Looking back on the race to win the Toronto Raptors’ head coaching vacancy just a couple of summers ago, it’s hard to imagine what life would have been like if Nick Nurse had not been selected. What if one of the other finalists were picked instead? Would Ettore Messina, or Sarunas Jasikevecius have led the Raptors to a championship? Maybe. Would they have made Kawhi Leonard light up like a Christmas tree in their first meeting with him? Probably not. Most definitely, they would not have moved on to become the head coach of the Canadian men’s national basketball team.
To think that fans were disappointed with Nurse’s hiring when it was first announced is laughable now. The narratives were that he had already been with the team for five years, his voice had already been exhausted, his ideas had already failed, and his ceiling was to coach a team that lost in the second or third round. Making an internal promotion, rather than looking outside the organization brought back memories of the summer before when Masai Ujiri hit the “culture reset” button, which led to a better regular season offense, but not too much looked different when the Raptors got swept by LeBron James in The Playoffs once again.
Right after Nurse’s introductory press conference, you could tell that this was going to be a far more successful era. Toronto was done with Dwane Casey’s “pound the rock” mantra, and all of the extracurriculars that came along with it. All that Nick Nurse spoke of was winning – and not just winning games – winning championships. As Drake says, he walked it like he talked it, going on to become just the ninth rookie head coach in NBA history to win the title. While some might argue that with the pieces he had at his disposal, any decent coach could have brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Canada, I’d argue that they could not be more wrong. I think that Nurse is possibly the only coach in the NBA that would have been capable of taking the team he had at the beginning of the season all the way to the end, and finishing it off with a championship.
Let’s begin with the off-court tasks that he had to deal with from the moment he was put on the job. Not only did he have to get to work in hiring his own coaching staff after Jerry Stackhouse left to coach Vanderbilt University, and Jama Mahlalela was appointed the head coach of the Raptors 905, but he did a spectacular job of filling out his bench. Starting with Nick Bjorkgren, whom he has worked with previously in the G-League, to multi-time medalist as the head coach of the Spanish men’s national basketball team in Sergio Scariolo, to the well-respected longtime NBA assistant coach, Adrian Griffin.
Then there’s the Kawhi trade. Just around one month after he was put on the job, Toronto swung for the fences and shipped Jakob Poeltl, DeMar DeRozan, and a first-round pick for the most exorbitant superstar in the league, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green.
Of course, rookie head coaches and superstars have meshed well together before. Most recently, Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry have succeeded, or even Tyronn Lue and LeBron James. The difference here was that Nurse took the job under the impression that he would try to win with DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas. Now, his sailboat was rocking in treacherous waters. Not only did he have to onboard and earn the respect of a disgruntled and eerie Kawhi Leonard, but the media was already beginning to draw up storylines that if Toronto didn’t win the championship that year – in what was potentially their only year of having Kawhi Leonard – then the whole re-construction would be a failure.
In case that’s not enough pressure for a rookie head coach still trying to find his footing, your second best player, and the team’s leader in Kyle Lowry is now frustrated with management because they traded away his best friend, and you’re caught in the middle of the whole thing. In a matter of a few weeks, you went from feeling the joy of securing your first NBA head coaching gig, to feeling the weight of Canadian sports on your shoulders.
Obviously, he managed to find his way out of the tunnel. He got Kawhi to love him for his creativity, and his work ethic, and he was able to re-engage Kyle Lowry, and get him playing some of the best and most unselfish basketball of his life.
A lot of the time when a superstar comes to a new team, they’re given the reigns to do whatever they want on the court without much regard from the coaching staff on all of the impacts that may have on the rest of the team, but Nick Nurse was methodical. As Doug Collins says, “The greatest respect that you can give a great player is to coach him, and coach him hard.”
Nurse let Kawhi lead the team, but he used all of the pieces at his disposal to get the absolute most out of the group. He didn’t take what he had as stagnant pieces, either. He saw the potential to reinvent Serge Ibaka as a centre, which worked beautifully. He noticed that with all of the defensive attention focused on Kawhi, he could groom Pascal Siakam to fill a greater role in the offense. He also took advantage of the fact that guys like Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell now had perfect opportunities to learn from their All-Star veteran teammates, and replicate some of the good things that they do, coming off the bench. The most impressive part was that as a nobody, he took a locker room full of unhappy and disinterested celebrities, got them all to buy into his theories and his goals, and was able to convince anyone to do what was best for the team at any given time, even if it may not have suited their individual schedule.
This is all only to touch on how unique Nick Nurse’s management style is, but his coaching ability is even superior to that.
Known as an offensive guru, it’s been Nurse’s creativity on the defensive end that’s wound up most impressive. From his knack of bullying Joel Embiid by not letting him see a second of court time that the 7’1 Marc Gasol isn’t in his way, to his scheming against the Milwaukee Bucks where the Raptors double team Giannis Antetokounmpo with a big as soon as he touches the paint and masterfully close out to shooters, to his infamous box-and-one scheme that he bravely used to render Stephen Curry useless, he’s always willing to try something new, and has several backup plans in case something doesn’t work.
