A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how in firing Dwane Casey, Masai Ujiri had taken an uncharacteristic risk. By removing the Coach of the Year candidate, Masai faced a scenario where if the Raptors’ record declined markedly under a new bench boss, focus would shift from coaching tactics to Ujiri’s ability to properly navigate the waters of the modern game.
In promoting long-time assistant coach, Nick Nurse, Ujiri has doubled down on that risk.
By all accounts Nurse is a strong basketball mind. He toiled in a round-ball backwater, much like Casey (Britain compared to Japan), and then cut his North American teeth through running the Rockets then D-League franchise. There is no reason to think this is a “bad” hire.
He’s also part of the same brain-trust that, arguably, let the Raptors down repeatedly in the playoffs. Now of course it wasn’t Nurse making the final calls, and it is certainly plausible that Nurse had ideas that could have helped that Casey refused to implement.
With the second kick of the can to implement a culture reset, Ujiri has yet again doubled down on the existing infrastructure. This might be a smart play. When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich finally rides off into the sunset, it feels like the Spurs will promote from within, but this isn’t that sort of situation.
Still, Nick Nurse is well regarded, especially as an innovative thinker, and especially on the offensive side of the floor.
The Raptors problems in the playoffs, at least against LeBron James, haven‘t really been offense. It’s been a total inability to stop the Cavs (and LeBron). Even this past regular season, there was a huge gap between the Raps‘ defense against sub .500 teams and .500 or better squads.
I’ve talked about this before, but there is a simple case to be made that the Raptors don’t have the personnel, if not the schemes, to defend at a high level.
In that light, hiring what is believed to be an offensive mind seems like a riskier bet. The Raps were supposed to be running a Nurse offense this year — and it was really good. How much more juice is there for him to squeeze.
At the end of the day, finding a way to slow the King with a roster, that right now, is light on versatile defenders (and potent two-way players), is the test for Toronto. If Nurse can’t do that, his rep as an offensive coach might become a millstone around his and Masai’s neck.
Still, Nurse’s hiring could prove to be a master-stroke. After all, he knows the Raptors team intimately. Nobody should find it easier to innovate with the talent at hand, while not pushing players where they can’t go. And, while Kyle Lowry may always be a tricky personality to navigate, Nurse has had his time to build a rapport, and one can assume that the Nurse-Lowry relationship is on solid ground, or else why would Masai hire Nurse?
The other worrisome piece of the puzzle is the news that there ‘was no love lost’ between Casey and Nurse at the end of their tenure. Coaching is a high-pressure, high-stakes enterprise, so it’s probably should be no surprise that tempers fray, and relationships disintegrate.
If there is one thing we have been told over, and over, again (though never by Casey), it’s that Dwane Casey is about as honest and respected a man as you’ll find. It’s still entirely possible that any tension between the two is because Casey was stubborn and inflexible, and willfully stifled Nurse’s contributions.
It’s also possible that Nurse put the knife into his boss’ back, trying to get Casey out the door, and putting himself into position for this job. That might just be the way it goes in sports, but it also feels like something that could reverberate through a locker room, especially one filled with Casey’s guys. If Nurse isn’t as upfront with the players as Casey was how could that affect the famously loyal DeMar DeRozan, and equally famously distrusting Lowry?
This isn’t to say that Ujiri should have hired Jerry Stackhouse, or Ime Udoka. or Ettore Messina just because it would have seemed like a bigger change, but this feels like a decision that had a bit of bet-hedging to it. One that Ujiri, who has never hired a coach before, may have made to keep himself from inadvertently damaging the Raptors impressive culture.
These are all defensible reasons, even the hedging — why risk destroying the organization’s impressive structure? But the fact that Nick Nurse doesn’t come with the appeal of an outside voice, is more than just optics. It could be seen as a lack of imagination by Toronto’s GM.
As the roster Masai built comes under more scrutiny, and the Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and DeMarre Carroll contracts all look more and more questionable, if the Raps decline from the levels Casey helped them achieve, or Nurse out and out struggles, the talk about whether Ujiri has lost his sweet management stroke will be held at a much longer volume.