Since taking over as head coach of the Raptors going into the 2018-19 NBA season, Nick Nurse has developed something of a mad scientist reputation. That talk got really loud when he employed the box-and-1 in the NBA Finals to slow Steph Curry. This past season, his experimental defenses — whether an extreme star-trapping approach, various zones, or a full-court press — hammered home the idea that Nurse was willing to be creative and unorthodox. Between that and his other quirks, such as his affinity for the guitar and his “nn” attire, Nurse stands out amongst the generally straight-edged NBA coaches.
Did Nick Nurse travel to Orlando with a guitar? pic.twitter.com/iJj0uR0efQ— Luke Bonner (@LukeyBonner) April 18, 2019
One area where Nurse has been decidedly, well… normal, however, is in his lineup constructions. In this past regular season, the only times he truly committed to getting weird with lineups occurred when the Raptors were backed against a wall. For example, current free agent Rondae Hollis-Jefferson started at centre against the Minnesota Timberwolves when both the now-departed centres Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol were out with an injury. The Raptors won that game. The lineup that led the famous comeback against the Dallas Mavericks — with Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, RHJ, Chris Boucher, and Malcolm Miller — only got some run because the Raptors were down by such a large deficit.
Of the ten most used lineups in the regular season by Nick Nurse, the first nine had either Gasol or Ibaka. The RHJ-at-centre lineup came in at number ten, with only 39 minutes for the entire season. The lineup from the Mavericks comeback? 30 total minutes.
Small lineups emerged more in the playoffs, but the reasoning behind these lineups remained the same. Toronto had, once again, been backed against a wall. Down 3-2 against the Boston Celtics in Game 6, the centres were struggling against the nimble Celtics and the Raptors needed to save their season. So, at both the end of the half and the end of the game, Nurse opted for a Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Norman Powell-OG Anunoby-Pascal Siakam lineup.
At the end of the half, the centre-less Raptors won those minutes 8-5. From 8:22 left in the fourth through two overtimes, Toronto outscored Boston 37-33 with their diminutive lineup on the way to a gritty win. As a whole, that unit outscored Boston 45-38. In Game 7, we did not see this lineup again until there was 9:43 left in the fourth and the Raps were down 8. They closed the gap to two with 0:35 seconds left, but it was not enough, as the Raptors lost a tight one 92-87 and departed the Bubble.
The sample is small, but the results are promising.
That Nurse did not use a small lineup frequently was a testament to his veteran big men at the time. He trusted both Ibaka and Gasol. And, of course, a coach playing his five best players at once — or most of the time — helps to maximize a team’s chances of winning. Either Gasol or Ibaka were almost always one of the five, and Nurse’s lineups reflected that. Without those two, the team hierarchy now looks different. As a result, we might finally see Nurse consistently ride some different lineups.
This season, it’s clear who the Raptors five best players are: VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Siakam, and Anunoby — the exact lineup Toronto used to combat the Boston Celtics. When it’s winning time, that grouping needs to see time together. As always, it is matchup-dependent, but this lineup could be Toronto’s consistent closer of games.
We’ve also seen Nurse hesitate to trust guys who haven’t quite gotten the hang of the Raptors culture and system, as he did with newcomers RHJ and Stanley Johnson last season. New centre 34-year-old Aron Baynes has logged the requisite time with some veteran coaches, so it’s easy to envision Nurse leaning on him from the jump. Alex Len, however, hasn’t played for a winning basketball team since his rookie year when he was logging nine minutes a game. He may take some time to adapt to the demands of Nurse and the Raptors. Since Baynes is not going to play the full 48, Nurse will likely have to get creative lineup-wise in a competitive game if Len is struggling.
This season itself will have a different tenor than the last as well. While 2019-20 was a spirited title-defense for the Raptors, this season is more of a transition year. As a result, it would be hard to blame Nurse for making slight sacrifices in the win column to try some new things and see what works.
So, what are some centre-less lineups that could work? Obviously, the grouping mentioned above will be the best one. They were +5.8 points per 100 possessions last postseason per Basketball Reference, a very impressive mark for the playoffs. They should be the first choice for a small lineup.
Nurse could also swap out Norm for recently added swingman DeAndre’ Bembry, to add some defense at the expense of Powell’s offense. Everyone else in that lineup is a good-to-great three-point shooter, which would mitigate Bembry’s offensive struggles, and it would be an entire unit of plus-defenders. Additionally, bringing in agent of chaos Chris Boucher in that spot could provide a jolt of energy. There are many possibilities with this roster, but OG Anunoby should be the one constant.
Anunoby is the key to all of this. Ever since the Golden State Warriors made going small sexy back in the 2014-15 season, teams have been trying to replicate it. What most teams didn’t realize was that you need a closed fist of a human being to be the de facto centre. Those humans are hard to come by — there’s a reason the Houston Rocket’s P.J. Tucker is one of the few (only?) players comparable to Draymond Green as a small-ball centre.
Anunoby, like those two, is tough as nails and has shown the strength to battle with bigs, as he did with Denver’s Nikola Jokic back in the pre-Bubble days of the NBA last season. Traditionally a small forward, OG has the potential to play as a small-ball centre and be the Raptors’ Green defensively. He can switch onto anyone, including big men, be that for a possession or a quarter.
To truly gain the advantage with a small lineup, a team must exploit the opposing centre offensively. While Green did so with his playmaking, Anunoby can do so with his athleticism off the dribble and by drawing the big away from the rim with his shooting. But that’s not where things end for the Raptors — and that’s not how Nurse should approach his lineup combinations.
Because beyond OG, the Raptors have the size and versatility of Siakam too, a player able to cover large areas of the court and guard the quickest players despite being a power forward. Meanwhile, there’s also Lowry and VanVleet, who both play bigger than their size. Putting this group together to optimize the situation — and not just when on the brink — will test the creativity of Nurse.
In that spirit, it’s time for Nick Nurse to throw on the lab coat and start mixing ingredients. He might just have another “Eureka!” moment in store for us in 2020-21.