The Toronto Raptors are mired in a six-game losing streak, have lost nine of their past 11 games, and are barely hanging on to the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
More alarming than the wins and losses, though, has been the lack of joy and cohesion amongst the team on the court. That in turn has led to a disastrous showing on the offensive end and an even more embarrassing one at the defensive end. Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. have regressed from where they were last season. Fred VanVleet continues to play an alarming amount of minutes (37.0, second in the league) despite looking like a shell of himself. Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby are having impressive seasons but are also playing high minutes totals.
And those are just the starters!
All told, it looks like something is broken with this team, and a lot of the fingers are pointing at Nick Nurse.
As usual, I’m here preach patience and tell you that Nick Nurse is not entirely to blame for this, and firing him as head coach at this time would be a mistake.
You’ll note the two caveats there… not entirely to blame and at this time.
Nick Nurse is a defensive coach, but the defense stinks
It’s absolutely true that the Raptors look awful on defense right now (well, they looked much better against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, but one game isn’t a trend). Considering the Raptors have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA during Nick Nurse’s tenure as head coach (Tampa tank season excepted), this is particularly alarming.
Season Defensive Rating
2020-21 15th (Tampa)
This season, the Raptors are holding steady overall at the 11th-best defensive rating… but over this recent 11-game stretch, they’ve been 24th, with a defensive rating of 116.2. During the six-game skid, opponents are scoring 116 points per game on 51% shooting from the field and 39.5% shooting from downtown.
Things were fine prior to that — during the first 20 games of the season the Raptors were seventh in defensive rating, at 109.9. (And of course the personnel is mostly unchanged since last year.)
It’s difficult to say exactly what changed in these past three weeks. The schedule wasn’t any tougher (although it’s about to get tougher). There wasn’t a long road tip (although a 7-game west coast trip looms in a month). Really the only change from Nov 28 (when the Raptors were 11-9) was Pascal Siakam’s return from injury. And while I’m not an expert on individual defensive play, Siakam’s looked just fine on that end; I can’t imagine the team would be worse with him on the floor.
O.G. Anunoby’s four-game absence (all losses) sure didn’t help, but the team defense didn’t look great in the handful of games before he got hurt, either.
It’s possible that Nurse’s attack/trap on the perimeter, scramble back to pack the paint, scramble out to three-point shooters scheme is wearing guys down and they’re tired — both physically and mentally. I’ve long advocated for Nurse to switch things up more — in particular to have a backup scheme that defends the three-point line better in certain matchups.
Since the larger sample size the Raptors are still good on defense, I’m going to chalk this one up to variance, to Fred VanVleet not being healthy, and to a simple slump. I think games like Monday are more likely to be the norm over the course of the season. If that’s not the case come April, then it’ll be time to discuss Nurse’s job.
Nick is driving Fred VanVleet into the ground
Who does this guy think he is, Tom Thibodeau? Fred VanVleet has been labouring for weeks and Nurse’s still running him out there 40 minutes a night!
This is true. I’m just not sure it’s Nurse’s fault.
Roster construction is the bigger fault here, I think. While I’m not yet ready to call Vision 6’9” a failure yet (getting close), the Raptors ONLY being interested in 6’9” players this past offseason, and ignoring all veteran backup point guard options, was a very clear mistake — one that seemed obvious in the summer and is clearly evident now. The team needs a backup point guard; without one, VanVleet has to play extended minutes. Getting one (or failing to get one) isn’t Nurses job (or fault).
Is Nurse to blame for not playing Malachi Flynn more? Yes, but the jury is still out on whether or not Flynn can be a valuable contributor. While it’s true he’s played better of late, it’s equally true that he’s had chances before and blown them. I can’t fully blame Nurse for not trusting Flynn. And just look what happened in the second quarter last game against the Sixers: With VanVleet and Siakam on the bench, and Flynn ostensibly running the show, the Sixers (with Joel Embiid resting!) ran the Raps off the floor.
Therein lies the rub of course. VanVleet played all but four minutes of the second half and overtime, was completely gassed, and missed two very wide-open threes in the OT period.
