Nick Nurse and Phil Jackson share some common bonds.
They each travelled an unusual path to become NBA head coaches. They each won a championship very early in their careers — Nurse in his first season with the Toronto Raptors and Jackson in his second season with the Chicago Bulls in 1991.
And they each coached Dennis Rodman.
Jackson might have gotten the better of that deal. The former Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers bench boss had the Hall-of-Fame forward on his roster for Chicago’s second ‘three-peat,’ as has been documented during the Last Dance, the 10-part documentary of the last season of Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty which is approaching its conclusion.
Nurse had Rodman for three games with the Brighton Bears of the British Basketball League as part of a promotion when the former Bulls star was a 44-year-old cast member in the UK version of Celebrity Big Brother, but the Raptors head coach’s connection to Jackson and the Bulls runs much deeper than that and its reflected in the Raptors today.
Once of the first things Nurse did when he was made Raptors head coach in the summer of 2018 was reach out to Jackson through Raptors health and performance guru Alex McKechnie, who was on Jackson’s Lakers staff.
Nurse met Jackson near his summer retreat on Flathead Lake in northern Montana for coffee and ended up spending three days with one of his coaching idols.
“I get there, we go have a cup of coffee and he says ‘Hop in my truck’ and we drive around the lake for a couple hours,” says Nurse. “I’m just kind of sitting there with the windows down going, ‘Wow.’”
It was a case of a first-year NBA head coach not only leveraging his relationships to meet with one of the most respected minds in the sport, but a full-circle moment.
“I mean, really he was a guy I certainly looked up to and learned a lot from even though he didn’t know it,” says Nurse. “…I studied his substitutions, his timeouts, his late-game stuff, his demeanor, his belief in having a system, his ability to give players freedom, his belief in pressure defence. There’s a lot of things there.”
When Nurse was starting out as a head coach in the British Basketball League, Jordan, Jackson and the Bulls were ascendant. During that pre-digital age, Nurse signed up for a subscription service that would deliver week-old VHS tapes of NBA games — in this case, Bulls games — and Nurse would wear them out, watching and rewinding, stopping and starting.
Jackson was putting on a coaching clinic and Nurse never missed a class.
He took Jackson’s vaunted triangle offence apart, possession by possession, figured it out and eventually installed it with his BBL teams, informing his approach for the rest of his career.
“I think back about what my philosophy was and I would say I didn’t know what it was. I was 25, 26 years old and had maybe cobbled up a few set plays from here and there — we ran this offence in college, ran some stuff at Grand View [University, where Nurse as an assistant coach before heading to England], but I never had [a system].
“[But] I was in a unique situation. I was coaching a low level of professional basketball and was able to try a lot of stuff and I had a working lab or whatever, and I guess that when I watched [the triangle] it appealed to me,” he says. “I liked the beauty of it and I fully installed it as my offensive philosophy after studying it and we ran it all the time for, I dunno, eight or nine years.”
In some ways he’s never not run it.
Nurse says the Raptors have some sets now that have their roots in the offence perfected by longtime Jackson assistant Tex Winter that demands precise spacing and all five players making reads as one and moving the ball accordingly.
When the Raptors played an exhibition game in New Orleans on the eve of the 2018-19 season shortly after Winters passed away, the Raptors won 134-119, even with most of their starters at home in Toronto.
“We got basket after basket after basket out of it.”
The current emphasis on three-point shooting and attacks on the rim has made post-play secondary — in contrast with the triangle, where the first option was a low-post entry — but otherwise, Nurse says, a lot of the same principles apply with how the Raptors play now, with maximum spacing, off-ball player movement and constantly looking to flow into the next action rather than getting bogged down in one-on-one isolations against set defences.
“It certainly had much more beauty than what everybody else was doing [in the ’90s]: Coming down and throwing it into the centre and kind trying to muscle up a low-post shot and three guys standing on the other side of the floor,” says Nurse.
“Everybody is gonna touch the ball. I think that was the main thing, everybody got to touch the ball and it fed into my overall philosophy that it’s just a more fun way for guys to play and guys run better, cut harder and play better defence and rebound better because they are a part of the offence.
“And then you start getting into it and the mad scientist part [is fun]. It’s ‘Oh my God this is complicated,’ and there’s so many options [with the triangle] and that even kind of added to the allure or aura or whatever the word is you know?
“That you’re tackling this thing that everybody thinks is super mysterious and you know all that kind of stuff. So that was kind of interesting too.”
Running the triangle had a side benefit when Rodman arrived in the UK for his TV appearance. A connection was made and the then 44-year-old Rodman’s services were secured for a three-game run with Brighton in January of 2006.
“It was awesome, it really was. First of all, it’s probably hard to explain the phenomenon. There was like 185 [media] credentials vs. maybe two for a normal game, so it was a pretty big spectacle and again, we were running the triangle and he comes in and throws a backdoor pass our first possession for a layup then he takes a charge the very next one down the court and the place is going bonkers. It was just cool. He was really smart. It was neat.”
Getting to compare notes with Jackson a couple of summers ago even more so.
“It was, it was beyond my expectations, it really was,” says Nurse. “He was gracious, he was funny, he was thoughtful. Obviously the other stuff everybody knows, he’s super intelligent.
“I’d ask him a question and I’d get the answer like 90 minutes later and he’d go through a historical tract to get there, but after the first couple when I felt out the rhythm of the communication, I really liked it and appreciated that rhythm, you know? It was so interesting, almost like going through the history of basketball.”
Nurse sees other parallels as he looks back at the Bulls and Jackson through the prism of the Jordan documentary. Just as the Bulls were able to remain a championship contender in the season after Jordan retired to play baseball — Chicago won 55 games in 1993-94 — the Raptors have been able to thrive in their post-championship season even in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who drew Jordan comparisons for his dominance in the 2019 playoffs.
A commitment to a team-oriented system — similar in philosophy to what was espoused by Jackson — has carried the day. The Raptors were on a 59-win pace when play was suspended, slightly ahead of the 58-24 record they achieved in the regular season a year ago.
“It’s eerily similar. Right? You could almost say Pascal’s Pippen, and I guess that the need to run it with a little better structure, a little better execution to keep the offence to where you’re accustomed to it being on the whole,” says Nurse. “You’ve heard a lot of those guys in the Last Dance talk about it, I think that, again, five guys being integral parts of the offence like we like to run it now — ours is less of a triangle and more of a big, spaced out square — but it got better over the year and then they’re in a situation where now there’s more opportunities for them.
“We may not have one guy like Kawhi that can go and get you a bucket but I will say we have so many more weapons now — even though they’re virtually the same guys — because they just had so many more reps and now they see more opportunities and they aren’t deferring, they aren’t saying ‘I better get this back to Michael [Or Leonard]’ they make their read and they go and make a play.”
It’s an approach that Jackson doubtless could only be impressed with.
The hope now is circumstances can evolve to the point that the NBA can return to action and Nurse can see how far this version of the Raptors can go.