Raptors’ recent success illustrates hope of gold-striking coaching change

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse reacts to a call against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Matthew Hinton/AP)

TORONTO – The people who Nick Nurse works for will be paying one of the most successful coaches in the world about $18 million not to coach their flagship franchise.

What will they pay Nurse to keep things rolling when the time comes?

A lot, I’m guessing, and put it off at their peril.

The news that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had relieved Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock from his duties with the only team in their organization that hasn’t won a championship recently couldn’t help but filter over to the basketball side of the organization Wednesday.

Nurse is in the early stages of an NBA season that might be even more impressive in its own way than the Toronto Raptors‘ 2019 championship run.

The Raptors’ 113-97 blowout win against the visiting Orlando Magic is just the latest example, as the team improved to 10-4 by dominating last year’s first-round playoff opponents at both ends, despite cornerstones Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) watching from the bench in street clothes, thanks to another all-hands on deck performance.

Leafs fans could only wish.

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Naturally, Nurse was sympathetic for his former MLSE colleague in the way all coaches usually have each other’s back when one of the fraternity comes to an untimely end. Who else can they commiserate with besides other coaches, really?

At the highest levels, the job is that unique.

“Obviously I’ve known him for a little while and had some good conversations with him and it’s very tough,” said Nurse before the Raptors took the floor at Scotiabank Arena. “[It’s a] tough business and tough when it’s in your own organization like that, for sure.”

Nurse is a student of coaching. A Chicago Cubs fan growing up, he’s taken advantage of his position to spend time with former Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, now with the Los Angeles Angels. This past summer he visited with New England Patriots guru Bill Belichick. He’s compared notes with Babcock.

There is only so much crossover between the NBA and the NFL, MLB or NHL, but Nurse still saw things in Babcock’s approach that resonated.

“From my takeaways from him, he liked to really work hard and practise hard and coach hard. There’s still, believe it or not in this day and age, there’s still a place for that,” said Nurse. “You know what I mean?

“I went to see Belichick, [and it] was ‘how do you repeat?’ He was like, well, get back to work.”

“Working and being able to grind it out and get through to your guys is still important.”

But Nurse is his own man and it’s been increasingly evident as his second year on the job unfolds. The standards his team set their championship season haven’t slipped even with the departure of two starters, including the Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

As the Raptors dug in against the Magic there were Nurse’s fingerprints everywhere. They took an early lead with a lineup featuring three undrafted free agents in Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher and Terence Davis, OG Anunoby who has morphed from an injury-riddled project to a budding star in his third season, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, an under-sized, fifth-year wing whom Nurse was comfortable sitting until the former Brooklyn Net either bought into the defensive intensity he was looking for or circumstances changed.

Given Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t always been the most diligent practice player – “a gamer” was Nurse’s euphemism – it might have been a while. He played four minutes in the Raptors’ first eight games. Nurse even glued him during the exhibition schedule.

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But Ibaka’s injury forced Nurse’s hand and ,to his credit, the coach didn’t get stuck on principle. He rolled him out there against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and kept rolling him out there as Hollis-Jefferson proved he could contribute on both sides of the ball.

Details matter. With 17.1 seconds remaining in the third quarter Nurse subbed in sharp-shooter Matt Thomas for Toronto’s last possession of the quarter. But, instead of using the rookie – who came into the game shooting 56.5 per cent from three – to stand in the corner and spread the floor, he made Thomas a screener at the free-throw line, putting his body on Chris Boucher’s man after the Raptors centre had set a screen for VanVleet.

In the confusion – should the Magic guard against a VanVleet drive? Stick with a rolling Boucher to the rim or be prepared for Thomas bouncing out to the three-point line? – they neglected to rotate to Boucher and the Raptors got a layup at the buzzer to go up 79-68 heading into the fourth quarter and never looked back.

They shot 52.3 per cent from the floor, had five players in double figures – led by VanVleet’s 24 and held the Magic to 38.5 per cent shooting, making it all look easy.

The standard criticism of Babcock was that he was unwilling to waver from how he believed things needed to be done.

And why should he have, necessarily? He has a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals to his name and his teams have reached the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 years, including his last three in Toronto.

But when the results don’t follow — the much-hyped Leafs are sitting outside the playoffs and have had long-standing issues on their special teams — the line between confidence and debilitating stubbornness runs pretty thin.

Stubbornness is not a Nurse flaw, while flexibility and creativity are strengths.

Nurse says there was a time when he had a more heavy-handed approach, where he believed he had the answers and it was the players’ job to study for the exam: It was when he was in mid-twenties and briefly coaching college basketball.

“I think it changed a little bit when I got out of college coaching and realizing that I like coaching professional guys a lot more,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s more of a ‘We Process’ and ‘Let’s work it out together,’ where in college it’s more a ‘these guys are so young.’

“It’s kind of a little bit too authoritarian with my style, maybe. So, I like it better to coach pros, which is why I’ve done it for the last 25 years.”

Nurse’s ability to find that balance between making it clear he’s in charge of a group of mainly young, highly paid players who have their own careers to manage and feeling comfortable enough to step back when necessary was the story of his first year as head coach with Toronto.

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He navigated the uncertainty around Leonard’s health, a raft of in-season injuries and a mid-season trade that sapped his roster’s depth and flipped his starting lineup without an apparent hiccup.

He remained quick with a quip and his trademark giggle was never all that far away even as the season wore on and pressure mounted.

When he was an assistant coach, he once told me that his goal if he ever got a head-coaching job in the NBA was to “never coach scared” and he never has. Rather than retreat into the defensible comfort or routine or the need to create a cocoon of consistency, he’s quite correctly assumed that if an NBA season – or any professional season – is going to inspire an unpredictable-yet-inevitable amount of chaos, why not embrace it?

Why not establish starting lineups that can change game to game or half to half as he did with such success in the NBA Finals? Why not develop an entirely different style of play for his second unit – as he did with the so-called ‘Bench Mob’ a couple of seasons ago when still an assistant coach?

Why not start both your point guards as he has done this season with VanVleet and Lowry, when both are healthy?

Why, when down two starters and four rotation players – as the Raptors were for much of their recent west coast road trip – concede anything? How about dial up some hyper-aggressive defence, have a series of completely unproven lineups execute them on the fly and come home 3-2?

“I would say I’m a lot more flexible than I am rigid on anything, to be honest,” says Nurse. “I’ve got some ideas on stuff and if they work we keep riding them and if they don’t we chuck ‘em out and go to the next one.”

Who knows why Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan decided to fire Babcock now, although the Leafs’ record is its own explanation.

But it’s not not hard to imagine that they saw the success the basketball club has had in moving on from a more rigid approach in place with former coach Dwane Casey and embracing Nurse’s more light-on-his-feet ways. Maybe they see hope in finding that kind of lightning-in-a-bottle with Sheldon Keefe, promoted from the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies.

But that’s the Leafs’ problem. They’ve gone 52 years without winning a championship.

The Raptors’ title is fresh in everyone’s memories, so fresh that it’s clear that Nurse is convinced he can coax another run at one even without Leonard to lean on.

Who knows what his market price would be at that point?

It might be shrewd shopping on the part of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to get an extension done now. Nurse has earned it.

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