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How much blame do Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri deserve for this mess? (Plenty!)

The Raptors stink, and there’s plenty of blame to toss about, but the majority has to sit with the front office.

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Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors are mired in just about the stinkiest funk you can imagine, losers of 15 of their past 19 games, stuck with a 16-23 record and sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.

It’s easy to blame the players: Fred VanVleet is slumping, Scottie Barnes hasn’t progressed, Chris Boucher can’t shoot, etc. And yeah, they do deserve some of the blame… but so does Nick Nurse, and so do Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster.

I was speaking to Roger Lajoie and Nick Liard on the FAN590 this morning, and towards the end of our conversation, Roger asked me if Nurse and Ujiri (and VanVleet too) are above reproach — or if they should shoulder some of the blame for this wayward season. Being a Raptors fan, I immediately jumped into overreaction territory (I’m well trained!) and said, essentially, “it hasn’t gone as planned, but it’s too early to get rid of Nurse and Ujiri.”

Of course, moving on from VanVleet, Nurse or Masai wasn’t what Roger was asking or suggesting at all — he just wanted to know if I thought it was fair to criticize them or hold them to account for that 16-23 record.

Rog, I apologize for the jumping the gun! Here then is the right answer: They absolutely deserve criticism, and they shoulder a big chunk of the blame!

Is Fred VanVleet to blame for the Raptors’ record?

I’ll get VanVleet out of the way first. There are plenty of caveats that serve as “blame deflector shields” — the injuries and illnesses, the minutes played, the so-called role change — but he’s got to shoot the ball better. 32% from three-point range just isn’t good enough for an NBA starting point guard (and former All-Star!) on a team with playoff aspirations. I also still think his vision in pick-and-roll situations isn’t as good as it should be, a complaint I’ve had for years.

As for that role change — VanVleet has mentioned this a few times, including most vocally on JJ Redick’s podcast this week, that he’s shifted into a more off-ball role this year, to allow other players (Barnes, Siakam) more time on-ball.

The Athletic’s Eric Koreen did a pretty masterful job debunking that this week, with the tl;dr being that when it comes to usage, shots, touches, even dribbles, VanVleet’s are all down only a hair from last year — the adjustment shouldn’t really be that big.

From my vantage point, even if there has been a role change, I watched Fred play two pretty stellar seasons starting off-ball next to Kyle Lowry, so I’m not buying the excuse either. Fred just has to play better (or get healthy, and if he’s not, he needs to be honest about it and sit until he is).

That doesn't mean he should be shipped out of town! Just that he needs to step it up — and if there’s one thing I know about VanVleet, who is incredibly honest, it’s that he knows better than anyone that his play hasn’t been good enough.

Now let’s talk about Nick Nurse.

How much blame does Nick Nurse deserve for the Raptors’ record?

It would be easy to say Nurse hasn’t had the best of seasons — obviously — but the fact is, a lot of what we’re seeing these days we’ve seen before, and individual talent and defensive effort has made up for it.

I wrote about a lot of this already in my “don't fire Nick Nurse” piece from a couple weeks back, but Nurse’s unwillingness to change his defensive scheme to suit his personnel or even make game-to-game adjustments depending on matchups, is, well, baffling. We know he can mix it up — box-and-one, anyone? Giannis wall? Matching Gasol-Embiid minutes? His adjustments literally helped the Raptors win the title! But opposing role players can hit seven straight corner threes and Nurse will still have his players collapsing on third-stringers in the paint.

More glaring, though, is the lack of creativity on offense. The Raptors have generally had a terrible half-court offense since Nurse took over as head coach. And the franchise knows this: they brought in Chris Finch a couple years back to revamp the offense. Unfortunately Finch left after only a few weeks to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the Raptors haven’t really brought anyone else in to replace him; Earl Watson and Rico Hines may be great coaches, but the offense is still stuck in mud, with iso after iso, limited screen and roll action (despite having two very capable initiators in Barnes and Siakam), and barely any movement.

I think, much like in 2017-18, the last year of Dwane Casey’s tenure, there needs to be a complete revamp of whatever it is they’re doing on offense. That year, as part of the “culture reset” after LeBron James embarrassed the Raptors in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Casey and Nurse switched things up so the ball wasn’t sticking to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as much, there was much more movement, and more players were getting involved. Lowry and DeRozan saw their numbers drop but the team won a still-franchise record 59 games, and Casey won Coach of the Year (after getting fired, but still!).

