On May 11th, 2018, four days after the Toronto Raptors were swept out of the playoffs for the second consecutive postseason, Masai Ujiri made the castigated decision to fire head coach Dwane Casey, who was just weeks away from accepting the NBA’s Coach of The Year award for his incredible season with the team.
At the time, Dwane Casey was the 4th longest serving head coach in the entire league. All of the Raptors’ playoff losses had come at the hands of LeBron James, whom many argue is the greatest to ever grace a basketball court. With lopsided star power North of the border to compete with The King, sports media frenzied over how Casey’s firing was premature, and that these losses could not possibly be blamed on him – the man who was about to be dubbed the best coach in all of basketball. That led to an outleash of backlash against Masai Ujiri from both Canadian and American major media outlets.
What most people failed to see was Masai’s perspective. After two straight playoff sweeps losing to the same team, he could not stay put. He tried that the year before, when he hit the “culture reset” button, but promising intangible changes wasn’t going to be enough this time. Everyone knew that this core had run its course, and yet nobody was willing to accept the changes that had to be made. Something big had to be done to satisfy a repeatedly disappointed fanbase. Whether Casey was just the fall man of the whole situation, or if his firing was deserved, we now know that it was righteous.
What didn’t help Ujiri’s case in firing Casey was that it took him longer than a month to find a replacement. People began to lose hope in “The Messiah”, believing his choice to let go of the Coach of The Year was reckless, and that he had no long term plan for the franchise.
If you were one of those people, you can send an apology letter to him personally, due anytime after June 13th, 2019.
Ultimately, the final three candidates for the head coaching vacancy came down to Jerry Stackhouse, head coach of the Raptors 905 at the time, Sarunas Jasikevecius, one of the most creative and accomplished coaches from the Lithuanian Basketball League, and of course, Nick Nurse. Among other nominees for the role were Mike Budenholzer, now head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Ime Udoka, and Ettore Messina, who were both assistant coaches to the legendary Gregg Popovich at the time.
The move to officially promote Nick Nurse was made on June 15th, 2018, 35 days after Dwane Casey was let go of.
Many believe that Nick Nurse is the reason why Dwane Casey won his first and only Coach of The Year award in the first place. Nurse was the man responsible for modernizing the Raptors’ offense, which he had been pushing to do for years, but Dwane Casey was persistent on running his pick-and-roll, isolation heavy plays to death. Finally, after Masai Ujiri intervened and took Nurse’s side in the midst of the cultural reset, the offensive changes led to a 4.8 point per game increase from the season prior, and added 8 more wins to the season total, giving the Raptors their best regular season in franchise history. What killed the team in the end yet again, was Dwane Casey’s inability to get creative or make any meaningful in-game adjustments when The Playoffs rolled around.
Still, fans were questioning Nurse’s promotion, wondering why you would get rid of the boss and let his assistant run the show, when you already had the best of both worlds before. The issue with this argument is that it theorizes sports as a disjunctive task – as if one coach can handle the offense, one coach can handle the defense, and everything in between will figure itself out – sports are not disjunctive tasks.
By allowing Nick Nurse to be at the helm of the team, he was allowed to pick his own coaching staff, run his own offensive and defensive schemes with people alongside him who shared a similar experimental and creative mindset, and most importantly, he was given free reign to make his own on-the-fly adjustments, as he was highly touted for doing during his previous head coaching gigs.
Another one of Nurse’s strengths was his ability to work with whatever resources he was given. Having been a head coach in the G-League from 2007-2013, and becoming the first ever G-League head coach to win a championship with two different teams, he was constantly adjusting to his best players being called up to play an NBA game just hours before tipoff. Still, he found a way to win games.
That quality of adaptability came in handy, as the list of players at his disposal was changing like a carousel during his first season as an NBA head coach. When Nurse accepted the job, the core of his roster included the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka. Fast forward a long 11 months, and the people whom he stood with on the stage in Oakland ranged from Kawhi Leonard, to Danny Green, to Marc Gasol, and to say that the road from glum to glory had a few bumps and bruises would be an understatement.
