Nurse looking to experiment with Raptors right up until playoffs

Nick Nurse, the new head coach of the Toronto Raptors, and team president Masai Ujiri. (Tijana Martin/CP)

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors officially introduced longtime assistant Nick Nurse as the franchise’s new head coach Thursday.

Holding court with the media in a formal press conference for about 20 minutes and then spending more time with the team’s regular scribes for 10-15 minutes, Nurse and Raptors president Masai Ujiri discussed — among other topics — adjustments Nurse plans to make, Ujiri being open to trades and even the story of how the two first met each other years ago in England.

Here’s a breakdown of some of what Nurse and Ujiri said and what it could mean for the team moving forward:

Expect to see a fair bit of experimentation

If there’s only one thing take away from Thursday’s official introduction it’s that Nurse isn’t afraid of trying different things out. In fact, you should expect to see a fair bit of trial and error from Nurse on both sides of the ball.

“I think the leadership that I’m bringing and the coaching staff that we’ll eventually hire, we’ve gotta be innovative, we’ve gotta be trying to think of what’s coming next before it comes next if we want to stay ahead of the game,” Nurse said.

“I think you’re gonna see some different things. There’s probably gonna be some uncomfortableness at times when we maybe try things that are maybe a little too far outside the box, but again, the season’s a process. The Summer League leads to training camp, and the training camp leads to pre-season games, and the pre-season leads to regular.

“We wanna try some ideas and some things and try to put our guys in different positions, try some different combinations, et cetera, to prepare us for the playoffs, which is what matters.”

Unlike with his predecessor, Dwane Casey, it appears Nurse is much more open to the idea of treating all the different play periods before the post-season as a means to consistently tweak, adjust and optimize.

“We think we know what our offence wants to look like and made a big change to everyone’s credit. … We made a nice adjustment from moving the ball, our assist numbers went up,” said Nurse when asked about specific changes he’s looking to make.

“I just think there’s a lot more creative ways being done right now and I think there’s some creative things to do that we can figure out that we’ve kind of thrown out there that we can get our head around and polish up a little bit.”

And while the idea of constantly testing does sound a little dicey, Nurse has the blessing of Ujiri, so it’s not as if this is coming as a surprise to the Raptors’ head honcho.

“He’s very big on preparation, he’s very big on trial and things that you try,” Ujiri said of changes Nurse is looking to make. “Whether it’s Summer League, whether it’s pre-season, he’s going to keep trying all those things to build on.”

Nurse targeting head-coaching experience on his assistant staff

With Nurse promoted to head coach, Jerry Stackhouse joining the Memphis Grizzlies’ coaching staff and Rex Kalamian reportedly joining Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors are left with only Jama Mahlalela, Patrick Mutombo and Jim Sann as assistants, meaning Nurse still has some holes to fill out on his staff.

When asked about how the rest of the coaching staff will be selected, Ujiri said Nurse “has full authority,” but also added that “he’s just naturally a bring-it-together type of person” who naturally wants to bounce ideas off other people before making a decision.

As for who Nurse is targeting, he emphasized the importance of experience on his staff so he can brainstorm with those with a little more experience than him.

“I think it’s really important that we get an experienced staff,” said Nurse. “Guys that have been a head coaches, to me, at some level is important to me. I’m not saying all of them are gonna be that way, but I value head coaching just because it’s good to know what it’s like to be the decision-maker, and to have those guys that are assistants that have done that, I just think it channels more, the ideas that they give you, they’re more constructive, they’re more objective, they understand your position a little bit better.”

“We are open”

Despite Thursday being a day more of less just about Nurse, Ujiri did field some questions in regards to the Raptors plans moving forward in regards to the roster and the business of the trade market and free agency.

In regards to trades, Ujiri was very clear about where he stands with his roster at the moment.

“The roster is an interesting topic for everybody. Do we think it’s a perfect roster? No. We have work to do and we believe that,” Ujiri said. “But as we all know, things just don’t happen overnight in the NBA. It’s not the easiest thing to do. It takes a partner to do these things if you want to make trades.

“We are open, we’re going to be open going into the draft. We’ll see when it comes.”

On the topic of free agency, Ujiri was much more effusive, but understandably so. The NBA’s free agency period doesn’t officially open up until July 1 and qualifying offers to restricted free agents can’t be made until June 29, so the Raptors boss tip-toed around the subject as well as he could.

Still, when asked about restricted free agent Fred VanVleet, Ujiri had a hard time keeping his feelings in check.

“I don’t want to get into trouble, but I love Freddie. I hope I don’t get fined for saying that, but I love Freddie. He’s our player and I love him. Whatever it is, Freddie knows we love him.”

Nurse has already made contact with a bunch of players

Given the fact he’s been an assistant with the Raptors for the past five seasons this doesn’t come as a shock, but it’s still good news that Nurse says he’s met with “just about all of [the Raptors players].”

In his scrum, Nurse was asked specifically about Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell, Heres a little more on what espoused on each of them:

On Lowry: “I just met with him two nights ago and I think he’s excited to have a better year, be a little bit more of a leader. Now that he’s got a grasp of our offence a little bit more – I know that sounds funny, but we changed a lot offensively last year – I’m going to put the ball in his stomach a little bit more and have him run the offence.”

On Valanciunas: “The biggest key for me is that you’ve got to put these guys in positions where they can be successful, and I think we’ve learned a lot more about Jonas and what he can do and not try to expect him to do things he can’t. We either A, work on the things he can’t do a lot more, or we’ve just got to build our schemes around doing what he can do really well.”

On Powell: “It was a bit of a player development issue, and I told Masai and those guys in the interviews that I take responsibility a little bit for this because a lot of times I saw him sitting outside working kind of on his own game and then the second unit was over there working as a unit together and they all of a sudden developed a rhythm.”

How Masai first met Nick

Both Ujiri and Nurse share the interesting fact that they each played profesionally in England in the British Basketball League (BBL).

Nurse even won a couple of championships as a coach in the BBL and, most interestingly, it’s in that capacity that Ujiri says how he first met his new Raptors coach.

“I haven’t really said this, but when I played in England for Derby Storm, I played against Nick,” Ujiri said. “He was coaching Birmingham. He was 27 years old, maybe — I don’t know how old he was at the time. Maybe a little bit older. One of the youngest coaches, but a very respected coach at the time. …

“His teams were tough. I remember there was always something about the Birmingham team that was different from the whole league. I remember that. People would talk about them that way.”

Nurse was shortly informed about the story Ujiri told about their first encounter and expanded upon it.

“Believe it or not, I was a player-coach and Masai was a player years later, six or seven years later, for the same team in Derby, England. So we’ve gone through the same powerhouse pro team there in England. So I played there, then I came back to the States, then went back again. So this was like ’95, ’96, ’97, something like that. I was coaching Birmingham, he was now playing at Derby.

“Yeah, I remember. He played really hard. He did. He played really hard,” said Nurse sarcastically, laughing.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.