All of this goes without mentioning the little things Nick Nurse does to build up his team’s chemistry, ignite confidence in players who don’t play consistent minutes but need to stay ready and step in when other guys get injured, and getting guys to stay in the gym and work as hard as he does for the greater good of the team. So all in all, not any other coach could have won a championship just because Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam were on the roster. Those guys’ names only carry the weight that they do because of how well Nurse was able to coach them.
Nurse didn’t peak too early either. He’s since been following up his rookie campaign in impressive fashion, leading Toronto to an impressive 46-18 record with a team that was projected by some to not even make The Playoffs. Among those 46 wins lies an inspirational shorthanded victory against the Los Angeles Lakers on the road, a 15-game win streak, and a thirty point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks just a couple days before Christmas.
He also made his first All-Star appearance of many to come, and is in the clear lead to win Coach of The Year honours after this season concludes at Disney World in Orlando. Still, he’s got his eyes set on the big prize.
When asked about which home court advantage possibility he prefers among those being thrown around for the continuation of the 2019-2020 NBA season, he said, “You know it’s a neutral site, and we’re hard to beat, and we’re really hard to beat four times.” While this may hold true for all good teams, Nurse is one guy who has been through the gauntlet before, and he knows what he is talking about.
Nick Nurse is quite literally a basketball genius, and a master of his craft. He’s been an NBA head coach for less than 1,000 days, and I don’t feel silly saying that his trajectory right now would put him in place to be one of the greatest coaches of all-time. To honour his greatness, and the one year anniversary of the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame has released four versions of Nick Nurse championship bobbleheads which can be purchased here.
For the full press release from the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame, see below:
MILWAUKEE – This morning, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled four limited edition bobbleheads featuring Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Each special edition bobblehead is unique in capturing a memorable moment for the popular coach, who led the Raptors to their first NBA championship in 2019 and will be celebrating the one-year anniversary of their historic title on June 13. The bobbleheads are being produced exclusively by the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in conjunction with Coach Nurse.
The first bobblehead has a celebrating Nurse waving a Canadian flag while holding a microphone in his other hand. He is wearing sunglasses and a black baseball cap and hoodie that says “Champions” across the front. The second features Nurse wearing a suit and giving a fist pump. The third has Nurse holding a basketball while posing in a suit while wearing a baseball cap that says “2019 Champions.” The fourth features a smiling Nurse standing in the back of a pickup truck and waving during the victory parade. He is wearing a black Nick Nurse baseball cap and a hoodie that says “Champions” across the front.
Each bobblehead is individually numbered to 2,019, and they are only available through the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum’s Online Store. The bobbleheads, which are expected to ship in August, are $30 each plus shipping, with the set of four available for a discounted price of $100.
Part of the Toronto coaching staff since 2013 when he was an assistant under Dwane Casey, Nurse was promoted to head coach on June 14, 2018. His first season at the helm was one to remember. After knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games in the NBA Finals for the first championship in franchise history. In the process, Nurse became the first head coach to win both NBA and NBA G League (formerly D-League) titles.
The Raptors did not have a championship hangover in the 2019-20 season. Despite losing superstar Kawhi Leonard to free agency, Nurse guided Toronto to a 46-18 record when play was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the surprising Raptors in control of the second seed in the Eastern Conference, Nurse became a top candidate for NBA Coach of the Year honors.
A native of Carroll, Iowa, Nurse played collegiately at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. The 6-foot-1 guard played in 111 games for the Panthers and still ranks as the school’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage (.468). Nurse got his first full-time head coaching job at Grand View University in Des Moines when he was 23 years old. At the time, he was the youngest college basketball coach in the country. After two seasons, he took on an assistant coaching role at the University of South Dakota for two seasons.
Nurse later spent 11 seasons coaching in Europe, primarily in the British Basketball League with the Birmingham Bullets, Manchester Giants, London Towers and Brighton Bears. During that time, he was also an assistant coach for the Oklahoma Storm of the now-defunct United States Basketball League in 2001 and 2005. Prior to joining the Raptors, Nurse enjoyed a successful run in the NBA D-League. He was the head coach for the Iowa Energy from 2007-11 and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers from 2011-13. Nurse led the Energy to division titles in 2009 and 2010 and the D-League championship in 2011 as he received the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award. He also led the Vipers to the D-League title in 2013. In his six seasons coaching in the D-League, Nurse had 23 players called up to the NBA.
When asked about the bobblehead series, Coach Nurse said, “I know Raptors fans are among the most passionate when it comes to the team and their bobblehead collections, and I’m excited to be teaming up with the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum to bring fans this bobblehead series to commemorate last year’s historic championship.”
“Nick Nurse’s head coaching debut with the Raptors will never be topped,” National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum co-founder and CEO Phil Sklar said. “Beloved by Canada for bringing the country its first NBA championship, we are excited to release these four bobbleheads of the popular head coach.”
About the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum:
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is located at 170 S. 1st. St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, opened to the public on February 1st, 2019. The HOF and Museum also produces high quality, customized bobbleheads for retail sale as well as organizations, individuals, and teams across the country. Visit us online and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.