TORONTO – Nick Nurse doesn’t want to hear anything to do with the “T” word.
Despite the fact his team sports just a 19-30 record with the seventh-best shot at the No. 1 overall pick in what looks like a loaded draft near the top this year, the Toronto Raptors head coach isn’t a great fan of the concept of tanking.
“Yeah, I don't like it,” Nurse said after his team practiced late Sunday afternoon. “I don't like talking about it, I don't like thinking about it and I don't like that it goes on.”
An understandable point of view to take for one as competitive and accomplished as all NBA coaches are, let alone one who just two seasons ago won a championship and was named the NBA coach of the year last season.
However, given the impact one great talent can have on a team, it’s just as reasonable to understand why that conversation is taking centre stage among the team’s passionate fan base.
So while he may not like it, Nurse does also get it.
“It's reality, right? It's the reality of it,” said Nurse. “But we're still playing to win and we're still playing to make the playoffs and were still playing to get better.”
For the pro-tanking crowd out there, that’s probably not what you want to hear, but do try to remember that it’s the head coach’s job to win basketball games and it’s also not as if Nurse’s goals are all that farfetched, either.
The Raptors are just 1.5 games back of the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in tournament spot in the Eastern Conference, and with 23 games left in their season, there’s more than enough time to make that push.
So even if parts of the team’s fan base won’t be quite as enthused, don’t expect to see the Raptors suddenly hit the brakes on this season. They’re still serious about trying to win and making some noise in the playoffs.
And if you want definitive proof of this then look no further than what Nurse was up to on Saturday night. While just about everyone was losing their minds watching the Gonzaga-UCLA tilt, Nurse was busy watching his next opponent, the Washington Wizards, getting work in while only listening to that college classic on the radio.
“I did not watch it,” said Nurse. “I did start listening to it on the radio, but I was watching the Wizards play last night and then I was going back-and-forth between two or three NBA games that I was watching but once I saw it was real interesting I switched that to the radio and turned my volume down on my video that I was watching and was just kind of continuing to work.”
The Raptors play Washington Monday night and the extra homework Nurse was doing could quite possibly go a long way for his team as he continues to navigate the season without a full-strength roster.
In Monday’s game, the Raptors will be without star point guard Kyle Lowry (right foot), Rodney Hood (right hip), rookie Jalen Harris (right hip), Patrick McCaw (left knee) and Paul Watson (health and safety protocols).
Being without these five players was basically expected, but very concerning for the Raptors was the inclusion of Fred VanVleet on the injury report, who is listed as questionable for Monday’s game with a left hip issue that forced him to exit Toronto’s historic win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday midway through the third quarter.
This is foreboding for the Raptors because if VanVleet would be unable to go Monday, they would be limited for point guard options. Nurse said rookie Malachi Flynn would likely get the start and DeAndre’ Bembry, who just returned from health and safety protocols the game before, would act as the primary backup.
This situation is less than ideal, particularly because the Wizards feature a dynamic backcourt of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, who are likely to be licking their chops at the prospect of going at a rookie.
Bembry says playing point guard is something he’s fine with if called upon.
“I'm very confident in that,” Bembry said. “I've been able to run that position before multiple times in my life, my basketball career, so I'm pretty comfortable with that. I enjoy passing the ball. Obviously, everyone enjoys [scoring], but I enjoy setting teammates up because it just helped the team’s character. Everyone's on the same page when you have someone that's controlling the pace and trying to point everyone to get to the right place and so I'm pretty confident in that position.”
Nurse is also quite OK with Bembry manning the point at times as well, but sees other options to relieve pressure there, too.
“It’s pretty interesting with DeAndre’. I think he’s a secondary point guard or a secondary ball-handler but I don’t think he likes being the full-time guy that much,” said Nurse. “When there’s another point guard out there he will chip in and bring it up here and there but when we’ve been in some situations when he’s been the guy we wanted to play point guard all the time, it’s just weird.
“Sometimes he’s out running a break and … he’s always been that kind of player so I think sometimes he just plays in the flow of what he’s used to doing. So, we try to keep that in mind and we’ll maybe have some other guys bring up the ball. It could be a variety of guys. Pascal [Siakam], DeAndre’, Stanley [Johnson], even Yuta [Watanabe] can bring it. I would say OG Anunoby can, too. There’s all kinds of guys.”
These aren’t the kind of words of a coach who’s ready to throw in the towel on his team’s season just yet.
So, whether you like it or not, the Raptors are going to continue to try to win.
Tanking just isn’t in this club’s vocabulary.