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Nick Nurse and the art of not giving a damn

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In honour of his recent appointment as coach of Team Giannis in the All-Star game, we go deep on Nick Nurse’s personality and the way in which it informs his coaching.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In late June this past summer, my girlfriend and I were headed to an Arkells concert, a rite of passage for twenty-somethings in Southern Ontario. The concert was in Toronto, at Budweiser Stage, merely nine days after the Raptors won their first NBA Championship. The city had not yet returned to equilibrium.

Knowing that Arkells are big fans of Canada’s team, I felt certain of one thing:

“They’re going to do something cool for the Raptors.”

Those were the words that I repeated, first to my girlfriend, then eventually, after a few patio drinks, to anyone who would listen. While I was proven correct, what they ended up pulling off far surpassed my expectations. I assumed that there would be a video tribute, or perhaps a song cobbled together in the nine days since the victory.

Instead, Arkells brought Nick Nurse onto the stage to play guitar in their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Now, Nurse had moments prior to this that began his path to becoming a cultural icon in Canada. There was the iconic photo that Arkells frontman Max Kerman referenced, with Nurse emerging from the team plane with sunglasses, Beats headphones, and of course, the axe on his back. There was the quote before the Philly series, where Nurse initially noted that days had been going slow in anticipation, then claimed he had a change of heart, and decided to enjoy those slow days, because too many of them just “whiz on by.” Of course, there was the casual introduction of the now signature “nn” hat, as if wearing a hat with your own initials on it was nothing out of the ordinary (although, it has become a popular branding method amongst Raptors players.)

This, however, put him over the top. He did not need to do anything more to win the hearts of Raptors fans. He did more anyway. He joined a distinctly Canadian band onstage, bringing enough goofy dad energy to endear himself to even those precious few who cared little for the endeavours of the city’s basketball team. I’m not sure if Arkells are still looking for the “People’s Champ,” but if so, the search can stop at Nick Nurse.

The elements of Nurse’s makeup that compelled him to get onstage can also give insight into his actions as head coach of the Raptors.

Nick Nurse: A Rare Breed

Nurse’s personality is rare among NBA coaches. It’s not often we get a glimpse into who they are outside of coaching, and even rarer to see them let loose as Nurse did on that June evening. But Nurse is one-of-a-kind in so many facets. He did not follow a formula to get himself to his position, he does not follow one when he is coaching, and he certainly did not follow one when he chose to join a Canadian alt-rock band in concert for a Stevie Wonder cover. It is that combination of outside-the-box thinking and his charismatic, no-holds-barred personality that make Nurse a unique, and, more importantly, successful head coach.

When Nurse was first chosen to be the head coach of the Raptors, he was greeted with little more than a shrug and an “I guess we’ll see” mentality by fans of the team. We knew some things from his time as an assistant — that he was the architect behind the offensive revolution that the Raptors underwent in the 2017-2018 season, and that he worked closely with Jonas Valanciunas to modernize his game. There was also the general feeling that he was the third choice.

Along with Nurse, the Raptors brass interviewed former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who would go on to take the Milwaukee Bucks vacancy, and Jerry Stackhouse, a popular former player who was the head coach of the Raptors 905 the year prior. Both had more name recognition then Nurse. It was unclear whether Nurse was more or less a default choice after Bud took the Milwaukee job.

That said, Nurse had a story, now familiar with Raptors fans, that made him easy to root for. After a few years coaching in college, Nurse spent over a decade in Europe, largely in the British Basketball League. In 2007, he fittingly took a D-league head coaching job in Iowa, where he was born and raised. Six years later, Nurse got his first NBA job, as an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto, staying with the team in that role up until his hiring as head coach.

Nurse was hired in June. About a month later, the Toronto Raptors sent DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. The season transformed in that moment, and Nurse’s job suddenly looked a lot different. He would not be trying to squeeze more out of the same core that Dwane Casey had helmed. Instead, he would have to deal with an entirely new combination of personalities and circumstance, all under a microscope from, for the first time, both sides of the border.

