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What could Nick Nurse have done differently with the 2017-18 Raptors?

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While it’s easy in hindsight to decide what the Raptors could have done differently, let’s try anyway — with Nick Nurse in charge.

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

After pouring through several Vipers games and learning more about Nurse’s background, one thing came to my mind: what if Nick Nurse had been the 2017-18 Raptors head coach?

Based on how that Vipers’ season went down and Nurse’s history (as discussed yesterday), and what we know right now, I came up with some key points where Nurse maybe would have done things differently with Toronto as compared to Dwane Casey.

Positives

Sit Serge Ibaka

Sure, Serge Ibaka was a factor in the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks. However, Nurse likely sees more future in Jonas Valanciunas, and based on Nurse’s past teams, he’d know the JV and Ibaka pairing is just a bad fit.

On top of that, for better or worse, we all know by now how much Nurse liked Lucas Nogueira as a facilitator on offense — even though Bebe was still a third-string centre for the team. Keep in mind, Nurse only played two centres with the Vipers despite having Hassan Whiteside on the roster.

DeRozan Post-up

Nurse would possibly have taken advantage of DeMar DeRozan’s footwork and post moves to collapse the defense on him, and free up teammates around the perimeter. It’s a workable offensive solution, but unfortunately, this strategy is something that we did not see as often.

Experimental Lineup Combinations

One of the most frequent things that we heard during the season (and definitely during the playoffs) was that the Raptors did not make a lot of on-the-fly lineup changes. This is in part due to the fact that Casey didn’t want to disrupt what the Bench Mob had done throughout the year.

If the Raptors learned anything in the post-season though, relying on intense structure is not always the best idea. From what we’ve seen of Nurse in the past, he has no problem experimenting with his lineup combinations to find what’s working in small samples.

Holding Players Accountable

The last time Nurse coached, he held his players accountable and let them know who’s in charge, including NBA players on assignment. His title run with the Vipers in the D-League is proof enough of that.

Royce White came off the bench, and as soon as he started breaking the offense, he would hit the bench. Chris Daniels, who ended up as the Vipers’ starting centre late in the season and in the playoffs, was an All-Star with the Santa Cruz Warriors. He earned a few quick hooks in the playoffs when he didn’t play up to par. Same goes with Tyler Honeycutt when he tried to play ISO-ball three consecutive times. Scott Machado, who was the alpha dog on the team to start the season had to come off the bench after returning to the team in the middle of the season.

The main point here is: Nurse’s loyalty is to his system, not to his players.

Limited ISO-ball in Crunch Time

I have seen Nurse’s team falter or almost lose a big lead a few times. However, it’s not because they didn’t stick to their offensive game plan. It’s usually because of their defense (or the open shots just didn’t go down).

We’re talking about the D-League here, and while Nurse’s squad shot three-pointers at a high clip and attacked in transition, the talent level wasn’t always there. However, what’s clear with Nurse is that he’ll live and die with his system. That means he tends not to let the game devolve into iso-ball situations or a broken offense. There’s something to be said for that consistency, even if it almost cost the Vipers a couple of playoff games because of that same stubbornness. More often than not, Nurses ended up being right.

More Roster Moves?

Nurse finished his last season with his roster going through an overhaul. Only five players from the opening night were part of his playoff roster, and three of them were not a big part of the rotation early in the season.

The rest of Nurse’s key players were acquired through trades and free agent pool during the season so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to be open with the front office about making roster changes as long as the incoming players fit his system. Obviously this is the situation most out of his hands, but at the very least I get the feeling Nurse wouldn’t be resistant to the idea of roster turnover.

Concerns

Nick Nurse and the 2012-13 Vipers swept the post-season en route to his second D-League championship. The Vipers finished the season winning the last ten games, and the playoffs with an additional six games. While it sounds impressive, there are some legitimate concerns on how the Vipers played under Nurse.

On Defense

The Vipers’ defense was “good”, especially in the half court. However, their transition defense was terrible, and Nurse often had a hard time getting his guys to deal with explosive guards. Most D-League teams at the time were not using the pick-and-roll- heavy offense that we’re accustomed right now, so I don’t know how Nurse would devise a defensive counter to that. Not saying it can’t be done — but we haven’t quite seen it yet.

Bending Not Breaking (They Almost Broke)

The Vipers played six games in the post-season, while they went undefeated, at least half of the games that they played would raise an eyebrow.

Against the Red Claws, the Vipers looked like they were running away with a blow out in both games, only to see an 18+ point lead disappear, and they almost lost both games. For both games, their fourth-quarter execution dipped, their defense got worse, and they couldn’t stop the Red Claws’ guards. It felt like Nurse trusted his offense too much, and didn’t do enough to stop the bleeding.

The Vipers also struggled to close out a depleted 66ers, letting Rasual Butler, may he rest in peace, and their bench players tee-off on them. In Game 1 of the Finals against the Warriors, again, the Vipers had trouble closing the game. The Vipers lost a six-point lead with two minutes to go and would have lost the game if the Warriors did not implode.

That being said, a Raptors team that bends but doesn’t quite break? Sounds very Toronto.

Conclusions

Five years is a long time, and one can assume that Nick Nurse is a better version of himself now than he was then. Nurse did an incredible job installing his offense on the fly, especially with all the player movement that happened throughout the course of the 2012-13 D-League season. It’s clear that at that time, Nurse’s offensive mind was ahead of everyone else in the league.

That said, Nurse also doesn’t strike me as a mad scientist with an out-of-this-world strategy. This may merely because I watched Nurse’s team with the knowledge of how the game has evolved in the five years since then. At the very least, it’s fair to say Nurse is creative and a forward thinker.

Looking at the success of that Vipers’ season as compared to the Raptors is instructive. We can see how the offense clicked in a similar way, but we can also note how both teams were spotty at times and reverted back to old habits. I have to wonder though: could the difference be because Nurse was the one running his offense, not someone else?

Finally, and perhaps more importantly: how would Nurse do with his offensive system and much better players? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’ll just leave this here: