good turnout at a program summit in Las Vegas, with Nurse saying there has been an effort to communicate exactly the dates necessary to commit to for all three summers.
“We had to lay out the dates. We had to lay out when practice starts,” Nurse said of making pitches to players. “We need to show ‘em what the commitment looks like for three years. That’s what we were doing, to say, ‘Here it is. And we need you to say that you’re in and you can handle this or you’re not. Either way, that’s fine. If it’s no and it doesn’t work because of whatever you see in your future, then we have to put another person in under (that player) who can commit.’ We just believe the commitment to the three years is the most important thing.”
There are reasons to be optimistic. Jamal Murray, who missed this summer’s tournament as he recovers from ACL surgery, is signed through 2024-25. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who skipped this summer as he tried to shake off plantar fasciitis, just signed an extension that carries him through 2026-27.
The Raptors might have solved their biggest problem from last season
If you wanted to pinpoint one major flaw of this Raptors roster heading into the offseason, it was depth. The Tampa Bay Raptors barely had a functional bench for most of last season, and while players like Stanley Johnson, Paul Watson Jr., and DeAndre’ Bembry had their moments, the fact none of them will be back with the team this season says something about how the front office viewed their long-term potential.
The late-season pickup of Khem Birch, who is back on a three-year deal, was a start in the right direction, and the additions of Barnes and Achiuwa (and Goran Dragic, and whoever the Raptors end up adding when they eventually trade him) this off-season have given the roster a much-needed boost.
Flynn and Achiuwa have shown some great chemistry together so far in summer league. Having this two-man combo anchoring the second unit will raise the ceiling for the 2021-22 Raptors by quite a bit.
Nick Nurse will walk into training camp with at least 10 guys on the roster vying for regular minutes, putting the spotlight on players like Yuta Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie. Watanabe was a pleasant surprise and a feel-good story amidst a nightmare season for the Raptors, but it might be difficult to see him in the team’s top-eight. Gillespie has struggled at Summer League so far and might end up being more of a Raptors 905 project, assuming the G League is back and running on a full schedule this season.
Nurse wants a core group to train next summer and be available for the World Cup qualifying windows in June and August. He is also putting as much emphasis on the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with an eye toward qualifying for the 2024 Olympics there, rather than relying on the uncertainty of another winner-take-all Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the summer of 2024.
It takes a coach with a certain amount of juice to speak so plainly in a Canadian basketball environment where great pains are taken to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes for fear of alienating anyone from the program. But all the tiptoeing hasn’t amounted to much as the commitment Canada has been able to get from its growing pool of NBA players has been spotty.
Nurse started with the national team in the summer of 2019, fresh off winning a title as a first-year NBA head coach with Toronto Raptors.
But even in that brief time he’s witnessed first-hand some of the issues that have kept Canada punching well below its weight internationally.
During preparations for the 2019 World Cup he saw what was projected to be a roster filled with NBA talent get whittled away as training camp approached until only two players – Khem Birch and Cory Joseph – of the nearly 20 Canadians in the league made the trip to China, where Canada finished 21st out of 32 teams and missed a chance to pre-qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
This past July, Canada’s 12-man roster featured eight NBA players, but there remained a considerable list of its best players that chose not to play, even after initially indicating their commitment.
As it was the only player on the roster that had played for Nurse before was Joseph.
It’s not a problem unique to Canada – NBA players from other countries don’t always play internationally, citing contract concerns, family conflicts, injury or fatigue.
But it’s hard to avoid the reality that the teams with the best track records globally have a core of players willing to temporarily put aside their own interests.
France won the silver medal with two starters – Nic Batum and Evan Fournier – heading into NBA free agency. Australia won bronze in large part because Patty Mills played even as he was without an NBA contract. And while the gold-medal winning Team USA had a vast talent pool to choose from, they were still reliant on three players – Kris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker – flying to Tokyo almost directly from the concluding game of the NBA Finals and playing the Olympic tournament opener just four days later. It was a sacrifice that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned about sports performance in the “load management” era.
