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Raptors coaching search apparently narrows to two names

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We’re willing to bet you can guess which ones, but let’s recap the situation.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Worry not, the Raptors coaching search is almost at an end. It’s true Toronto remains one of two NBA teams (along with the Pistons) still without a head coach, but it’s doubly true that the team, and Masai Ujiri, has been doing its due diligence to make the right choice — we hope.

The reports from last night are that the search has winnowed its way down to two names: the prime internal candidate, Nick Nurse, and the veteran international presence, Ettore Messina.

(Lewenberg’s full story is here on TSN)

If it’s felt like this decision was a long-time coming, that’s because: it has.

If you can harken back to the Bryan Colangelo Era of Toronto, it has often felt like the Raptors and Messina have been dancing around each other for years. This was at a time when the Raptors felt like far and away the most international team in the league, stocked as they were with players who had made their names in Europe. On top of that, of course, they remained the only non-American team, so the label sort of fit.

In any case, here’s a piece from the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk from 2008 about Messina. Within, Colangelo is certain the hiring of a European head coach will happen, and while its taken some time, he was right. (Though the guy Feschuk later name checks — David Blatt — was, uh, not long for the NBA world. Whoops!)

Messina has indeed remained a top coaching prospect for all those intervening years, and now he has a few years of NBA experience under his belt as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, the league’s best finishing school. If there was a time for the 58-year-old Italian to make the jump to a head coaching position, now would likely be it. What’s more: Toronto represents one of the better coaching jobs around. Yes, even in the face of embarrassing defeats at the hands of LeBron James, it’s true.

Setting aside how good Toronto is as a city just in general, the Raptors are a remarkably solid franchise, with a stable management team, an ace team president, and a cadre of high character (and skilled!) players. It strikes me that Messina wouldn’t want to spend his twilight coaching years trying to rebuild a dysfunctional team, and with the Raptors (at least for a couple of seasons) he wouldn’t have to do that. In this scenario, Messina would have half the work done for him, his reputation would command the respect of the veteran players, and he’d be able to tweak the Raptors’ identity just enough to make a difference. That’s the thinking, anyway.

So where does that leave Nick Nurse?

This honestly feels like the most we’ve ever written about Nurse in all the years he’s been with the team (stretching back to 2013). It’s been steady Nurse content for weeks! In truth, he’s an easy guy to write about: as I’ve said elsewhere, Nurse’s path to the NBA is kind of wild, and it has most certainly informed his approach to the game.

With the lack of other head coaching positions (assuming Dwane Casey gets hired by the Pistons), Nurse knows he’ll have a spot with Toronto regardless of how this all shakes out. But you have to feel for him here. Nurse has essentially been groomed to be a future head coach for the past few years in the NBA (to say nothing of the 25 years before that), and now his shot in Toronto may be taken by guy with just a bit more (but very different) experience.

To his credit, Nurse is, I think, just as respected among the current Raptors roster as anyone else could be. He’s earned that trust — along with the label of being an innovative offensive basketball mind. The changes we’ve seen with the Raptors over the past couple of seasons are proof enough of that. Whether all of that translates into some good news for Nurse in the next week or two, remains to be seen.

As for the other candidates: Jerry Stackhouse took matters into his own hands and is off to Memphis; Rex Kalamian was never a likely head coaching candidate; Ime Udoka looks to have been usurped by his more senior Spurs partner; and the admittedly fun choice of Sarunas Jasikevicius may need a bit more seasoning before being taken seriously in the NBA. That’s it.

This has been your Raptors coaching search update.