Morning Coffee – Fri, Apr 14

Depressing end of season availability that gave us more questions than answers

Raptors are overdue for a stylistic and roster overhaul: Koreen – The Athletic

It’s understandable after a year of surpassing expectations that the Raptors tried to, essentially, run it back. It’s less clear that why when they played the first 60 percent of this season showing not only the same foundational flaws, but some burgeoning new ones, the front office tried to supplement that foundation in a way that would cost both assets and a new, expensive contract for Jakob Poeltl — the type of player they needed, to be clear.

“Last year, it certainly clicked maybe at a level beyond what we were expecting,” coach Nick Nurse said. “It was super high-level play.”

If you get results outside of expectations in either direction, that requires interrogation. The Raptors doubled down on the core both in the offseason and at the trade deadline. It wasn’t as if there weren’t some positive returns, with the starting lineup showing it is viable. However, that required real resources.

Traditional logic would say that, by giving up a first-round pick for Poeltl, the Raptors are not only committed to trying to re-sign him, but also to keep together the group he was brought here to support. The draft equity, however, has already been traded. What’s missing is a clear direction forward.

This is not a call for an unmitigated firesale, which would be irresponsible in its own right. The Raptors have already suffered the effects of talent drain with no return. There are flaws in valuing player retention irrespective of everything else, because contracts matter. Saying that, having a good player under contract beats not having a good player contract, unless the difference between value and production is vast.

In other words, losing all of VanVleet, Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. in free agency, with not many options to replace those guys, would be sub-optimal. Frankly, losing two out of three would be problematic. Unless you want a very protracted rebuild, you want to be able to turn your best players into some sort of return, even if you are skeptical their presence will directly lead to a window of championship contention.

However, it is time for Masai Ujiri to get real about the roster’s deficiencies. Say what you want about the coaching, but Nurse wasn’t the biggest reason this team failed. According to Synergy Sports, the Raptors’ half-court offence ranked in the 13th percentile this year. Last year, it ranked in the 17th percentile. The addition of Poeltl allowed them to tamp down the number of isolation possessions the Raptors used, bumping up the pick-and-roll usage. The results were pretty much the same, on the whole. You can only believe in internal development so much, especially when your two offensive engines are in the middle of a player’s typical prime.

Ujiri gave this team a platform to succeed and then reinforced the platform. It still collapsed earlier than anyone with the team expected. If Ujiri reassembles it in the same way, that’s on him.

Raptors must cut ties to their greatest era to escape NBA’s murky middle – Sportsnet

From Nurse’s point of view he has to decide if returning to coach a middling roster with no obvious external catalyst for improvement is where the 55-year-old wants to spend the remaining years of his coaching prime. Presuming Toronto re-signs free agents VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. the team has kind of a landlocked feel to it unless they get a giant leap from Scottie Barnes or get exceptionally lucky in the draft lottery.

And then he’d have to figure out an extension, and given he’s owed $9 million in 2023-24 he would presumably be looking for multiple years at more money.

Which is where things might get hazy. Are the Raptors really in a position where they want to pay top dollar and term for a good head coach yet one who — surprise, surprise — has been significantly less successful since five of the top seven players in a championship rotation left and weren’t replaced?

Nurse says that he has no idea where the reports that he was being targeted for the Rockets job came from, but apart from a little bit of awkwardness around the office, having it out there certainly benefits him. It both prompts the Raptors to think about extending him sooner than they might have otherwise, and it lets the rest of the NBA know that there’s at least a chance that a head coach with a championship ring is open to listening. Quite likely a good chance.

It might be the best for the Raptors anyway, just as the decision to trade one of their core — and only Anunoby and Siakam are under contract — in order to add depth and build up their asset base might be best for all concerned.

Call it identity, call it outlook, call it mindset, the Raptors — more than anything this season — seemed stale. They’ve made the playoffs once in their past three seasons. They lack both serious prospects — Barnes aside — and the kind of league-altering stars that can cover gaps and smooth over wrinkles. They owe future draft picks and yet are projected to be near the luxury tax if they re-sign all the players they do have.

There’s a possibility that continuing with what they have and who they have can right the ship, that with the right set of circumstances and can-do attitude they can turn this year’s 41 wins into 48, 49 or 50 a year from now. But it’s just as possible that 41 could turn into 38-, 37- or 36-wins next season, with a pricey roster and an expensive head coach and having traded away their first-round pick.

Upon reflection, it’s clear, at least to me. Something has to give.

Lewenberg: Stylistic identity could determine Nurse’s Raptors future | TSN

If memory serves, this was the first time that anybody in the organization has publicly questioned the team’s style of play. VanVleet was mostly referencing Nurse’s free-flowing offence, which made a lot more sense with a veteran club featuring Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry than it does now, with one of the league’s worst half-court scoring teams. But it’s fair to wonder whether the defensive system is also worth re-evaluating.

