In an era of uncertainty as it relates to the NBA, the Toronto Raptors and just about everything else, Nick Nurse was able to cross one item off his list last week:
He got the contract extension that he so richly deserved, which seemed like a formality but he didn’t have it in writing until after the 2019-20 season concluded with the Raptors second-round Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics.
It was never really in doubt. Nurse loves coaching in Toronto and the Raptors are very happy to have him.
“I think Nick Nurse has an incredible career ahead of him,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said shortly after the deal was announced. “This was the next jump point [and] that was a priority for us as an organization.”
It was hardly a contentious negotiation. The Raptors wanted Nurse back after watching the former assistant lead the Raptors to an NBA title in 2019 and set a franchise record for winning percentage the following season, and Nurse was eager to stay.
“I mean, I don’t know if it’s a load off my mind or anything,” Nurse said in his first media conference since the deal was announced. “I think obviously, man, I love being here and love the job and there’s nothing not to love, man. I think it was just pretty much it was time to renew a contract and that’s what we did. It was really, really easy, you know?”
But not everything else is, or will be.
Nurse said he was still decompressing after spending 11 weeks in Florida, including nine weeks in the NBA’s ‘bubble’ on the campus of Walt Disney World Resort, but is already eager to dig into what happened, what went wrong, what went right and what needs to change.
It was a level of soul searching not required last season when the Raptors exit interviews took place during the championship parade.
“I’m certainly trying to evaluate a lot of things,” he said. “And it’s, well, let’s put it this way, when you win at all, like we did a year ago, your summer, you kind of go in there, you’re not very hard on yourself. I mean, the feeling is pretty good … you accomplished what you set out to accomplish. Now, on the other hand, when you don’t? You are kind of hard on yourself,” he said.
“I mean, I’ll be completely honest with you, I’ve had a rough [time] coming out of the season. And I think we’re good enough to still be playing. And after every loss, when you’re coaching at this level, there’s always many things you would have done differently, you know, many things. So you’re kind of replaying a lot of those things in your head.”
But unlike any other year, looking ahead means accepting that you can’t possibly know what’s next.
How will the Raptors manage their off-season player development program given the pandemic is still in full force and the U.S.-Canadian border is largely closed?
Who will be managing the player development program, given the Raptors success has meant that Nurse’s coaching staff is being targeted by other teams looking to gain the ingredients to Toronto’s special sauce. Nurse’s right-hand man, Nate Bjorkgren, is short-listed for the Indiana Pacers head job, Adrian Griffin is being linked to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sergio Scariolo has the kind of resume that could get him a head coaching job in Europe with the snap of a finger.
When will the training camp start?
Nurse said he expects that the run-up to the 2021 season – NBA commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this week that the season won’t start any sooner than January – to be similar to any other year: three weeks of voluntary workouts followed by a three-week training camp, but he doesn’t know when any of that will take place.
Who will be on the team?
The Raptors have three free agents that were instrumental in the Raptors winning the title in 2019 – Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, not mention Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who provided serviceable depth this past season. Who will be back?
Nurse said he would be “surprised” if VanVleet didn’t return, but that’s out of his control, as are the futures of the others. And having team leader Kyle Lowry heading into the final year of his deal adds another layer of uncertainty.
It made the goodbyes leaving the bubble a little tricky, Nurse said.
“I think you’ve got a combination of a lot of things that just felt different. Like you just got knocked out in a tough, tough series, everyone is on the move trying to get out of that bubble very quickly, right? [But] for the most part our conversations were awesome, all the guys loved being here and want to be here and continue to be here and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “So as uncomfortable as it was, it was very pleasant conversations with them.
“I think there’s a high level of gratitude for what they’ve done. I think there’s a high level of gratitude from them for what we’ve done. I think there’s a high level of respect for what these guys have done for this organization as well. So as uncomfortable as the times were because you just got done playing and you’re in a bubble and you’re on the move and things like that, [there was] still a very high level of respect going on.”
The elephant in the room looming over everything is what Ujiri’s future with the Raptors will be. Even while accepting what is believed to be a five-year deal worth in the range of $40-million, Nurse acknowledged that uncertainty around Ujiri’s long-term plans were in the back of his mind.
Ujiri has given no indication about his plans to anyone, it seems, Nurse included.
“We’ve been together, Bobby, Masai and I, for seven years now,” he said. “[With] a real close working relationship for two, since I became a head coach. And we feel like a team. We feel like a team that leads the organization.
“So yeah, there’s a little concern. I was never concerned that they were not gonna get a deal done for me. I feel the same way about Bobby and the same for Masai. If something changes, we’ll do the best we can. If it changes, it will probably be for a good reason for somebody, or a better reason. If not, we’ll just keep working together.”
Where, when and with who?
Those are questions Nurse doesn’t have answer for yet, but then again no one does and likely won’t for some time to come. But when the questions can be answered one way or another, Nurse will be ready, that much is certain.