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Five Thoughts on Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ new head coach

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Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors looked inside to fill their coaching vacancy, promoting longtime assistant Nick Nurse to lead the team next season.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It took perhaps longer than expected, but the news has finally come down: Nick Nurse is the new head coach of the Toronto Raptors. I have a few thoughts on the hire!

I Think it’s a Perfectly Fine Choice

”Perfectly fine” doesn’t sound like much, does it? But hiring Nurse isn’t a “sexy” choice; Nurse is not a “big name” and his promotion doesn’t portend some massive shakeup for the Raptors next year.

But who out there would have been a big sexy name that was gonna shake things up?

So “perfectly fine” sums it up. I don’t think the Raptors needed to make a splash or start over from scratch. They had one of the best offenses in the league, and Nick nurse was largely responsible for that.

I think it’s going to be fun to see Nurse’s offense evolve after last season, and see what else he can bring to it as a head coach.

Nurse was also credited for his work with the Raptors’ youngsters, which gives me confidence that the OG Anunoby and the second unit players will continue to grow and be given opportunities under Nurse.

I definitely understand feeling underwhelmed by the choice of replacing a coach with his longtime assistant. I understand the concern that “Nurse is an offensive coach, and the defense was the problem in the playoffs.”

But Nurse has a great reputation as an out-of-the-box thinker and a guy willing to try new things, which, despite his history as a Dwane Casey assistant, sounds like the exact opposite of Casey.

So I’m certainly willing to give Nurse a chance.

I Appreciate Masai Doing his Due Diligence

”Why did it take a month just to settle on an internal hire?” is a valid question, but that speaks to the thoroughness of Masai Ujiri’s search. We know he interviewed seven other candidates along with Nurse (Mike Budenholzer, Jerry Stackhouse, Rex Kalamian, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina), and given the secrecy in which he works, it’s possible Ujiri interviewed other potential candidates as well.

I think Ujiri is smart and thoughtful and the fact that he was thorough and took this long to make his decision tells me that Nurse wasn’t the “easy” decision it looks like on paper—that Ujiri deliberated over the choice and Nurse emerged as the best hire.

It helps to remember too—it’s also Ujiri’s neck on the line if the move doesn’t work. This is a roster of Ujiri’s construction (several players preceded his arrival but he’s signed them all to their current deals) and now, for the first time as a GM, he’s hired his own head coach. If the team fails there are no more excuses—Ujiri is responsible for all of it now.

I Wonder What Tilted the Final Decision Nurse’s Way

It’s been widely reported that the final decision came down to Nurse and Messina, with the Nurse call coming after the weekend. I’m definitely curious on what the final deciding factors were.

Josh Lewenberg reported “there was a strong internal push for Nurse”:

I wonder if that means that players were leaning towards Nurse? Would Ujiri really have consulted his players in this decision?

If so, that might mean Ujiri and the team expect the roster to mostly come back intact. Which has been my feeling all along. Ujiri is not going to “tank,” nor should he, and there appear to be few moves that could be made to both turn over the roster and keep the team in the mix as a top-four East seed.

In which case, perhaps that weighed on Ujiri’s decision making process: he may have felt it made more sense to promote the guy who built the offense that transformed that same roster last year, who the players know and trust, rather than go outside and bring in a new voice and start over.

Ujiri is unlikely to fill us in on his decision making, especially if it were to give any hints on future moves, but I personally feel like this means we see largely the same roster next year. I could be wrong, though, and that leads me to…

I’m Looking Forward to What Comes Next

It seems like this a big weight has been lifted, doesn’t it? The one big decision the Raptors had to make, and now it’s done. Phew!

But Ujiri still has a ton of work ahead of him.

The draft is in less than two weeks, and although the Raptors don’t currently have a pick, I expect Ujiri is trying his best to purchase or otherwise acquire a second-rounder. I’m sure he’d love to draft another project, have him compete in summer league and/or camp and/or stash him overseas for a year. And of course, the draft is when trade discussions get taken to the next level.

Free agency is coming too, and although the Raptors have only one real decision to make, I suspect Fred VanVleet is going to (rightfully) be fighting for every dollar he can. With the Raptors’ salary cap situation, that’s going to be a tough negotiation for Ujiri.

And that leads us to the roster as it stands now. It’s a high payroll, and its successful in the regular season, but the team has flamed out two straight years. Can Masai realistically make roster changes that will make a postseason difference?

One of the joys of being a Raptors fan in the Ujiri era is how secretive the Raptors are. We aren’t often subjected to endless rumours; when something happens, it simply happens. I like the unexpected surprises, and I hope we see one or two this summer.

Judgment on Nurse Shouldn’t Happen for About a Year

Coming off the best regular season in Raptors franchise history, it seems like Nurse has his work cut out for him—it’s gonna be real tough to replicate that success, regardless of whatever roster tweaks Ujiri is able to make (barring something drastic like LeBron James deciding to come north) (LeBron James is not deciding to come north).

And that’s just fine. The Raptors didn’t fire Dwane Casey because they wanted better regular season results, after all. So if the Raptors end up with 49 wins and a 4-seed? I think that’s OK.

It’s the postseason results that matter. With Nurse’s guidance, can the Raptors make it back to the conference finals? Can they beat a LeBron James team (if he stays in the East)? Can they win a series without existential angst? Can Nurse get them over the hump?

We won’t know that until May.

*****

So that leaves us with one question: “What if the roster comes back and still can’t get over the hump with Nurse as head coach?” The team as constructed has a two-year window; if the team doesn’t make progress in those two years, Ujiri can decide to turn the roster over and rebuild with or without Nurse in 2020.