For the second straight season, the Raptors were among the league leaders in forcing and scoring off of turnovers. However, any defensive possession that didn’t end with a turnover often led to a made bucket for the opposition. Whether it was at the rim, in the paint, from the corners or above the break, Toronto had a hard time challenging shots and making other teams miss.

One possible explanation for the drop off from the season prior, and something that VanVleet also brought up, was that teams had a year’s worth of tape and data to prepare from. They weren’t sneaking up on anybody this year. However, playing that style of defence – predicated on switching, picking teams up full court and changing coverages on the fly – can be physically taxing and is especially difficult for a team that relies on its starters to log big minutes.

If they’re going to reinvent themselves on either or both sides of the ball, it obviously starts with the front office. In fairness to Nurse, he can only play the guys that he’s given. He hasn’t had much shooting to work with, there’s very little depth behind VanVleet at the guard position, and up until Jakob Poeltl was acquired at February’s trade deadline, he didn’t have a centre at his disposal.

As high as the front office has been on position-less basketball, the addition of Poeltl may signal that they’re open to a more tradition style of play. Coming from a more conservative defence in San Antonio, Poeltl had to adapt his game to the Raptors’ aggressive system, because it’s much tough to adapt the system to the player in the middle of a season. Assuming he’s with the team in training camp – he’s a free agent this summer but is expected to re-sign with Toronto – that would be another good reason to strongly consider playing differently.

Where does this leave Nurse? Are he and Ujiri still aligned on their vision?

“I think we got a front office, a president in Masai who passionately wants to win,” Nurse said. “We’ve got a head coach who passionately wants to win. That’s why we’ve always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goal is to win here and that takes some evaluation on all fronts.”

Nurse is regarded as one of the league’s most innovative and creative coaches, but that doesn’t necessarily make him adaptable. At least to this point, he’s been reluctant to dial back the aggressive nature of his defence or add more structure to his offence, despite their mixed results this past season. If Ujiri determines that it’s time for a new identity, would he be more inclined to bring in a new voice to implement it?

Nick Nurse tries to clear the air as Raptors future remains murky – Yahoo

Nurse spoke to reporters about his future for the first time since soft launching his exit from Toronto during a pre-game interview ahead of a clash with the Philadelphia 76ers on March 31st, when he made some curious comments about taking some time off to evaluate his future despite there being a year left on his contract.

“When you ask me what my job is here, my job is to make the best decisions for this organization,” Nurse said on Thursday. “I’ve always believed that from day one. I still believe that 10 years later. When you sit back and look at it, all decisions have to be made for what’s best for the organization. I think we got a front office, a president in Masai [Ujiri] who passionately wants to win.

“We’ve got a head coach who passionately wants to win. That’s why we’ve always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goal is to win here. And that takes some evaluation on all fronts.”

Nurse was then asked about his name coming up in reports associating him with the Houston Rockets head coaching search. Nurse previously coached the Rockets G League affiliate prior to becoming a Raptors assistant coach in 2013, and they currently have a head coaching vacancy after allowing Stephen Silas to walk this offseason.

“From my standpoint, the speculation of whether I was going to be back or not that started, I have no idea where that comes from. Or what I was supposed to do about that,” Nurse said, adding that the reason he spoke up about his future on March 31st was because he thought he “needed to try to get the team or any of the players focused back on the job at hand and try to not have to answer that question every game. It started coming one after another after another and I was trying to put it to bed so we could focus on the season.”

Nurse then went back and forth with reporters in regards to whether or not that question had in fact been asked prior to that game in Philadelphia, and if his approach to open up about his future backfired, about which he simply said “no.”

Nurse went on to say that “I love it here and we have built a really strong culture… We got to all evaluate how we can get that culture back where we need it and get back to being a playoff team and then getting to a level of winning it all. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we get up and go to work for, for the last 10 years, both [Ujiri] and I for 10 years.”

Raptors’ Nurse stops short of saying he wants to return | Toronto Sun

It wasn’t exactly a cuddly moment for the coach of 10 years, five as head coach, and his employer of the same term.
Thursday on the official first day of the off-season for the Raptors, Nurse says he was simply trying to prevent further distraction to the team by addressing the so-called rumours about his plans beyond the current season that day in Philly.

Instead Nurse did exactly the opposite.

First of all, his belief that the media was openly speculating about his job was an exaggeration by Nurse. At least one of the instances where Nurse felt targeted in this way was another general question from a Toronto reporter about his team going into the final few weeks of the season and where the team was at that moment. It had nothing to do with his coaching future.

