Raptors Cage

Is Nick Nurse the final piece of Masai’s puzzle?

With the amount of excitement surrounding the Raptors right now, the two month wait until preseason feels cruel. There is a buzz surrounding the team in a way that there never has been before, which means that there is plenty to talk about. Lost in the hype for our new star, and forgotten among the fever dreams of our league-leading defence, is somebody who will be at the centre of one of the biggest storylines of the season; Nick Nurse. Who is he? Why was he hired? What can we expect?

Masai’s Vision

First, a reminder: Masai Ujiri personally appointed our new head coach. This is not an insignificant fact. George Karl was already a fixture in Denver when Masai arrived to the Nuggets. Bryan Colangelo hired Dwane Casey just two seasons before Masai was hired in Toronto. Casey’s firing in June left a vacant spot at the head coaching position for the Raptors, representing the first time in Ujiri’s eight seasons as a top-level executive in the NBA that he’d be free to hand-pick a coach that represents his own basketball values.

It feels almost crazy to say this of the man whose hands have been all over the greatest five years in franchise history, but we seriously still have very little idea as to what Masai Ujiri’s vision is for a successful basketball team. We know that our new coach must fit into that vision.  This alone should be enough reason to trust Nick Nurse.

Nurse’s Coaching History 

Nick Nurse is a rookie head coach in the NBA, but he has been coaching in various capacities for the last 28 years. His first head coaching job came in 1991 with Grand View University’s basketball team when he was just 23; making him the youngest college basketball coach in the United States at the time and one of the all-time youngest college head coaches. A well-traveled man, he’s been a part of 11 teams since then. Nurse spent 11 seasons in Europe between 1998-2006 winning nine championships, as well as two “Coach of the Year” awards and six All-Star head coaching nods in the British Basketball League. Nick Nurse then spent the 2007-2013 seasons coaching in the G-League. Through four seasons with the Iowa Wolves, he amassed a 124-76 record, winning a G-League Championship in 2011. He then coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to a championship in 2013.

Nurse is often lauded for his offensive mind. The data from his G-League teams definitely agrees with that praise. Here are how his teams ranked league-wide in Points/Game (chronological order from 2007-2013): 7th, 2nd, 5th, 1st, 1st, 1st. Similar results are found for his offensive pace (2nd, 5th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st) and offensive rating (13th, 3rd, 6th, 1st, 4th, 1st) metrics. Put simply; Nick Nurse likes to score points, and he likes to score them quickly. The defensive efforts of his team are much more inconsistent; his teams have owned the best defensive rating in the G-League as well as the worst.

What does this mean for the Raptors?

If Nick Nurse can fully translate his style into the NBA, it would bode extremely well for the Toronto Raptors. Much of the post-trade focus has been on our defence, understandably, but this offence looks so incredibly potent with Nick Nurse at the helm. It is said that Nurse was the architect of our offence last year. What we saw last year was an efficient, pass-happy team that took a ton of threes, but made them at a middling rate. In substituting DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, we have subtracted two of our worst long-range shooters while adding two fantastic ones. We were fourth in the NBA in Points/Game and second in offensive rating last year; our ceiling is even higher this year. I’m willing to bet on an even faster pace from our 14th overall pace last season.

As for defence? Well, that really shouldn’t be a problem. Nurse’s teams aren’t noted for their defence – but they’re not noted for poor defence either. It would take a colossal coaching failure to ruin this roster’s defence. The amount of length and versatility this team has at the defensive end is unbelievable. There is not a single lineup in the NBA that we shouldn’t be able to smother defensively (with the obvious caveat being the Golden State starting lineup). Small ball, slashers, post-up, pace and space, etc.; we have the personnel to defend all styles.

None of this is even to mention Nick Nurse’s creativity; who knows what kind of inventions he’ll try at both ends. This is his first time with a NBA roster, but also his first with NBA talent. Perhaps there are things he’s wanted to try that needed someone of say, Kawhi Leonard’s calibre, to make work.

The Verdict

In subtracting DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey, Masai Ujiri has added Kawhi Leonard and Nick Nurse. Three of those commodities have well-established reputations. But Nick Nurse is an unknown in this league. He steamrolled the G-League, and he was responsible for our incredible offence last year, but every head coach at this level has done those things. It is incredibly difficult to get a head coaching job in the NBA; those kind of qualifications are only enough to get your foot in the door. Nurse’s performance will be scrutinized from the first tip-off against Portland in preseason. We know he can design a strong offensive system – can he make the smart in-game adjustments that Casey never could? Does he know how to properly motivate our players? Personalities could clash, rookie mistakes could happen; so many things could go wrong behind the bench next year. But so many could go right.

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