Nurse was paying attention.
The move to require a three-year commitment mirrors what the United States did after a disappointing third-place finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics and another bronze at the 2006 World Cup. They got a core group to commit to stay for years and it turned their fortunes around.
Canada may not have the same NBA star power, but there is more than enough to qualify for the Games. They simply haven’t had the year-to-year commitment necessary, and that was hammered home in meetings after the disappointment of the qualifying tournament in Victoria. The players seemed to agree, and now it’s up to them to make their decision.
“Just look at my tenure. One guy from 2019 (World Cup) to this year; you can’t have that,” Nurse said, singling out veteran guard Cory Joseph. “You can compete, but you can’t put your best product out there that way. That’s what we’ve got to get to: We have to put our best effort out there, and this commitment is key.”
It always is. Fighting that has been a problem for Canada for the past half-decade, and if Nurse heard what he wanted to hear in that Las Vegas meeting, great.
Coach Nick Nurse heard what he wanted to hear from more than 11 potential members of Canada’s national team and decided to re-up for another run in pursuit of a berth in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“We just feel that’s the best way to maximize the talent that we have … playing more games together. We need summer after summer, same guys. We need that chemistry built, and that’s really our goal,” Nurse said.
The route to the 2024 Paris Olympics is clear. There are four windows to qualify for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, and Canada will need to be among the top two teams from FIBA Americas at the World Cup to automatically earn a ticket to Paris.
It is the most direct route to the Olympics, avoiding the need to play in a last-ditch qualification tournament as they did this year, falling to the Czech Republic in Victoria.
Two of the four windows, plus the World Cup and the Olympics fall outside the NBA season, which should make it easier for the most recognizable Canadian players to make that commitment.
Nurse met with a group of 11 Canadian players recently in Las Vegas to lay out the plan.
It might mean missing out on some obvious talent, but the days of just piecing together the best team at the last final moment have not worked, so Nurse and Canada Basketball are changing things up.
“First of all, part of what we’re building here is that culture,” Nurse said. “A lot of those countries have the culture where these guys play together, stick together, bond together and it becomes like a brotherhood for them to play. That’s part of what we’re trying to start building here.”
So just how do you prioritize continuity of personnel when the majority of your core are committed to an NBA schedule that goes from late September though most of early June?
The quick answer is it’s not easy, but when you accept that you’ll never have ideal conditions to do that, you work out a best-case scenario and that is what Nurse and company have done.
“You take the (various qualifying stage) tournaments, line them up against the season’s schedule for the NBA and the rest of the world and then you’ve gotta focus in on a core group of guys like I said,” Nurse explained. “So there will be a core group of guys next summer that play in the June and August windows that’s outside of the NBA season. So there will be a core group of those guys mixed in with some others as well. And then obviously the NBA guys can’t play in the November and February windows so we’ve gotta, again, maintain relationships and build that part of it side by side.”
For as long as he has been head coach of the Canadian national team and even before that when he was involved with Great Britain, Nurse has cast an envious eye at the European teams that World Cup after World Cup and Olympics after Olympics return with predominantly the same core. That is the type of culture he wants to build for Canada.
“Let’s just look at our own tournament with the Czech Republic,” Nurse said of the eventual winners in Victoria. “They deserved to win. Why did they deserve to win? Well, those same guys committed to play for a number of years together. That team finished, what, fifth, sixth in the world at the World Cup (sixth, losing to Serbia for fifth). And then they brought nine or 10 of the same guys back.
“And head-to-head with them you could feel the chemistry, you could feel the connections, you could feel the bond that they had and that’s super important in basketball,” Nurse said. “It’s super important in basketball.”
That’s what Nurse wants and, again, what he didn’t get in Victoria for a number of reasons, so in the weeks since that disappointment, Nurse and GM Rowan Barrett and president and CEO of Basketball Canada Glen Grunwald discussed their predicament and this is what they came up with.
