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What can we learn from the last time Nick Nurse was a head coach?

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Let’s look at Nick Nurse’s run with the then-D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers to learn more about his style, and what to expect from his Raptors.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Press Conference Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Nurse. There it is. It’s official. For better or worse, Nick will be at the helm as the Raptors’ ninth head coach for the foreseeable future.

The Raptors fanbase hasn’t been this divided, well, since the Jakob Poeltl draft. Leading up to that draft, we argued about Domantas Sabonis, Deyonta Davis, Skal Labissiere, Henry Ellenson (lol). Heck, there were even those fans that were praying that Marquese Chriss would drop to ninth.

The book on Poeltl was that we already knew who he was. In short, at the time Poeltl was just not the sexiest name available for the Raptors with the ninth pick. By extension, Nurse is not quite the most exciting pick for the Raptors head coaching job because we’ve already seen some of what he can do. But upon closer examination: have we really?

Full disclosure: I was on Team Stackhouse during the coaching search. I felt that Jerry Stackhouse was the better option over Nurse. Given how last season played out for the Raptors, with the overall increased focus on three-pointers and ball movement, I thought we had already seen through Nurse’s system, which was not quite the case for Stackhouse.

That said, since Nurse’s appointment, I started going through his coaching profile and history. Most significantly, I went on a deep dive into Nurse’s last season in charge as the head coach of the then-D-League Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2013.

The hope was to find something more than what we saw last season. Here’s what I found.

Regular Season Breakdown

Nick Nurse racked up 124 wins in 200 games with the Iowa Energy (now Minnesota Timberwolves affiliate Iowa Wolves), ending his coaching stint with the Energy with a championship (2010-11 season). Nurse’s last season with the Energy and his exit looks like it has controversy written all over it, but that’s a story for another day.

Nurse transferred to the finals runner-up Rio Grande Valley Vipers the following season. While the Vipers’ first season under Nurse looked promising by going 18-10 by the end of January, the team finished 24-26 and missed the playoffs due to roster turnover and the call-ups to their main players.

The Vipers only had two returning players from the previous team’s runner-up team, and the following key players earned call-ups: Terrell Harris, Greg Smith, and Ben Uzoh (oh, hello old friend). The last two call-ups put a significant dent to their campaign — the team went 6-16 from February 1, 2012, and dashed any playoff hopes.

Nurse’s banner year with the Vipers was not without adversity either. As what we have seen from the Raptors 905, it’s hard to maintain excellence in the G League because of roster turnover.

The Vipers only had small forward Damian Saunders as a returning player from Nurse’s first season, which meant Nurse pretty much had to teach his team from scratch again. Saunders was eventually sent to Sioux-Falls Skyforce as part of the deal for centre Hassan Whiteside.

The roster turnover problem and high expectations also meant that Nurse had to get better. Learning from the previous season, Nurse had to be better at preparing, adapting, innovating, and coaching overall. He faced a daunting challenge of continuously tinkering the roster to find players that fit his vision, while also watching players come and go and integrating them on the fly.

The following season, Nurse and the Vipers used the NBA D-League draft to reshape their roster, finding players that might fit Nurse’s system. Among the key acquisitions during the draft: SG Chris Johnson, SG/SF Glen Rice Jr, SF Mike Singletary. Centre Tim Ohlbrecht and PG/SG Toure’ Murry were later acquired via trade before the season started.

Despite all that, the Vipers got off to a poor start, going 2-5 through their first seven games. Growing pains, needing time to gel, integrating assignee — the team was stacked with Houston Rockets assignee like PG Scott Machado, C Donatas Montiejunas, and PF/C Terrence Jones.

It wasn’t until the turn of the year before the Vipers would hit their stride. The Vipers finished the calendar year hovering around .500, and pulled a three-way trade that brought in PG Andrew Goudelock and Hassan Whiteside. Goudelock’s MVP season helped the team to a 20-13 record before the All-Star break.

The Vipers improved their roster via solid trade moves near the trade deadline — nabbing SG/SF DJ Kennedy (who was in the MVP conversation at that point) and parlaying Machado for Santa Cruz Warriors’ All Star C Chris Daniels. Both players were considered a fit for Nurse’s system and added roster versatility. These transactions helped push the Vipers to finish the season strong going 14-2.

Roster Construction

The following assignees spent significant time with the Vipers during the regular season: Scott Machado, Terrence Jones, Donatas Montiejunas, and Royce White. Yet none of these players saw a single minute in the playoffs for one reason or another.

