It’s the end of an era. Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been relieved of his duties and the Raptors are moving on from the only coach who has ever led the team to a championship.
I can’t say I’m surprised. Coaching changes in the NBA aren’t unusual, for one thing (San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat excepted). And with the Raptors missing the playoffs two out of the last three seasons, and this season in particular being marred by poor defense (Nurse’s staple) and uncharacteristic low-energy play, plus bouts of selfishness, not to mention the lack of development from the team’s young players… there’s no argument something wasn’t right with the team. And when something isn’t right the coach is usually the first one to go.
But I’m not sure if it’s the right decision, and I guess I won’t know until we see how the team does next season — and/or how Nick Nurse does in a new situation.
Nick Nurse was the greatest coach in Raptors history
The resume is pretty much unimpeachable. Nurse has the second-most wins in franchise history and the highest winning percentage. Nurse spent five years as an assistant to Dwane Casey, then took over as head coach after Casey was fired — right after Casey won Coach of the Year. Tough task! And to make it even tougher, the Raptors then traded their franchise player, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard, who early reports suggested didn’t want to play in Toronto at all.
Well, we all know how that worked out. Leonard reported to camp of course, and Nurse took the revamped roster and, bolstered by Leonard and Danny Green and a midseason trade for Marc Gasol, transformed the Raptors into a defensive juggernaut that won 58 games and the 2019 NBA Championship.
The next season might have been even more impressive; without Leonard and Green, the Raptors managed to maintain their defensive identity and seemed well-poised to make another Finals run when the pandemic struck. And despite winning 53 games in the shortened 72-game season (equivalent to 60 in a full season), going 7-1 in the Bubble and sweeping the Nets out of the first round, the Raptors didn’t have the legs to outlast the Boston Celtics and fell in seven games in the second round. Nurse deservedly won Coach of the Year for the team’s efforts.
The following season — aka the Tampa season — showed the first sign of cracks. Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the team lost its defensive identity and the offense just couldn’t get going, and Nurse clashed with Pascal Siakam, resulting in a shouting match that got Siakam suspended.
But you could easily excuse that season; playing an entire season on the road would be trying for anyone. It’s no surprise people got frustrated and struggled to get along. Heck, remember how frustrated Ujiri was in his post-season remarks, essentially telling the world that the NBA owed the Raptors for keeping them out of Canada for a year?
The 2021-22 season seemed like a return to form. Despite losing Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat, a slow start, a Siakam shoulder injury, and a COVID breakout, the Raptors finished the season strong, won 48 games, and took the 76ers to six games in the first round. But it wasn’t the record or making the playoffs that marked the season as a success — it was how Nurse took an incredibly bizarre roster with no traditional big man or backup point guard and squeezed that many wins out of it; that the team managed to get back to the scrambling, chaos-inducing defense that was a hallmark of the 2019-20 campaign with entirely different personnel seemed to be a good indicator of Nurse’s ability to get the most out of what was handed to him.
Then came this past season, which seemed to show us the exact opposite.
Was it one bad season? Or a trend?
In hindsight it may be that the Tampa year was a leading indicator of some gaps in Nurse’s coaching toolkit. The ability to bring a team together and push through a difficult situation without fracturing is an important leadership test, one that Nurse failed. But because of the situation was dismissed it as unimportant.
This past season showed much of the same. The team got off to another slow start, Siakam got hurt again, multiple players lost time due to various ailments and the team just couldn’t come together — in fact, it seemed the opposite happened. Although publicly everyone has said the right things, the rumblings about discord and selfishness — the latter of which came from Ujiri himself — proved an undercurrent to the team’s underachieving season. Despite having essentially the same roster, the team was worse on both sides of the ball, and Vision 6’9” went from a cool experiment that had tons of upside to a dismal failure.
Even after the trade deadline, where the Raptors filled the biggest gap on their roster by trading for centre Jakob Poeltl, and played better, at least numbers-wise, they still couldn’t get it together enough to improve their postseason positioning. After the deadline, the 6th seed seemed in reach, but the Raptors couldn’t string enough wins together or show up for big games; they couldn’t even catch the floundering Atlanta Hawks for 8th!
The team’s inability to find any sort of consistency, on either side of the ball, seemed pretty indicative of a team that wasn’t playing together — and that had tuned out their coach. The way the team rolled over in the second half of their play-in game against the Chicago Bulls was the final nail, almost like the team peered into the future at halftime, collectively said “nah, we don’t want to play any more games together” and let the Bulls take the game away from them.
All told, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this past season — front office, player, and coaches.
Was firing Nick Nurse now the right move?
Which leads us to Ujiri’s decision to fire Nurse last week. When things aren’t right, and something has to change, the easiest move to make is changing the coach.
Does the preceding section outweigh the one before it? Nurse has had good seasons and bad seasons, and I think you can safely argue the good outweighs the bad. But the bad has come more recently and the NBA, like all pro sports, is a results-driven, “what have you done for me lately” league.
The real question is whether or not any coach could have gotten better results, and whether or not the team is better off going forward.
Because this is a very flawed roster, and the organization did Nurse a great disservice by not addressing it. Sure, Poeltl is a nice piece, but he cost another draft pick and will have to be re-signed in free agency. Ujiri’s decision to spend his midlevel exception on Otto Porter Jr. last summer, another 6’9” wing, instead of addressing the backup point guard gap, was bizarre at the time and looks even worse in hindsight. And although the staff deserves some blame for not developing players like Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn, the front office also deserves blame for not bringing in more talented players (and for letting players like Oshae Brissett and Ish Wainwright walk, only for them to flourish elsewhere).
Then add in the fact that Nurse, despite the failures of last season, immediately becomes the hottest candidate on the market — the coach every team with a vacancy wants, and multiple teams without vacancies will surely look it if they don’t love their current coach — has to give one pause. Would this past season have been different if the roster were more balanced? Will next season be the same, despite the coaching change, unless a massive roster overhaul occurs? Will Nurse go on to find success with a different roster?
We also don’t know exactly what the conversations were between Ujiri and Nurse; Nurse did seem checked out at times this past season, never mores than when he openly stated musing about his own future, unprompted, before a game against Philadelphia last month. Maybe Nurse is burned out on this roster or this franchise. 10 years is a long time! He was likely also looking for a contract extension, which Ujiri would certainly be hesitant to give, given recent results.
Without answers to all those questions, it’s difficult to assess at this time whether or not this was the right move.
But my gut tells me it wasn’t. If you fire a good coach and there are no better coaches available to replace him, is it a good move? I don’t think it is. Especially when the roster is as heavily flawed as this one is.
Setting aside whether or not Nurse wanted to be here or insisted on a contract extension, my preference would have been to do a roster overhaul and see what Nurse could do with it. We’ve seen what he can do with a good, balanced roster. And I’m not suggesting that overhaul would be easy (or even entirely possible, given the cap situation) but it seems to me like Nurse is a good asset, too good to let go at this point.
But hey — that’s why I’m not in charge! I hope Nurse lands in a good situation for him, and I hope the Raptors do find themselves a coach who can take the team forward — but whoever comes in next will face similar challenges until the roster can be revamped.