RAPTORS SEASON WRAP UP: Many questions left unanswered for next NBA season
Toronto Sun NBA writers Mike Ganter and Ryan “The Woz” Wolstat talk about the season that came to an abrupt end against the Chicago Bulls in “play-in” games. And what next season holds with players like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakim and the fate of head coach Nick Nurse.

“From my standpoint, the speculation of whether I was going to be back or not that started, I have no idea where that comes from,” he said, “or what I was supposed to do about that.

What I thought was I needed to try to get the team or any of the players focused back on the job at hand and try to not have to answer that question every game. It started coming one after another after another and I was trying to put it to bed so we could focus on the season.

“Again, it’s part of it,” Nurse said. “I think it’s part of it. There are lots of teams that go through that and you have to handle it the way you best see fit and that’s what I tried to do.”

Rather than put it to bed, Nurse wound up giving a story that had almost no legs new life.

Not only did it ensure his future would remain a hot topic throughout that weekend, it had the added bonus of players wondering if their head coach had already checked out.

Nurse, to his credit, did not appear to be checked out. There is no suggestion his approach to the job changed at all over these past dozen or so days, but the damage had already been done.

His veteran players in exit interviews with the media on Thursday remained mostly steadfast in their support, Fred VanVleet admitting he would be surprised if his head coach was not back behind the bench next season while Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby both said they loved Nick and being coached by him.

Nick Nurse’s Raptors future remains uncertain | The Star

Left unsaid was whether Nurse, going into his sixth season as the head coach, is what’s best for the organization. No one inside the team is openly suggesting he’s lost his coaching skills or that he’s not still very good at the job but only after that hard conversation the two will have will the answer be known.

“We’ve got a front office, a president in Masai who passionately wants to win. We’ve got a head coach who passionately wants to win,” Nurse said

“That’s why we’ve always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goal is to win here. And that takes some evaluation on all fronts.”

The evaluation process began with meetings between Nurse and each of the players at the team’s training facility on Thursday and will continue until there is some clarity about the coach’s future.

He’s got one year left on a contract that pays him more than $8 million (U.S.) a year but he also said a couple of weeks ago that he’d need some off-season time to decide his future. The decade he’s spent either as an assistant or the head coach in Toronto is the longest he’s ever worked for one organization and you wonder if simple fatigue is setting in. The 55-year-old still coaches with a passion and his players still stand by him. Ujiri will meet with the media next week to let his feelings be known but, regardless, there are still questions about whether he’ll be back next fall.

“We are all grown ups in this league, (we) understand everything is a business,” Fred VanVleet said. “But coach has got my full support. I love playing for him. I’ve had some of my best years under him. Obviously won a championship. I think we’ve got one of the best staffs in the league. And like I said before, everybody has things that they could do better including myself.”

And conversations have not, however, reached the most influential of the players.

“I can only speak for me and my experience so I haven’t had that conversation with coach, I haven’t had that conversation, I haven’t heard that conversation from anywhere, and I haven’t had it with management,” VanVleet said. “So to answer your question honestly, yes, I would be surprised at this moment if he wasn’t back next year.”

No matter what transpires, though, Nurse is aware that there needs to be self-evaluation of his coaching style, just as there needs to be self-evaluation from each player.

Raptors’ Barnes to improve conditioning in bid to become NBA star | Toronto Sun

Was it the dreaded sophomore slump, something wrong in his preparation, too much too soon making it all seem too easy? Only Barnes knows for sure, but it was interesting to hear him bring up conditioning at Thursday’s locker cleanout as an area in need of improvement.

While Barnes said it wasn’t an issue, he made it clear he feels he will need another gear to access moving forward in order to get close to the NBA’s summit.

“I feel I probably need a different level of conditioning for the way I want to play,” Barnes began. “I wouldn’t say it impacted (his performance a lot), but I got tired sometimes when I picked up full-court (on defence) the way I play.
“For me to take another step defensively, I feel like it will take another level of conditioning,” he said.

Barnes is lucky to have someone like Pascal Siakam to emulate on those fronts. Siakam arrived as a non-stop bundle of energy. A player with limited skill who never stopped running, impacted games with his relentlessness. Siakam, to his credit, has been able to keep playing hard even as he morphed into a big-time scorer and playmaker and a two-time NBA minutes played champion.

With head coach Nick Nurse saying he wants to see Barnes become more of a scorer himself, it seems Barnes might also need that improved conditioning he’s seeking to help him on that end of the floor.

Barnes is eager to put in the work to get to the next level. Getting in better shape is only one facet of his off-season plan, which will include things like refining his jump shot further, working on counters on offence and adding new tricks to his repertoire.

His teammates are believers. They see Barnes as a star in waiting, providing he puts in said work.