Once the roster movements settled down near the end of the regular season, it’s clear that Nurse’s offense relied on the three usual groups: point guards, wings, and big men — albeit blended in interesting ways For the most part, there was a big blur between the SG/SF/PF spots, and only the presence of Jones and White somewhat forced the Vipers to play a traditional PF. Even then, Jones and White were used as a small-ball centre every now and then.

In the playoffs, Goudelock was picked up by the Los Angeles Lakers right after the Vipers’ first post-season game. Nurse and the Vipers were already anticipating that Goudelock might get picked up, which is one of the reasons why they traded for DJ Kennedy. However, Kennedy is not a full-time PG as he is more of a play-making SF.

Toure’ Murry, a combo guard out of Wichita State was the lone PG on the roster but had limited ball-handling duties during the season because of Scott Machado and Goudelock being the primary ball handlers. Nurse actually used Murry more as the SG, and as an additional ball handler on the floor if needed.

Nurse had to re-calibrate his offense and instead of going with Murry as the traditional point guard, he alternated ball-handling duties between DJ Kennedy, Toure’ Murry, and Glen Rice Jr.

From this point onward, Nurse’s team consisted of just two groups: Wings and Big Men.

Rio Grande Valley Vipers 2012-2013 Key Players

PLAYER POS AGE PPG FG% 3P% 3PA REB AST STL BLK
PLAYER POS AGE PPG FG% 3P% 3PA REB AST STL BLK
Andrew Goudelock PG 24 21.4 49.1 40.4 5.1 4.1 5.8 1.3 0.1
Toure' Murry PG/SG 23 8.3 45.6 36.1 1.6 2.5 2.8 1.6 0.2
DJ Kennedy SG/SF 23 11.3 40.5 34.8 3.3 6.1 4.3 1.4 0.1
Glen Rice Jr SG/SF 22 13 49.1 38.5 4.1 6.2 1.9 0.9 0.7
Chris Johnson SG/SF 23 10.6 42.7 38 5.3 4.2 0.8 1.5 0.3
Tyler Honeycutt SF 22 10.1 51.8 44.4 2.3 5.4 1.5 1.9 0.8
Mike Singletary SG/SF 24 10.1 44.2 44.6 3.1 4.2 2 0.7 0.3
Chris Daniels C 29 10.8 52.4 19.2 2 4.8 0.8 0.3 2
Tim Ohlbrecht C 24 13.4 60.5 6.3 0.5 7.4 1.1 0.7 1.6
Note: The age listed above is based on the player’s age during that season

The Point Guard

If anyone is wondering how Nurse might use Kyle Lowry, my guess is it would be similar to how Goudelock was used by Nurse. Goudelock was the primary point of attack in the offense — aggressively looking for his shots, with his penetration getting the defense to collapse, making it easier for him to find targets around the perimeter.

The Wings

Nurse and the Vipers collected more than a handful of SG/SF with varying strengths and plugged them where they would fit between Goudelock and whoever they have playing as the centre. As I mentioned previously, Goudelock received a call-up, so Nurse had to improvise and essentially use four wings plus a centre for the rest of their championship run.

Toure’ Murry is a combo guard that was primarily used as their main defender on the opposing team’s best guard. He can break defenders down and get a mid-range shot if needed but his perimeter shot was shaky at best. He’s also an additional ball handler on the floor that can play the point.

Tyler Honeycutt is a long and athletic SF that was traded by Sacramento Kings to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets waived him mid season and was picked up by the Vipers. His versatility on both offense and defense allowed Nurse to play him at SF/PF spots.

DJ Kennedy is a SG/SF that likes the ball in his hands and he’s good at creating shots for his teammates. He was the main ball handler for the rest of the post-season when Goudelock got called up, playing the point-forward role.

Glen Rice Jr is a SG/SF that mostly played SF/PF in the post-season. He was the ultimate utility man for Nurse — in the playoffs, he led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and free throw attempts.

Chris Johnson and Mike Singletary were both listed at 6’6” (most likely with shoes on) and provided marksmanship around the perimeter.

Key points on the wings: These are all solid two-way players, and with the exception of Murry, they are all a threat from the perimeter. All of them are excellent in transition, but their length on defense (they are all at least +2 on wingspan, some longer) caused a lot of deflections that helped their transition game forcing off turnovers.

