TORONTO - The introduction of every head coaching hire comes with its own set of buzzwords - themes that are introduced which define the transition from the old regime to the new. After a disappointing second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Masai Ujiri had no choice but to part ways with Dwane Casey, even though he had helped guide the team to its most successful five-year stretch in franchise history.
During his month-long search to replace Casey, Ujiri cast a wide net. It was his first time involved in hiring a head coach. Ujiri brought in a leadership consultant to make sure he asked the right questions. The coaching search included interviews with Mike Budenholzer, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ettore Messina, and many others.
It came down to Messina and Nick Nurse. Ujiri, ultimately, ended up promoting the assistant coach who has been with the organization for the past five years. While a hire from within feels like not enough of a change for some, the buzzwords of the day - preparation and innovation - gives hope that the Raptors are hiring a head coach who can turn Casey’s weaknesses into the team’s strengths moving forward.
“Preparation was a very big thing for him. He preached that, he talked about it, his process, just thinking the game differently,” Ujiri said of his conversations with Nurse during the process. “Trying new stuff and being innovative is just who Nick is.”
Casey helped mold the Raptors into one of the best regular-season teams in the league, but, under his guidance, Toronto was usually a step behind in the playoffs. He was more reactive than proactive, and within the confines of a seven-game series, it often left the Raptors with a disadvantage.
In Nurse, the Raptors are hoping for someone who is more malleable, able to handle the chess matches that unfold within a game and within a series in the postseason. “I think if you’re going to be a little bit innovative or risk-taking, sometimes you’re going to be wrong and it’s going to look bad,” Nurse said.
Nurse is getting his first opportunity to be the head coach of an NBA team, but he’s had plenty of coaching experience throughout his almost three decades in basketball. The definition of a basketball lifer, he’s coached in Italy, Belgium, the British Basketball League, and won championships with two separate G League teams, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Iowa Energy.
With the Vipers, an affiliate of Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets, the team was often used as a science lab for basketball philosophies Morey wanted to test out. “It wasn’t like we were putting three-inch rubber soles in their shoes and see if they could be three inches taller and if they could still play okay or anything like that,” Nurse said, laughing.
But the Vipers did try various things to create any kind of incremental advantage on the court. Once, Nurse had his entire team mimic the free-throw routine of Steve Nash, who would follow through with his shooting routine before he actually took each shot. The entire Vipers team practiced that, taking 150 free throws a day over a four-week period, while Nurse and the coaching staff charted their progress.
The Raptors are looking for Nurse to use the same outside-the-box thinking in his new role as head coach in order to maximize the talent on the roster, especially in the playoffs.
“We need to make sure we try a few new things here and there,” Nurse said. “I think where you'll see most of that is a little more creativity on the defensive end in the regular season, preseason, just so we can try and be ready for more things in the playoffs … (When) it comes to the playoffs, you’re trying to do some things you haven’t really practiced enough. I hope we can do that and get some different looks at some things so we're ready to go on both sides of the ball.”
Whether the roster stays the same at the start of next season remains to be seen. “Do we think it’s a perfect roster? No,” Ujiri said. “We have work to do and we believe that. But as we all know, things just don’t happen overnight in the NBA … It takes a partner to do these things if you want to make trades. We are open, and we’re going to be open going into the draft.”
Nurse is proceeding as if the core group will return, until he’s told otherwise. He spoke in person with Kyle Lowry earlier in the week, and talked about how his point guard can continue to improve individually under the new offense that was installed last season. Nurse is excited to try out some of the defensive concepts he has in mind - which he says will be a mix of man-to-man and zone principles - to see if he can better utilize Jonas Valanciunas on the defensive end. He also spoke on Wednesday about figuring out a way to get Norman Powell back into the rotation as an impact player on the defensive end.
“We want to be creative,” Nurse said. “You’re going to be trying some different things. There’s going to be uncomfortableness when we try things that are a little outside the box. We want to try some ideas and some things … to prepare us for the playoffs which is what matters.”
A year ago, the Raptors responded to a second-round sweep by ushering in a culture reset and introducing a new offensive system that propelled them to 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the East. But, evidently, it was still not enough in the playoffs. This time around, they’re betting on a new head coach with a new vision, and an emphasis on innovation to make them better equipped for the postseason.