Pascal Siakam doesn’t want to go anywhere — and likely won’t
When I told Sacramento media friends ‘Deuce and Mo’ in early August that the Kings had interest in somehow landing Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, it sparked a round of headlines — both aggregated and courtesy of The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Anderson — that failed to answer the only question that really matters here. Do the Raptors actually want to move Siakam?
Based on conversations with several people close to the situation in Vegas, I’d venture to say no — at least for now. They will continue to listen to the calls that come their way, which is no different from what the recently re-signed Masai Ujiri (now president and vice chairman) and general manager Bobby Webster have always done.
But in stark contrast to the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia or the Damian Lillard saga in Portland, it appears there is no uncomfortableness or pressure on the Siakam front, in large part, because sources say he still wants to be in Toronto, especially after being away for a season while playing in Tampa. And yes, for the many people who wondered, that remains the case even after the Raptors drafted Scottie Barnes fourth overall and then said goodbye to Kyle Lowry in free agency (via sign-and-trade to Miami).
As longtime NBA reporter Marc Stein indicated recently, the Barnes pick did indeed compel executives to wonder if the Raptors would now be more willing to move Siakam and his max deal (three seasons, $106 million remaining). But sources say Ujiri has recently made it clear to Siakam’s side that he’s not being shopped, and that there’s a clear basketball vision here for how these pieces — old and new — can work. Nonetheless, the combination of the changing Raptors landscape and that well-chronicled friction with coach Nick Nurse last season had led many to believe Siakam’s days were numbered there.
As for that relationship element with Nurse, whose locker room argument with Siakam after a game against Cleveland in March led to the veteran being benched (with pay) for one game, sources say that part has long since been smoothed over (the two have been in semi-regular communication during the offseason). Those types of things happen in every locker room during the course of a season — often going unreported. But it doesn’t appear to be the kind of thing that is hindering their ability to work well together.
There is, it seems, a sentimental component here that shouldn’t be forgotten too. The (first) COVID campaign of 2019-20 put quite a damper on the Raptors’ victory lap before they fell to Boston in the second round, but Siakam hardly forgets how special their shared championship experience was back in 2019 and is hoping to be part of the next generation of Raptors as well.
Last but certainly not least, there’s this: Siakam underwent shoulder surgery in early June and is expected to be out at least until November. Historically speaking, you simply don’t see injured players get dealt.
None of which is to say there’s nothing to see here. Things can always change, especially when Siakam finally gets out on the floor and both sides get to see if the plan is — or isn’t — something that might actually work. But for now, the noise — some of it unintentionally sparked by yours truly — isn’t reflective of reality.
Banton’s play through four Summer League games has been impressive, even if the overall calibre of play is light years away from what he might eventually see in the NBA. His defensive instincts seem solid, he’s effective in transition on offence and it’s not hard to see why the Raptors are intrigued. He will be the tallest guard the franchise has employed and, if he develops, he could give them yet another defender able to switch coverages and guard different positions.
“He can get in the lane, he’s just towering over everybody, he can make passes that are very difficult for ordinary guards to make,” Mutombo said. “Defensively, he’s got good length, he’s learning how to use his length to his advantage, being a disruptive force.
“Last game, if I’m not mistaken, he had 12 rebounds … we’ll take that any day. If we have a guard than can rebound the basketball for us and push it, I think it helps both our defence and our offence.”
Banton is the first Canadian drafted by the Raptors, and the first Rexdale product taken in an NBA draft, and the symbolism of him making to the top league in the world will not be lost on kids in his neighbourhood who look up to him.
“We came a long way and we know there’s a long ways to go,” he said. “Just living in the moment and understanding this is just the start of my long journey. I want to have a long career in the NBA, so I’m just going to continue to grind.
“I was really excited going into (the summer games). I’m living it now that I finally got it official. It feels great, it’s surreal.”