Our first real experience with Nurse came in his offseason meeting with Kawhi. It seems like ages ago, but there was once real speculation that Leonard would not even suit up for the Raptors. This meeting, where they apparently talked about basketball and what Kawhi’s role with the team would be, helped ease concerns and build excitement for the upcoming season.

Score one for the personality of Nurse.

Breaking the Mold: The Centre Platoon

Early in the 2018-19 season, Nurse was employing a unique strategy with centres Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. Rather than committing to one starter, Nurse based the decision on the matchup with the opposition. As intuitive as this strategy sounds, it is extremely uncommon.

Starting is important to NBA players. It reflects ability and status as a player — it is meaningful to most players whether they say so or not. They also appreciate consistency and stability within their roles. Mental preparation is far simpler when one is aware of what they are preparing for. Both Valanciunas and Ibaka had long been starters, with Valanciunas in particular holding down the Raptors centre spot since his rookie year.

For this to be successful, both players would have to buy in to their role. They needed to be prepared to start on any given night and perform well in doing so. If they were not starting, their role off the bench remained vital and they had to be prepared to thrive in the less glamorous role. This all had to be done without ruffling team chemistry in any meaningful way. It was a delicate dance, but Nurse performed it expertly.

This was absolutely an outside-the-box strategy. Few coaches toy with the roles of their players in such a way, and rarely does it occur without a fuss. It is a testament to both the players and Nurse that it occurred smoothly, and both were playing some of their best basketball leading up to the trade of Jonas Valanciunas and some other pieces for Marc Gasol.

First year coaches, especially those with little to no name recognition, are not often bold in approach. Nurse does not often seem to consider precedent, however. He does not ignore history — I doubt he would try to invade Russia in the winter months — but he does not simply adhere to tradition blindly. If he sees an edge that his team can attain, he takes it.

“Janky”? Maybe? Championship-level? Yes.

Take the playoffs, for example. The Raptors were facing a Warriors team that only got a glimpse of Kevin Durant, and saw Klay Thompson go in and out of the lineup. As a result, the only reliable scoring threat on the floor for the Warriors was often Steph Curry.

To leverage this reality in the Raptors favour, Nick Nurse busted out a box-and-1 defense. This defense stuck one man (Fred VanVleet) on Curry, while the remaining Raptors formed a box and played a zone-style defense. Their focus as a team, however, remained on Curry and the members of the box prepared to play help defense if he broke free of VanVleet.

This strategy gave little credit to the other Warriors, and basically came out and said that if Curry does not score, the Warriors will not score. The box-and-1 typically does not make it beyond eighth grade, and Curry himself referred to it as “janky.” Do you think Nurse cared about the criticism levied against his strategy?

Nurse saw an opportunity for his team to benefit given the depleted Warriors roster, and he pounced. Conventional wisdom has no place in Nurse’s mind, because he never had the opportunity to be conventional. If Nurse thought that a good way to protect the rim would be to have Kyle Lowry sit on Marc Gasol’s shoulders and form a Kicking and Screaming-esque “mega person,” then he would likely give it a shot. If something works, or could potentially work, Nurse will try it out. The box-and-1 will now forever be a part of the Raptors’ championship story.

Freedom from Expectation in 2019-20

Going into the current season, expectations were lifted from the team with the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Nurse himself would get a leash long enough to dart around the corner and sniff a few fire hydrants and telephone poles before the Raptors brass would consider reigning him in. There is playing with house money, and then there is bankrupting the casino on your first trip, setting a comfortable amount of winnings aside and using the rest to try some bizarro roulette strategies. That was Nurse’s situation at the start of this year.

In the preseason, Raptors fans were fascinated to see how Nurse would manufacture wins out of what appeared to be a good-not-great team. Winning a title will do that. Fans would not get too bent out of shape if Nurse got a little too experimental and cost the Raptors a regular season game here or there, so he had a ticket to get in the laboratory and get creative.

