Raptors’ anomalous season adds ‘fuel to the tank’ for coach Nick Nurse

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse looks back on his first losing season with the club, says it definitely has put fuel in the tank to work hard this off-season, and bring the team back to championship contention.

TORONTO – Like any self-respecting head coach, Nick Nurse is a man who likes to win.

And he’s done a lot of it in his long career as a head coach, having won pro basketball championships in England, Belgium and the D-League.

Nurse hasn’t done too bad for himself in the NBA, either, winning an NBA title in 2019 and being named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2020.

And before that, he was an assistant with the Toronto Raptors right as they began an unprecedented seven-year stretch of success, culminating with that 2019 championship when Nurse was promoted as the team’s head coach after Dwane Casey was relieved of his duties.

So, it’s safe to say that for the vast majority of his career, Nurse has been incredibly successful – especially during his time at the NBA level.

And so, that’s why, maybe more so than any other member of the Raptors, this past season was anomalous for Nurse.

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Finishing with a 27-45 record – the eighth-worst mark in franchise history in terms of win percentage – and 12th in the Eastern Conference (last place in the Atlantic Division), this was a down year for the Raptors for a myriad of reasons, but even as the universe was apparently conspiring to work against Toronto during the season, Nurse remained steadfast that his team was better than the standings indicated, and if not for an unfortunate run-in with COVID-19 that decimated the team and led a 1-13 March, might’ve been able to make some noise come playoff time.

“I would like to think that this team could have been a heck of a lot better than this, the way it ends up,” said Nurse Monday during his end-of-season media availability. “You look at the way it ends up, I’ve mentioned this a hundred times, that we were playing pretty good basketball until the COVID hit, and [the season] kinda spun out of control from there and never really recovered.”

To Nurse’s point, after a disastrous 2-8 start to the season, the Raptors went 15-9 afterwards leading into the all-star break and owned the sixth-best net rating in the league during that time span. Unfortunately, just as they were about to hit the break, COVID decided to come knocking on the Raptors’ door and invited itself in, derailing any momentum the team was building up.

So, it’s accurate when Nurse points out his team probably could’ve performed better this season if not for COVID. He also highlighted Monday that the way he coached, and his overall philosophy and approach during the season wouldn’t have changed, no matter what transpired during the season.

“I think almost after every game, there’s things I wish I would have done different, but not like in the way you’re asking, like philosophically or really broad-based things that need a drastic change, or any of that kind of stuff. Not really,” said Nurse. “I think that it wasn’t the best circumstances, it wasn’t easy, blah, blah, blah, but you gotta hang in there and keep doing it. I think we did that.

“I think the coaching staff was excellent this year in the work that they did. So no, not really. Always evaluating, always learning some things, but I don’t have any broad, sweeping things that I’m concerned about.”

When the Raptors were all but mathematically out of it during the last three or four weeks of their season, Nurse publicly preached about “trying to play the game the right way,” something, to him, that starts on the defensive end of the floor, a common gripe to hear from Nurse after games during the season.

“I think that this kind of season puts some fuel in your tank. That’s for sure,” said Nurse. “That will take, again, I already mentioned this, but I think there were some moments where I didn’t like to look at us defensively this year. At times, I think I didn’t mind it. Later on I think we got back to some of that stuff. Making that a continued, who we’re going to be, I think that it comes with sacrificing some other things. I think if you’re going to focus and prioritize that then some other things may not be as good as you want them to.

“But I don’t think you get to championship-level talk, or championship-level play, if you’re not first and foremost a really good defensive team. Did I know that already? Yeah. Did this reconfirm it? Yes it did. I think it gets pushed back up, if it wasn’t already at the top of your list, it gets put in capital letters, or bold, or underlined, or whatever, that that’s what you want to be. And I think that has to go from player one to player 17. That’s another thing that I think we have to understand.”

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A hallmark of the Raptors during this season was despite playing and competing hard nearly every single game, they couldn’t finish games, losing a number of close contests. This lack of execution in the clutch can be attributed to defensive miscues, the club’s relative youth and inexperience with rookies on the roster, free agents that were brought in before the season and new additions at the trade deadline and the buyout market.

As a result, Nurse was forced to teach more than he ever has as an NBA head coach during the season, something that he may not have liked as much at first, but grew to enjoy by the end of the season.

“I think there was a lot of angst and there was some frustration as well, but I also believe that we did get to a point where we got pretty focused and locked in, and teaching mode, and learning mode, and [it became] enjoyable,” said Nurse. “I think it’s always good, seemed like there was always someone or something to say, ‘Hey, we’re making some progress.’ And I still say that even down to the six guys, seven guys, the last six guys yesterday. There was still a feel of togetherness and really trying to execute and everybody trying to play well, and some connection, and some sense of humour, and some enjoyment in that.”

It’s probably a good thing that Nurse found some fun with teaching during the season because, odds are, he’ll still be doing quite a bit of it next season, too.

The Raptors have the seventh-best odds to win the June 22 draft lottery, but even if that doesn’t happen they can’t drop any lower than getting the No. 11 pick, meaning they’ll likely have a shot to draft a pretty talented kid at the July 29 draft.

Considering how Toronto didn’t appear to be making much of an effort to make the play-in tournament as the regular season drew to a close, this draft pick figures to be an important part of the Raptors’ future, and it looks like Nurse will be pretty heavily involved in the selection his team makes.

“I would say very deep. My role is to evaluate talent and give my opinion and, just like everybody else, you do the best you can to look into the future on what you think a guy may be five years from now, too,” Nurse said when asked how engaged his role is in the Raptors’ draft process. “So it’s an inexact science and all you really have on this stuff is your opinion and your experience to kind of meld together and then you’ve got to give it, and that’s what I’ll do.”

There’s a wide swath of prospects that Nurse will need to do his homework on, something that may prove more challenging than it might seem at first since he’ll also have to take care of his responsibilities as the Canadian men’s national team head coach this summer. Nurse and Team Canada will try to qualify for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., starting June 29.

“If I’m not working for Canada I will be here watching them, and if I am working for Canada I’ll have to watch some video,” said Nurse.

So even though Nurse has said he’s looking forward to a little rest and relaxation, this summer promises to be a busy one for him, but then again, that may ultimately be just what the doctor ordered for Nurse as keeping busy means another opportunity to win.

And for a man as accomplished as Nurse, after going through this past season, it’s likely been far too long since he’s savoured that sweet taste of victory.

There’s no guarantee Team Canada will be able to scratch that itch for him, but he’s got to try.

It’s just what winners do.

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