The Big Men

Before I go on about the “bigs”, it’s worth noting that Nurse had a young core: Goudelock and the rest of the wings are between the ages of 22-24, with zero to one year of D-League experience. Experience is something that their bigs brought to the table.

Tim Ohlbrecht already had at least five years of professional experience in Europe prior to exploring his NBA dreams. Chris Daniels, who was 29 years old back then, had played around the world for several years and had two years of D-League experience.

Hassan Whiteside technically was the better shot blocker, but he fell out of rotation due to his defensive lapses and fit in Nurse’s system. While Whiteside’s talent and potential is superior to Ohlbrecht and Daniels, the duo’s basketball IQ is what Nurse’s system needed more.

The two centres provided the shot-blocking and intimidation in the paint as Nurse often had to play small. Offensively, they are entitled to their post touches (more on the post touches later) and three-pointers. Yes, three-pointers.

Post-season Performance

The Vipers opened the post-season as the top seed, and they swept the over-matched (on paper) Maine Red Claws in the first round. While it was a sweep, it was disappointing to see that both games could have gone the other way. The Vipers would jump on a big lead, only to see the Red Claws pull them back to a barn-burner late in the game.

In the semifinals, the Vipers went on to sweep a stacked Tulsa 66ers that featured Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, Perry Jones III, and Rasual Butler. The Vipers trashed the 66ers in Game 1 but struggled to close out a depleted roster (Lamb, Liggins, and Jones were called up) in Game 2.

Finally, the Vipers swept the Santa Cruz Warriors in the Finals, with Nurse coaching against his protege, Nate Bjorkgren. Unfortunately for Bjorkgren, he was stuck with a 90s/00s style roster — punishing bigs, score-first point guard, and no credible perimeter threat. It was a cakewalk for Nurse, even though the Warriors had Hilton Armstrong, Jeremy Tyler, and former Viper Scott Machado.

Playing Style

Defensive Scheme

Later in the season and in the post-season, the Vipers went small, playing four guards and one traditional centre. The four guards are at least decent defensively, and the centres were good shot blockers who can handle pick-and-roll defense well enough. For comparison, Whiteside would bite on a pump fake on a pick-and-pop and get left behind on the perimeter.

While the Wings+Centre looked small on paper, they all have a good length (at least +2 wingspan), versatility, quickness, and athleticism. The Vipers wings were excellent on the passing lanes and getting those long rebounds. Toure’ Murry would pick up his man full court from time to time, and he’s pretty good at deflecting the ball from behind if he gets blown by. This often leads to a fast break.

There wasn’t anything groundbreaking that the Vipers did defensively, especially in the playoffs. If anything, they just scouted their opponents well. Against the Red Claws, the Vipers primarily went man-to-man coverage and changed it up to a zone defense every now and then. Josh Selby, who was unstoppable off the bench in Game 1, saw pretty much the entire wings platoon taking turns on defending him so he couldn’t get into a rhythm.

Against teams with no outside shooting, Nurse had the Vipers playing a man-to-man defense that sagged so low it was functionally a zone defense. The idea is simple: they can’t shoot, so we’ll let them, and once they get in the mid-range and closer, we’ll collapse with multiple defenders.

Lastly, Nurse was willing to double team a player if necessary. Against the Warriors, Jeremy Tyler was too big of a load for the Vipers bigs so Nurse had to send a help defender on top of collapsing the defense around the paint. Aagain, knowing the scouting report: Tyler was less likely to make a pass when he’s deep in the paint regardless of how many defenders he was facing.

Offensive Scheme

The lazy analysis on Nick Nurse and the Raptors 2017-18 offense is that Nurse’s offense is all about jacking up more threes, avoiding mid-range shots, and moving the ball around. Even I thought the same initially.

Check the video below. In the finals close out game against the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Vipers started off cold from the perimeter, shooting 1-of-11. You can hear Nurse talking, emphasizing their priorities: get into the paint and get free-throws first, then three-pointers. The Vipers won convincingly despite shooting a ghastly 8-of-35 (22.9%) from the perimeter. They had to rely on their transition game, getting to the free throw line, and forcing turnovers.