It was also in the preseason that we were introduced to another aspect of Nurse’s coaching — his brutal honesty. The Raptors signed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson this offseason, two players with a reputation for hard-nosed defense and questionable offense. Their defense figured to earn them favour with Nurse and some quality time off the bench. When Nurse was asked about their fit with the team prior to the season, however, he did not hold back:

Just as Nurse’s platooning strategy with JV and Ibaka was uncommon and a little risky, criticizing players in the media is a similarly sensitive action. These players are adults, and Nurse risks a tenuous relationship with these players with his comments. Obviously, their short-term deals and standing on the team mitigates the risk of upsetting them, but a coach’s hold on the locker room is essential, and any cracks could eventually turn into canyons.

While the Raptors have gotten little out of Stanley Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson has become a rotation fixture, lauded for his defense and hustle. Nurse clearly has a feel for the interpersonal aspects of the team and does not have a problem speaking out when he deems necessary.

Nick Nurse gives some of the most candid and interesting interviews in the league. His Iowa twang and thoughtful, honest answers give off a laid back yet intelligent vibe, like if Johnny Cash were to explain the finer points of neuroscience. When his interviews are played in a split screen with a live game, I find myself more focused on Nurse than the game – there are often multiple interesting points about the team that can be gleaned in these spaces. In this regard, Nurse is the anti-Gregg Popovich.

He demanded consistency out of Norman Powell. Powell, in turn, has been breaking out in his role as sixth man. In the midst of an extended OG Anunoby slump, Nurse swapped him with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the starting lineup in a move that was clearly intended to spark Anunoby. There was a definite short-term impact in this switch, and although it certainly did not change the outlook of the season for Anunoby, it is a gambit that remains in Nurse’s back pocket if he chooses.

After a poor performance by Terence Davis II, who played only eight minutes in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Nurse remarked that those eight minutes were probably “five too many.” He then placed Davis in the starting lineup the following game. The rookie responded with one the best games of his young career, scoring an efficient 23 points, and adding 11 rebounds and 5 assists.

This is not to take anything away from the players. They are the most responsible for their individual success, but we have seen many coaches mismanage talent and egos, which suggests that Nurse’s impact does indeed exist. If any of Nurse’s strategies have rubbed the players the wrong way, it has never gotten to the media, a testament to the culture of professionalism in the Raptors organization. For those who cheer for both main tenants of the Scotiabank Arena, this is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the Babcock era.

The Right Combination of Xs and Os, and Personality

Schematically, Nurse has remained creative and has not allowed his strategies to get stale. The Raptors made some noise early with a defensive strategy that saw them aggressively trap opposing star players. Some poor shooting numbers by stars such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard showed some that is was working.

A comeuppance occurred in a Rockets game that saw Houston’s supporting cast shoot the lights out as the Raptors maintained this strategy against James Harden. Some holes in his strategy were exposed, but there was no overreaction; Nurse recalibrated the defense and moved on. The scientist made note of a failed experiment, went back to the lab, and started testing again.

Obviously, Nurse has an extensive knowledge of his Xs and Os, and the Raptors’ analytically inclined offense shows that he is an apt coach in the modern NBA. A coach cannot simply be a strategist, however. Their personality is also essential in getting the most out of their players. These two aspects can intersect as well, and Nurse’s unabashed personality can be an explanation for some of his most innovative and unorthodox strategies.

Nurse is part Most Interesting Man in the World, part mad scientist, and part high school teacher giving hard truths to the students — Nurse even looks the part in that regard. It takes a certain type of personality to be a head coach of professional athletes, even more so to go against the grain as Nurse consistently has. The results speak for themselves, and perhaps, if things break right for Nurse and the Raptors once again, I’ll get to write a lede about Nick Nurse playing tambourine at an Alanis Morissette concert for this summer’s celebration.