It’s the no-win scenario. Either VanVleet rests and the team can’t compete, or VanVleet gets exhausted and the team can’t compete. Kobayashi Maru either way.
What can Nurse do to change it? Well, staggering minutes might help, specifically ensuring Siakam plays and takes playmaking duties when VanVleet is resting and vice versa. But playing your best players too much when doing so is the only chance you have of wining isn’t the coach’s fault, and he shouldn’t be fired for it.
Teams have figured Nurse out and made adjustments. Nurse hasn’t.
As I said above Nurse has been very set in his ways when it comes to defensive schemes. Sure, he’ll toss out the odd box and one or zone, and he’ll throw bodies at opposing stars, but the scheme is the scheme and teams know it’s coming. And now they know how to beat it.
Eh, I’m not buying it. If they hadn’t figured it out by last year, I don’t think they’ve magically figured it out in one offseason.
I think the the defense is mostly fine. Sure, it can use a few tweaks as noted. But it’s proven to work, with this personnel, and I think it will continue to do so.
In fact I think it’s the offense that might be affecting the D more than anything. If you can’t score, if you’re constantly on your heels, if you can’t set up — the defense is going to suffer. Also, scoring is fun! Not scoring and then having to play an exhausting scheme? That sounds awful to me.
Why, after all these years, is Nick Nurse’s offense still garbage?
The Raptors being this bad on offense — not moving the ball, running so many isolation plays (without really having the personnel for it), running so few pick and rolls with its best players... it’s all a mystery to me why it’s still so bad. And that is on Nurse, either for not figuring it out a stronger offensive game plan, or hiring a coach who can. (Chris Finch, we hardly knew ya.)
What's not on Nurse is O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent, Thad Young, and Chris Boucher all shooting below their career averages from three point range (and all below league average). It’s also not on Nurse that the one outside threat the team acquired in the offseason, Otto Porter Jr., has barely played.
That lack of three-point shooting, ability to spread the floor, to force the defense to respond to the threat of a long bomb... it impacts everything else the team does.
So yeah. Nurse should have a better offensive plan. (And the team should not, after all these years, still be so bad against the zone, though again, the best way to beat a zone is to shoot over it). But the players need to hit shots.
The players have clearly tuned Nick Nurse out
I don’t think there’s any “clear” evidence of this at all. Sure, the team looks incredibly glum right now, but wouldn’t you be if you were losing every night?
The bigger alarm bells really have to do with Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr.; Barnes in particular looks miserable and doesn’t seem to be playing with any of the joy that made him so easy to cheer for last season.
I do wonder if, as noted above, the defensive schemes are mentally draining and if, as a result, playing for Nurse can seem like a grind. Especially, as also noted above, you’re not scoring and you’re not winning.
I know it’s a chicken-and-egg argument to say that players are happier when the team is winning, because the team wins more when the players are happy, but such is life. I do hope that this is all perception, especially with Barnes; he’s too young to be looking so sad! I really hope it’s not a “coach and player can’t get along” issue.
If it is, then there does indeed need to be a Nick Nurse conversation (and if it is, it’ll come out eventually — even an organization is locked down as the Raptors can’t keep that secret for long).
When should the Raptors move on from Nick Nurse?
I don’t foresee Nick Nurse getting fired midseason. That strikes me as impatient and I don’t think anyone would call Masai Ujiri impatient — for one thing, just look at how long, and how many playoff failures, it took for Ujiri to finally let Dwane Casey go.
Besides, Nurse’s record is pretty exceptional. Nurse has been a coach for four full seasons. He won a championship in 2018-19; exceeded expectations in 2019-20 and won Coach of the Year; fell short of expectations in 2020-21, under exceptional circumstances (Tampa); and exceeded expectations in 2021-22.
I’ll take that success rate, thank you very much! Thanks to that record, if Nurse were to become a free agent, multiple teams would jump at the chance to hire him; I don’t think you can get rid of a coach like that after 30 or 40 games, because there surely won’t be anyone out there half as good to replace him.
If things don’t turn around (at least somewhat) between now and April, then I think a conversation is warranted. For now? I’m gonna ride with the greatest coach in Raptors history!