After pouring over a few Vipers regular season games and their post-season run, here’s a much more defined answer in regards to what to expect from a Nick Nurse offense. The focus on the three-pointers is correct, but it’s only part of the package. The Vipers generated different ways on how to get an open perimeter shot. To name a few:

  • Drive and kick (and swing pass if necessary);
  • Pick-and-pop;
  • Collapsing the defense by attacking mismatches 1-on-1;
  • Collapsing the defense by posting up the centres;
  • Fast break opportunities;
  • After timeout (ATO) plays; and
  • Out-of-bounds (OOB) plays.

The key for the Vipers first was spacing — everyone knew that they have to occupy the corner spots, and space around as required. After that, it’s all about confidence and willingness to take the shot. The perimeter shots that the Vipers got were mostly open and in-rhythm shots, so most likely Nurse’s edict is if you position yourself around the perimeter, you have to be ready to step into the shot and pop that. Just ask their centre Ohlbrecht, who shot 6.3 percent from three in the regular season. He hit two 3-pointers against 66ers in the playoffs to close them out.

Aside from the perimeter shots, the Vipers also focused on their transition game. The Vipers ran when they forced a turnover. They ran whether the opponents missed a shot or made baskets. The Vipers rebounded by committee, and as soon as they grabbed the rebound, they are already looking for the lead pass, as someone typically would leak out before they even got possession.

While most teams’ fast break opportunities would often lead to a dunk or a layup, the Vipers would look for the perimeter shot, especially if there’s a defender or two waiting in the paint. It might not sound amazing right now but just keep in perspective that this was five years ago.

As mentioned above, Nurse will get his centres their touches on the post. However, it’s not always so that they can get a shot up. They were also used as the initial point of attack — to prod the defense — and they were expected to identify how the play is developing and make the right call to either go for a shot or play-make for others via a swing pass to the perimeter or to cutters.

Nurse also attacked mismatches. The Warriors had nowhere to hide Scott Machado who measured 6’1” as the smallest player for the Vipers was the 6’5” Murry. If the opposing team elected to switch all the time, Nurse hunted the stiff centre on a switch with Goudelock. Nurse will let his best players ISO from the top or on the post if it meant they were attacking a mismatch.

Nurse also displayed the ability to adjust to what the defense is giving them. In an effort to mix things up after the 66ers started playing zone, the Vipers did not just start settling for the outside shots, but attacked the zone’s weakness in the paint a few times.

While Nurse is no Brad Stevens, the Vipers executed quite a few interesting ATO/OOB plays, designed to get a wide open perimeter shot, or a layup/dunk. Here are some samples:

Comparing the 2012-13 Vipers to the 2017-18 Raptors

We have already seen a few concepts that came from Nick Nurse, from obvious ones like the second unit’s ball movement to the less subtle ones like giving Jonas Valanciunas the first possession at the beginning of every half.

The two-point guard lineups with Lowry and Fred VanVleet, while not new, are reminiscent of Scott Machado and Andrew Goudelock’s regular season pairing. The VanVleet and Delon Wright pairing is reminiscent of Nurse’s use of Goudelock and Toure’ Murray — an offensive-minded point guard paired with a tall and long combo guard that can pick up the offense when the main point guard is playing off the ball.

Getting the centres (JV/Serge Ibaka/Poeltl/Lucas Nogueira) customary touches early on the possession was a staple of Nurse’s offense with the Vipers. When he played both centres (Daniels and Ohlbrecht), he was not shy in letting both of them camp around the perimeter on the same play.

From here, the significant difference between the two teams was how the teams responded when the initial play was defended well. With the Raptors, the ball would end up with either of their wings trying to ISO from up top with the sole objective of shooting. The Vipers would often get a post-up to either get a shot or another crack at swinging the ball to an open perimeter shot.

Another difference would be how the Vipers and Raptors were getting their three-point shots. Almost 90 percent of the Vipers’ perimeter shots were assisted, whereas the Raptors had about 80 percent. We’ve seen Kyle Lowry’s very early on the clock pull-up three and how some players ISO’d for a three-point shot. This is something that was rarely seen in the Vipers’ offense.

Differences in personnel also add to how different the teams operated. The Raptors’ starting lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-OG Anunoby-Ibaka-Valanciunas can’t be expected to put up the same run-and-gun pace that the Bench Mob or the Vipers used. Defensive issues of the Raptors key players also limited them from experimenting what the Vipers did with bigger wings-plus-centre lineups.

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In any case, that does it for part one of my look into Nurse. Tomorrow we tackle the bigger question: what would Nick Nurse have done differently with last year’s Raptors?