Nurse’s tough coaching journey set to get harder with new Raptors gigJune 14, 2018
Nick Nurse became a head coach at age 23 for the Derby Storm of the British Professional Basketball League. It was not the highest level of professional basketball.
For example: One of Nurse’s key players was a rookie named Nick Nurse.
The player/coach lasted one season in Derby and never played professionally again, but he caught the coaching bug. On Thursday in Toronto, the 50-year-old from Carroll, Iowa was named the ninth head coach in Toronto Raptors history.
How far down the totem pole was Derby? Later in his coaching career – Nurse was in his late twenties by this time and had moved up the pecking order in the BPL to Birmingham — one of the players he coached against was a veteran Nigerian pro with skinny calves and a limited jumper named Masai Ujiri.
“Umm, he played hard,” said Nurse.
Hey, after spending 27 years to became an overnight success, Nurse wasn’t going to bite the hand that fed him his reported three-year, $10-million deal by going much further.
Safe to say that both Ujiri and Nurse eventually found their niche. Nurse won two titles in the BPL before becoming one of the most successful head coaches in the history of the G-League; before working as a lead assistant with the Raptors during the most successful era the franchise has ever had and before replacing his boss, Dwane Casey.
Perhaps recognizing the task at hand – all Nurse has to do to improve is win 50-plus games for the fourth straight year and the Eastern Conference finals, Finals or beyond – the festivities were muted after he learned he got the job officially on Tuesday morning.
“Well, there wasn’t much celebration,” he said at his introductory press conference, the first for a head coach at the Air Canada Centre since 2011. “It was kind of, obviously, call the people that are close to you, first of all, and things start coming at you pretty quick and getting to work, really. I had a good celebration last week, maybe a pre-celebration, I had a nice trip to England with my son Noah. We’ll celebrate at some point but we’re working right now.”
The hiring came just over a month since Ujiri cashiered Casey. Nurse was one of the first candidates interviewed and came across well, but had no choice but to wait until the Raptors president worked through a list of other potential coaches before coming back to the in-house option.
Being seen to take care and be thorough was imperative for Ujiri who has put himself out there by firing the presumptive coach-of-the-year and hiring his assistant.
Remarkably, the Raptors president has never hired a head coach before. He inherited George Karl in Denver and Casey in Toronto.
In doing it the first time, he wanted to do it right. He spoke with former and current NBA executives about the ins and outs of running a coaching search. He consulted CEOs in other fields about how they conducted executive searches. Ujiri has been working with a leadership consultant who in turn was a sounding board for him while pushing him to be disciplined in his process.
The first meetings were done over long dinners with the team’s executive as well as special adviser Wayne Embry. Those sessions were devoted to general philosophies, background, outside interests – an assessment of whether Ujiri and his staff felt a comfort level and a fit with the person as much as the coach; an element Ujiri values highly.
The subsequent interviews with Ettore Messina – the other short-listed finalist — and Nurse were more formal and involved drilling down into specific detail about their vision for the team they would be coaching: How would they run training camp; who their staff might be and how he would utilize them; everything down to plays out of timeouts in late-game situations.
“… You never know how these things will work when you try something for the first time,” Ujiri said of the process. “I know it took long, but you go through the grind of knowing all these candidates … Nick was outstanding. He really came out on top on this.”
Ujiri values risk-taking and innovation. As the ultimate outsider – he’s the only club NBA club president who played in the BPL for Derby — who turned himself into an insider, he’s eager to listen to those who aren’t overly invested in the tried and true, in sticking with things because they’ve worked before.
Casey was many admirable things but thinking outside the proverbial box was not something he spent a lot of time doing — and why should he? Sticking with what had worked for him as an assistant with winning programs in Seattle and Dallas and as a successful head coach in Toronto seemed to be working well.
But having conceivably exhausted those avenues, Ujiri wanted to try something different and Nurse is willing to experiment.
“He thinks the game differently,” says Ujiri. “In the NBA, we’re a copy-cat league. That’s what we are. We copy everything that everybody else is doing. I’d love not to be that and go different ways, whether they are new, whatever they are. Sometimes they might fail, but what’s the next best thing. He’s that kind of thinker, to be honest.”
Ujiri and Nurse may well be on to something. The NBA game has undergone a remarkable transformation in terms of its style of play in just the past five years, with changes continuing as ‘switch-everything’ defences are showing some signs of catching up to the space-and-pace offensive approach that has almost become the norm now.
Nurse sounds like he’s determined push some boundaries.
“I think the game in general is changing so fast right before our eyes. I think it’s changed so much in the last five years, it’s changed so much in the last three years, so I think the leadership that I’m bringing and the coaching staff that we’ll eventually hire, we’ve got to be innovative, we’ve got to be trying to think of what’s coming next before it comes next if we want to stay ahead of the game,” he said.
Of course that kind of talk is cheap in the glow of the off-season, with the first losing streak at least five months away. As head coach with the Houston Rockets G-League affiliate, Nurse was required to try new and different things. At one point he had his players mimic the free-throw routine of Steve Nash, the NBA’s career free-throw leader – to see if there would be a tangible impact. Another time they defended side screen-and-rolls by ‘shooting the gap’ every time, charting the results over 1000s of real game instances to see if one coverage was more effective than another.
But doing things new and different or just to see if they work is one thing in the G-League and quite another in the NBA, where everyone is watching
“I think if you’re going to be a little bit innovative or risk taking sometimes you’re going to be wrong and it’s going to look bad. I understand that,” said Nurse. “… I’m not saying it’s a hundred [new] things a game but there are some things, some ideas that I have that I want to try and do and we got to try them. If they don’t work, I’ll stand in front of you guys, and take the heat.“
It may not take long for the heat to build. Nurse is charged with sprucing things up after a perfect storm of a regulars season but as their sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers revealed, may have covered up some flaws.
How good were the 59-win Raptors, really?
*Toronto went a league-best 35-2 against teams with records .500 or below.
*They went 4-1 in overtime.
*Per NBA.com stats guru John Schumann, the Raptors were under .500 against the NBA’s top-10 offenses and against high-scoring teams had a defensive rating of 115.7, second-worst in the league after Cleveland.
*The Raptors were remarkably fortunate with injuries – the average number of games played for their key rotation players was 76.5. Their high-priced core of DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas – averaged 78 games played. Lowry and DeRozan missed just six games total
The relevance here is that while Nurse is taking over a winning team – a rare opportunity for a first-time NBA head coach – it comes with an asterisk and navigating expectations when the waters get choppy next season and beyond could be Nurse’s most significant task.
He can only hope that his veteran core – he’s spoken with most of them already, including Kyle Lowry – will stand beside him if the wins don’t come in a flood and Ujiri remains patient if the innovations don’t yield immediate results.
Nurse couldn’t have thought when he left Iowa for Derby to be a player coach that he’d be an NBA head coach one day. He couldn’t have predicted that the hard-nosed Nigerian forward he coached against would one day make him one.
But Nurse’s easiest day on his new job likely came on Thursday. They will get tougher from here.