When Nick Nurse was an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors we were chatting casually on the court at Scotiabank Arena one day during the 2017-18 season about his ambitions to be an NBA head coach.
His star was rising as an assistant and he was beginning to get some buzz as a candidate for potential openings. That season he helped then Raptors head coach Dwane Casey implement a new offensive approach for the Raptors – a more modern one with an increased emphasis on threes, pace and ball movement. He was also the first point of contact for the ‘bench mob,’ the second unit that featured the likes of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and which routinely ran teams off the floor playing a style that looks very familiar to Raptors fans now but seemed foreign compared to the Raptors more traditional isolation style that featured DeMar DeRozan and to a lesser extent Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors won 59 games that year and finished second in the NBA in offensive rating, four spots up from the season before. They led the league in bench scoring.
But one thing that I took away from that conversation was how confident Nurse was and how much he believed in himself, his coaching ability and the viability of how he wanted to coach. It wasn’t boastful or arrogant and it wasn’t any comment on how the Raptors were being coached at the time.
It was just that he knew he was good and would show out when the time came.
He was right.
Nurse was named NBA coach of the year on Saturday afternoon. He learned about the award on TNT’s pre-game show when his elderly high school coach, Wayne Chandlee surprised him with the announcement.
In my mind, he was the obvious choice for the award. There was no one – externally anyway – that believed the Raptors would be a championship contender after losing NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, I pegged them as a 50-win team with a chance to earn a top-four seed in the East and that seemed generous. It was a nod to Nurse and the competitiveness and championship experience of the group.
Instead, the Raptors had a better winning percentage this year than last and a better record than the Los Angeles Clippers, where Leonard went in free agency. They were the second most successful team in the league. They lost an elite starter and one of the best players in the NBA and got better, somehow.
Viewed through the prism of two years of spectacular success – Nurse is one of nine first-year head coaches to win an NBA title as a rookie and his .721 winning percentage is the best in NBA history – our conversation takes on a different light.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I recall Nurse saying, though I’m paraphrasing. “When I get my chance, I won’t coach scared.”
Nurse knew. None of this is a surprise to him. He’s a modest person and completely aware he stepped into a dream job, and that he’s not winning anything if Kyle Lowry isn’t Kyle Lowry and the Raptors front office doesn’t’ turn the 27th overall pick into Pascal Siakam or is able to find Fred VanVleet under a seat cushion, but Nurse knew he could coach, and when he got a chance he’d coach his ass off.
“I think that my training gave me a chance to try a lot of different things,” Nurse said Saturday when I asked him about our conversation and his ability to coach fearlessly on the game’s brightest stage. “I guess when I finally did make it to the NBA as an assistant and kinda saw some things, I thought if I ever got a chance to become a head coach, a lot of the things that I tried in some of those back-water places I thought maybe would still work.”
It took him a while to get his chance, in the sense that after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round in 2018 – the third straight time they failed to scale Mount LeBron – and they fired then NBA coach-of-the-year Casey, they didn’t instantly hand the keys to Nurse. There was a five-week pause and it was widely thought the Raptors first choice was the more experienced Mike Budenholzer, who ended up taking Milwaukee Bucks job and was named coach of the year last season.
But when he did get the job in June of 2018, Nurse was true to his word. There was no opportunity to learn on the fly or feel things out. He was taking over a 59-win team that had fired a well-respected long-term incumbent who had just won coach-of-the-year, and then traded a franchise icon – DeRozan – to go all-in on one year with Leonard.
It was not the time to be shy or timid or to be slowed by self-doubt.
“I think I knew what the job was when I got it,” Nurse said. “The number of wins in the regular season has become pretty much irrelevant. It was gonna be a building process to see if we could advance in the post-season and, from Day 1, that was the message.
“Now, that’s not always easy to do because the pressure to win each and every night in this league is real, as you know. So, we were trying to build a little bit and we were always trying to focus on playing our best in the playoffs because, rightly or wrongly, that’s how our organization was being judged at the moment.”