Kawhi Leonard missed 22 games; Fred VanVleet missed 18; Kyle Lowry missed 17; OG Anunoby missed 15, and yet Nick Nurse still won 58.
Regular season excellence was an expectation of Raptors fans at that point though, and we wanted to see what we were capable of doing past mid-April. Especially after going all in on trading for Kawhi Leonard, which we can now lightly say was a one-year rental, it was Finals or bust for this team.
Under the bright lights of The Playoffs, you’re either labelled with stage fright – a name that Kyle Lowry knew all too well before he bucked that narrative last season, or stage presence – something that we’re careful to label anyone with, as it provokes the thought of grading them into that legendary tier. Nick Nurse earned the latter title with his ability to thoroughly outcoach everyone whom he went up against, including two former Coach of The Year winners in Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr, and nearly cost Brett Brown his job as the head coach of the Sixers.
Danny Green, who has played for Gregg Popovich – one of the greatest coaches in all of professional sports – told a reporter that Nick Nurse is different from anyone he’s ever played for because of his unique willingness to take input from his players, and really consider everyone’s ideas on the team. Nurse’s leadership style is far off from Dwane Casey’s, who seemed to be much more autocratic and stubborn from an outsider’s perspective.
Additionally, Nurse’s enthusiasm to play around with different schemes and change the gameplan mid-game would often throw opponents off, and in many cases helped swing the tides of the game in the Raptors’ favour.
Take his zone scheme that he used against the Bucks back in the regular season in early 2019 as an example – a tactic that is very rarely seen in the NBA because of its noticeable flaws, allowing teams with good shooters to light up the net in a matter of seconds getting plenty of easy and uncontested looks – but seen so rarely that Milwaukee got thrown off and basically forgot how to play basketball, allowing the Raptors to come back and win.
Another testament to Nurse’s creativity was his notorious box-and-one that he used against Stephen Curry in Game 2 of The Finals, which ultimately held the Dubs to just 2 points in over 6 minutes of fourth quarter play. Again, this is a strategy rarely seen in the NBA, more typically used against peewee teams with one truly gifted offensive player, and no other offensive threats. For those unfamiliar, the box-and-one is essentially a 4-man zone, with the last defender chasing around said gifted offensive player; in this case, Stephen Curry.
Given how flawlessly the Raptors were able to execute, despite a tough loss in that game, all you would hear about for the next couple days was how much of a mastermind Nick Nurse is. Not only did his ploy help to bring the Larry OB to Canada for the first time ever, but he broadened the scope of possibilities within the basketball world, showing other coaches in the league that they don’t have to be restrained to their predictable status-quo schemes.
Damian Lillard attested to the movement Nick Nurse started last week after his Trailblazers fell to the shorthanded Raptors, saying “It’s the fourth team to come out denying me full-court… box-and-one. I hardly remember seeing that many box-and-one’s in the NBA.”
14 games into this fresh season, Nurse’s spectacle has only grown stronger. Without Ibaka and Lowry, he managed to take down LeBron James and Anthony Davis, holding LeBron to just 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting. Less than 24 hours later, he revealed the blueprint for stopping Kawhi Leonard, luring him into a career-high 9 turnovers, and then went on to contain Damian Lillard to single digit scoring for the first time since 2017, breaking his 230 game streak of scoring 10 points or more, just a couple days after.
Nick Nurse has Raptors fans believing that this team is capable of making it right back to where they were last year, despite having lost one of the best players in the world.
A huge part of the Raptors’ 10-4 start has been the breakouts of bench mob 2.0 players, such as Terence Davis Jr., Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher, in addition to the wild improvements of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet. One of the most valuable pieces to this team though, is that they might have the best basketball coach in the world right now. Without Nick Nurse, the Raptors wouldn’t have won a championship last season, wouldn’t be 10-4 despite the injury bug, and would not have any of us feeling the optimism that we do right now.
Nick Nurse should be an early favourite to win the 2019-2020 Coach of The Year award, and is probably the most entrepreneurial head coach that basketball has ever seen.