Something like that has to happen here. We keep talking about “wasting Siakam’s prime” and this is exactly what’s happening — he’s carrying a massive load, and putting up great numbers, but in massive minutes, for a losing team. I’d much rather having him scoring 23 points a game, getting one more assist, and playing five fewer minutes!

As for the starters playing heavy minutes, some of that is on the bench players not stepping up, but Nurse shoulders some blame here too; he’s never shown much trust in his non-stars, and the lack of consistent minutes means no one knows their role or what’s expected of them. You can say “stay ready” but we’ve got 75 years of proof that NBA players like consistency. Juancho Hernangomez is a great example; he earned enough trust through his hustle (ahem) to get a 7-game stint as a starter, but in the last four, he’s played a total of 10 minutes and had two DNP-CDs. I don’t know what the justification is but that has to be hard for anyone, in any role.

In any event, I think an offensive overhaul is needed, and I hope Nurse is open to it. And he’s most likely going to have some new personnel soon, and definitely next season, so it needs to happen between now and October.

How much blame does Masai Ujiri (and Bobby Webster) deserve for this season?

It’s true that Ujiri and Webster have, to this point, avoided much (if any) criticism for this season, when in fact they deserve the most. I wrote about this in the aforementioned Nick Nurse article, but coming out of last season, this team had three glaring needs — a centre, a backup point guard, and bench scoring — and the front office only addressed one of those things, signing Otto Porter to a two-year deal in the offseason.

Porter has been a bust because of injury — hardly a shocker, given his history — and the other two issues are even more glaring now, thanks to the poor shooting and the lack of improvement (or outright regression) from multiple players.

I suppose you could say that the team addressed the centre position by signing Christian Koloko; and while they deserve some credit for finding a second rounder to fit a need (Koloko, for all his struggles, is absolutely,, 100% playing above the level one would expect of a second-round project), not signing anyone to be a serviceable big man while Koloko developed was a huge miss.

As for backup point guard, I know there was some hope that Scottie Barnes could be the de facto point guard when VanVleet sat (or even alongside VanVleet), and that obviously hasn’t worked, but again, coming into the season without any sort of backup plan (especially when VanVleet was completely run down by the end of the year after playing a league-high 37.9 minutes per game)… well. Huge miss #2.

As for the players they did sign — Porter, plus Hernangomez, and the re-signings of Thad Young and Chris Boucher — none of those have really worked out either. Boucher’s just been a disappointment after a really good 2022, but Young — well-liked as he is — was a bit of a head-scratcher. I get that the Raptors wanted to recoup something from giving up a first-round pick (and Goran Dragic) for Young, but Young had a tough time cracking Nurse’s rotation last year, and it’s been no different this year (despite the fact that, like Hernangomez, Young had a great stint as a starter — 11 points, 7 boards, 3 assists and two steals a night in seven starts in November). Would a backup PG or centre have been a better use of that money than Thad? Sure would! (Easier said than done, I know, but that’s why Ujiri is one of the most, if not the most, well-paid executives in all of sports.)

It’s possible that Nurse just isn’t playing guys in order to force the front office to make a move — that’s the suggestion from our guy JD Quirante — but then that speaks to a big disconnect between the coach and management, despite Nurse’s recent assertion that they’re “100%” on the same page. And that’s a whole other issue… that we’ll save for another day.

Let’s divvy up the blame!

As I said up top, everyone deserves some blame for this. The players aren’t playing well enough. The coaches aren’t maximizing their personnel. And the front office hasn’t effectively plugged what were very obvious holes from the end of last season.

If I were to pie-chart this, I’d suggest the players deserve 25% of the blame, Nurse deserves 30%, and the front office deserves 45%.

In terms of what’s next, I’d expect a trade in the next month that sees either VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. (pending free agents) shipped out, perhaps with Chris Boucher and a pick, in return for a centre and a bench scorer. As I said on the radio, there’s unlikely to be one move that fixes all the problems, but I think the team has to start now, and then work to fix the remainder in the summer.

The (relatively speaking) good news is that the team is pretty bad, now, without tanking, so it seems likely they’ll have a high pick in a deep 2023 NBA Draft and still be able to retain Siakam, Barnes, and Anunoby, and maybe one of VanVleet or Trent — still a very good core! — and hopefully come back better, and more balanced, and with a new offense, in 2023-24.