The Raptors have passed judgement and have the championship rings to prove it. Nurse got that job done. But it’s how he’s helped turn this version of the Raptors – a team without a player taken in the draft lottery and without a player who has ever finished in the top-five of the league MVP voting into a legitimate threat to repeat is why Nurse has earned league-wide recognition. Last season was impressive, but this year Nurse backed it up by implementing what is perhaps the NBA’s most versatile and intelligent defensive approach, the bookend to the offensive flair he became known for in the first place.
What’s so cool is that Nurse honed his craft for decades in places where people didn’t watch and now that everyone’s watching, he doesn’t care.
He’ll roll out a box-and-1 in the NBA Finals and regularly plays triangle-and-two – another zone/man hybrid most common in high school basketball when a team is trying to stop one-star player but thought to be impossible in the NBA, where every player is a star. He’ll full-court press like a frantic grade school team and drop back to a stodgy, basic 2-3 zone like he’s coaching men’s league.
He’ll wear his personalized Nike hat with his ‘NN’ initials on it and get up on stage with the Arkells to flash his fairly basic guitar skills and he’ll do Zoom calls with a hoodie with a ‘Box-and-1’ logo.
Nurse is going to do him.
Those who work with him have come to appreciate it. VanVleet has put in more time with Nurse than almost anyone – all those extra practice hours fine-tuning the bench mob — and is one of the NBA’s smartest, wisest players, even in his fourth season In the other life, before the pandemic, the Raptors needed to beat the Detroit Pistons and Dwane Casey in order to guaranteed Nurse would be the head coach at the All-Star game. They did it and they did it for Nurse and his staff.
“Coaches don’t really get a lot of credit in this league,” said VanVleet afterwards. “They definitely do a good job putting us in good positions. They’re flexible, they listen to us, and with as little amount of practice time that we have, it’s very important that we have good communication, trust and I think that’s something that’s been building for the last year and a half. Even when we lose and we play bad, we pretty much know exactly what it is; we’re never searching for answers and that’s something you like to hang your hat on.”
Nurse didn’t know he was getting the award when he was summoned to appear on TNT’s Saturday afternoon, a Raptors off day – “I was kinda surprised today with the whole presentation thing. I really had no idea that it was here today and haven’t given it much thought, to be honest … I kept kinda wrestling with JQ [Raptors media relations director Jennifer Quinn] about what do they wanna talk to me about, what are they gonna ask me?”.
But after learning about the award in a cameo from his high school coach it was Lowry and VanVleet who presented him with the trophy, smiles and hugs all around. It was a warm moment and one Lowry would never participate in if he didn’t believe it was deserved.
Chances are Nurse wouldn’t’ be here at all if Lowry hadn’t come to appreciate what he could deliver. That’s the way the league works. Game knows game, and Lowry — as smart and savvy a player as exists in the NBA — knows good coaching. It’s the ultimate compliment.
The award is another step in a simply remarkable journey for a good but not great mid-major point guard from small-town Iowa who couldn’t let go of the game even if the game was ready to let go of him after he finished playing college basketball.
Nobody really wants to coach; they want to play. But when your playing career ends you want to stay close to it.
“I just loved being around a team and trying to get guys to dream about success and help lead them there,” was how Nurse explained how he got into coaching as a 23-year-old, first a player-coach in the backwaters of the British Basketball League and then as a head coach and Grandview Community College in Iowa and then back in the BBL.
He’s a lifer at 53, but he had a crossroads in his mid-20s. After returning to England to coach full-time his team was 8-8 and things didn’t look too promising. The money, after all, sucked. He made up a list of four things he could do other than coaching. Running a community recreation centre was one idea. Selling real estate was another. He had an accounting degree but that was his drop-dead option, and he can’t remember the other one.
“We were 8-8 and I went back to my hotel thinking maybe I should pack up and go home,” he said. “I wrote down four other things I thought I might like doing and they all looked like absolute [expletive] to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out.”
He stuck with it. His BBL club got on a roll and won the title and Nurse won his first coach of the year award there. There were more. He went on to win another title and coach of the year in the G-League and now an NBA ring and another coaching award, the big one.
Nurse seems to have figured it out. The Raptors are fortunate he did.