Raptors’ attention shifts to Ujiri with Nurse extension complete

Brad Fay & Michael Grange discuss the Raptors signing head coach Nick Nurse to a contract extension. Plus, the latest on Masai Ujiri’s contract status, Bobby Webster’s future as GM & more.

That was the easy part.

If you were to list the Toronto Raptors‘ upcoming off-season priorities from simple to complicated to potentially really complicated, signing Nick Nurse to a multi-year contract extension would be at the top of the list.

The “why” barely needs asking – or answering. The Raptors knew Nurse well as a respected and valued assistant for five seasons but club president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster were still taking a chance when they tapped a first-year NBA head coach to guide them through their one guaranteed season with Kawhi Leonard.

We know how that worked out. And Nurse’s role in that championship – keeping things rolling during Leonard’s “load management” over the course of the regular season; watching seemingly half his roster miss large chunks of time with injuries and then integrating Marc Gasol at the trade deadline — probably doesn’t get talked up enough.

He won an NBA title with a starting lineup that had played 116 minutes together before the playoffs started and rolled out a box-and-one defence in the NBA Finals.

And then, proving all that was no fluke, Nurse was able to get a team that didn’t replace Leonard or Danny Green and watched six of its seven rotation players miss a minimum of 10 games to set a franchise record for winning percentage, and finish second overall in the NBA.

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He was the obvious choice in my mind for Coach of the Year and the rest of the NBA media felt the same, bestowing the award on Nurse three weeks ago.

That the Raptors’ loss to the Boston Celtics in the second round in the final minute of Game 7 provided fodder for second-guessing – did he stay with Gasol too long; should he have found more minutes for some of his bench unit; was there anything he could have done to get Pascal Siakam firing – is actually testament to the coaching job he did do.

That the Raptors nearly stole a series from an elite team while getting negligible contributions from their leading scorer and starting centre augments Nurse’s credentials, more than anything.

But what anyone else thinks doesn’t matter. Ujiri and Webster have loved what they’ve seen from Nurse on and off the floor, as indicated by the extension the team announced on Wednesday morning.

“Our confidence in Nick just continues to grow, and part of that comes from what we’ve experienced together,” Ujiri said in the team’s press release. “The past two seasons have been unlike any other in our team’s history – first, winning our championship, and then navigating a global pandemic and committing long-term to the fight against racism and for social justice. Nick has proved that he can coach on the court and lead in life, and we’re looking forward to accomplishing great things in the future.”

Terms of the deal weren’t released, although it’s worth noting that the coach Nurse replaced with the Raptors, Dwane Casey, got a five-year deal for $35-million from the Detroit Pistons beginning in 2018-19.

“You would think if Nurse had won 60 games both years, a title and coach-of-the-year and he didn’t get something north of what Dwane did he wouldn’t be too happy,” said one league source.

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There are plenty of questions surrounding the Raptors as they head into the off-season – the future of pending free agents Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet; what lies ahead for Kyle Lowry as he heads into the final year of his contract, not to mention the franchise coming to contract terms with Ujiri, Webster, director of sports science Alex McKechnie, and the rest of the front office.

So, inking their head coach to an extension was the one that made sense to resolve soonest, in part because they could.

With free agency pushed back until sometime in November – likely the week after the NBA draft, scheduled for Nov. 18 – there’s not much to be done on the player front, although groundwork is being laid and parameters set.

And the question looming over everything the Raptors do for the moment – the future of Ujiri – remains vague.

It makes sense that it’s been quiet on that front since the pandemic hit and it’s understandable that there was no news on it while the Raptors’ season was still ongoing. It’s not always the best look when the executives get taken care of before the people grinding away on the floor during the playoffs.

But with Nurse’s deal done and the players’ deals weeks away from being sorted out definitively, every day that goes by without Ujiri’s status being confirmed will seem stranger.

As has been reported here previously, interest between Ujiri and the New York Knicks was real and mutual, but the potential for a match there ultimately fell apart because the Knicks didn’t want to wait for Ujiri to extricate himself from Toronto with one year left on his contract — a process franchise owners MLSE were understandably not going to expedite in any way, shape or form.

But even with the Knicks option receding, there remained questions that needed answering, from how the MLSE board would function after the retirement of longtime Ujiri ally George Cope – former chief executive officer of Bell – to gauging how ambitious the organization was going to be in the wake of its first championship.

With the payrolls of contending teams cresting $200-million US, was MLSE still committed to doing what it would take to win? Or would one title suffice?

Small-time thinking is not Ujiri’s thing.

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Similarly, what steps will be taken to support Ujiri’s passions for his Giants of Africa foundation and to back up his high-profile commitment to use the Raptors as a platform to fight for social justice?

Is MLSE all-in? Certainly, the support the organization provided Ujiri in his legal fight with the sheriff in Oakland that dragged Ujiri’s name through the mud and the courts for no good reason was noted and appreciated, but the fight can’t stop there.

We don’t know if those conversations have happened or to what extent, but it’s safe to assume that no one understands the leverage he has right now better than Ujiri does.

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That he hasn’t yet reached a new deal with MLSE can’t possibly be because they don’t want to get one done – they recently signed Ujiri’s counterpart, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, to a six-year deal and his team hasn’t won a playoff round yet.

More likely it’s because Ujiri hasn’t had an offer to his liking, or the timing hasn’t been right.

Either of those things can change quickly and may yet now that Ujiri is back in Toronto.

But in the meantime, there is a basketball team to run. Getting Nurse signed to an extension was the right thing to do, the simplest action to take and there was no need to delay.

Now attention shifts to Ujiri and MLSE and Raptors fans can only hope it all unfolds as smoothly.

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