Should the Raptors have a new Head Coach for 2023-24?

Should the Raptors want a new head coach next season? And just as importantly -- are Nurse and the Raptors stuck with each other?

Nick Nurse was the wunderkind for a time in Toronto.

His story was unique, bouncing between assist coaching gigs in Midwest NCAA schools and Head Coaching positions in Europe, particularly the British Basketball League (BBL), for much of the 90s and early 2000s. He joined the NBA G League (Then D League) in the late 2000s and made his name running the Houston Rockets' affiliate team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, overseeing an offensive experiment in how to launch as many triples as possible. He won two D-League championships, one with the Iowa Energy and then one with Rio Grande. That launched him into the Toronto Raptors' organization as an assistant coach, where he designed the team's offense in 2017-18 under Dwayne Casey. Taking the reins after Casey left, Nurse won a championship in his rookie year as NBA Head Coach.

Nurse was popular and charming early on as an NBA Head Coach. He loved to tell stories about his early coaching days, particularly in the BBL. He had an experienced and talented roster that fit smoothly with Nurse's penchant for top-down leadership -- Kyle Lowry, who ran the locker room as a Raptor led in much the same way. As long as the team was competing for a championship, which it did in 2019 and again, to an extent, in 2020, the fit was seamless. Nurse is a tactical genius, and in many ways, his work with Toronto's defense changed the way the entire league played on that end of the floor.

As the context around the Raptors has changed, so too has Nurse's status with the team. Fred VanVleet runs the locker room much the same was as Lowry did, and he seems to have the same approach as Nurse, but that's not true of every Raptor. Reports are that Nurse has clashed with multiple of his players, including a publicly reported clash with Pascal Siakam during the Tampa season. Nurse has been vocal criticizing players with the media, including Chris Boucher and others. With Toronto fairly middle-of-the-pack for the last three seasons, things have changed.

It's possible people tire of BBL stories after a time, and it's possible that Nurse became more abrasive and less patient with his interpersonal skills over time. Or that those things are more evident when the defense is letting Zach LaVine waltz to the layups in a play-in game, rather than forcing turnovers on Steph Curry in a championship game. Or that conflict eventually builds and reaches a boiling point. But it's clear that Nurse is not as beloved, internally or externally, as he was once.

That is clear in a few different ways. A quick timeline:

  • Doug Smith of the Toronto Star wrote a piece on March 30 that said in the very beginning that "The chirping has already started around the NBA, and it’s going to become more prevalent as the Raptors season reaches its ultimately disappointing conclusion. You’ll hear that Nick Nurse may be out as the coach." Doug is incredibly well sourced within the Raptors' organization, and he would not write this piece without cause. He also said that it didn't seem particularly likely, but the rumours were certainly in existence around the league at that point. I've heard that from a couple other places as well.
  • Before Toronto's game on March 31 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Nurse brought up -- relatively unprompted from the actual question from ESPN's Tim Bontemps -- that he needed to reassess his future with the franchise. He said: "First of all, I think when this season gets done, we'll evaluate everything, and even personally, I'm gonna take a few weeks to see where I'm at, you know? Like you said, where my head's at. And just see how the relationship with the organization is and everything. It's been 10 years for me now, which is a pretty good run."
  • He shut down all conversation on the topic after that, including a snippy response to Lindsay Dunn from CityNews about being asked about the topic over and over (which was not true).
  • After the season, Nurse elaborated slightly: "We've always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goals are to win here, and that takes some evaluation on all fronts. That's all."
    • Sportsnet's Michael Grange pressed Nurse on his comments in Philadelphia, and the exchange was heated at times. Nurse said he did not regret his comments, and he seemed to blame media for discussing the topic. He did say that he loves it as the coach in Toronto.
  • The front office was not happy with Nurse's comments in Philadelphia, and "they let him know it," according to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, another extremely plugged-in Raptors' insider.

That is the timeline. Oh, also: VanVleet said "we just have to find another identity," when asked about offseason needs. VanVleet is as honest as they come, and he was not necessarily criticizing Nurse and his schemes. Nurse could well be the one to help Toronto find that new identity. But it's probable the team doesn't believe this current vibes-based offense is the answer.

Reading a little bit into Nurse's conversations with media, and reports from media, it seems as though Nurse and the Raptors are headed for a mutual breakup. But is that for the best?