“Scottie is going to be as good as he wants to be,” was how Fred VanVleet responded to my question about his best advice for the young forward. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do on the court, but just be a gym rat. Stay in the gym. That will speed up the process and he’s doing that. He is learning what his routine is going to be.

“He has a great attitude. He is a baller, man. The sky is the limit for him. Obviously, finding what place that is for him in terms of who he is, what he is, we are still exploring that. For any young guy, especially at that age (Barnes won’t be 22 until August), he has to be in the gym all day and every day and you will see the results.”

The Raptors have an identity crisis and need a serious rethink | The Star

You could call it a brand. You could call it a “culture,” which was the preferred term of team president Masai Ujiri and the CEO that brought him to Toronto, Tim Leiweke. You could call it, as Fred VanVleet did during Thursday’s post-mortem of Wednesday’s season-ending play-in loss, a “fabric.”

Whatever it was, it contained the bedrock of the franchise’s basketball-based belief system. And some of the key tenets were both obvious and immediately admirable to anyone who watched a game. There was a resident underdog mentality that made toughness, both mental and physical, a prerequisite to sticking around. There was a high-IQ selflessness that made the whole greater than sum of the parts. There was a non-negotiable defensive intensity. Perhaps most important, there was universal alignment — from the president to the coach to the best players — that all these things mattered.

But a couple of months short of the four-year anniversary of the title-winning moment, Wednesday’s embarrassing fourth-quarter collapse at the hands of the Chicago Bulls was the latest bit of evidence that Raptorland’s once-vaunted championship culture is now more a piece of fond nostalgia than an enduring fact of life.

It has been 10 years since a Raptors season petered out this early; even 2021’s Tampa tank season stretched into mid-May thanks to a pandemic-induced late start. And when you watched this team slog through a .500 campaign before flaming out so weakly, it looked eons removed from its championship connection.

“I think the magic of what we’ve had — we didn’t have as much of that this year,” VanVleet said.

VanVleet is one of the few carry-overs from the title-winning roster, which gives him a licence for truth telling that maybe nobody else on the roster possesses. And as much as VanVleet said he wasn’t interested in creating “scandalous headlines” during Wednesday’s season post-mortem, he went further than any of his peers in saying out loud what everyone is thinking: That the status quo simply isn’t holding. That it’s time for change, and not tweaks.

“I think we just got to find another identity, whatever that is,” VanVleet said. “The chaos and the freedom worked when it worked.”

The Dispirited Raptors Season Ended The Same Way It Started – Uproxx

The Bulls waited the Raptors out. Chicago’s head coach, Billy Donovan, played the long game, letting Toronto throw their best defensive efforts at DeMar DeRozan (while DeRozan’s daughter, Diar, threw her best defensive efforts at the Raptors); ratcheting Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby’s minutes up past the 40-minute mark; and turned LaVine and Alex Caruso loose.

Nick Nurse, for his oft-nodded to defensive mind, made some strange decisions on that end when it counted. Putting, and keeping, VanVleet on LaVine all game, when VanVleet’s energy was flagging, just wasn’t enough for the way LaVine exploded in the second half. And yanking Toronto’s only anchor big of Jakob Poeltl in the fourth left the paint wide open for DeRozan to cruise through for layup after uncontested layup. The seeming unfamiliarity with his roster, in this game, at this point of their season, puts more than the possibility of Nurse’s departure this summer into immediate focus. Though Nurse was questioned in his end of season availability about his hope to stay with the franchise, the signal that in-game, psychic absenteeism sends is: does he have the desire to stay?

A trickle-down effect of that question mark was apparent in the trepidation of Scottie Barnes. Whenever he took the floor in place of VanVleet, even as part of an adjusted starting lineup, Barnes looked trepidatious, a bit shook, and lost. Sophomore slump aside (because Barnes has, on the whole, improved this season), that the reigning Rookie of the Year isn’t taking the floor with confidence and direction, even a little bravado, is a coaching failure during a postseason that was, according to the front office, for his own experience.

Barnes isn’t blameless but this part, the game at home with the season on the line, is supposed to be the exciting part. None of that exhilaration was there. It’s not there for the rest of the roster, either. That the Bulls chipped away at the lead and eventually took it with no discernible energy shift or renewed urgency from the Raptors is indicative of chemistry gone flat.

It’s entirely possible that the Raptors baseline was too high going into this season, that the team overachieved last year and this was the inevitable correction. It’s not enough to stay good in this version of the NBA and stay reliably competitive, or even above .500. Franchises have to be great, and figure out how to do it in lasting, individualized ways. The silver lining for Toronto is that from here — whether that’s a head coaching change, roster shake-ups ranging from total upheaval to tremors, new additions over the summer, and the potential of a draft pick — one (or possibly numerous) things will be different next season. The Raptors problems are too obvious, glaring now in lurid neon light, to ignore.

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