Toronto Raptors don’t appear to be in any rush to hire a new coach

Toronto Raptors executive Masai Ujiri attends a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – The search continues.

The Toronto Raptors are one of five NBA teams looking for a new head coach. That number could swell to six if the Boston Celtics decide that Joe Mazzulla — the young assistant thrust into the top job when Ime Udoka was suspended during pre-season and ultimately fired — isn’t the man for the job if Boston gets bounced in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Miami Heat.

That could happen soon, if the Celtics fail to become the first team in 150 tries to rally from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game playoff series. Game 4 is Tuesday in Miami.

At the very least, it’s a good time to be Nick Nurse, the recently fired Raptors head coach who has been short-listed by the Milwaukee Bucks, is considered a front-runner for the Philadelphia 76ers role and would seem like an obvious candidate for the Celtics job, if it does open up.

Similarly, the other teams with jobs that are open aren’t likely fishing in the same waters as the Raptors. The Detroit Pistons seem determined to hire a young coach who can grow with a young team while the Phoenix Suns, Bucks and Sixers are each in win-now mode and expected to be looking for coaches with significant resumes.

The Raptors, who think they can win now but still want to take a long view, are by all accounts in no rush. They’ve interviewed far and wide, and expect to have meetings with at least a couple of more candidates before they narrow their list.

Yes, former Brooklyn Nets head coach and Canadian men’s national team star Steve Nash did get a formal interview recently, and impressed both with his preparation and his apparent determination to get back on an NBA bench after a weird two-plus-year run with various mixes of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Ben Simmons to draw up game plans for — a task made more difficult because none of the stars on the “super team” Nash was hired to coach could stay healthy for any significant length of time.

No, Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon did not formerly interview with Toronto, though there were conversations. Ultimately, the sense was the coach of the defending WNBA champions wasn’t in a rush to leave her current role. She is starting a season with a hand-picked team, the richest coaching salary in the history of the league and working for an organization that had just invested $40 million in a world-class practice facility. A recent feature in Time confirmed as much, with Hammon saying, “My happiness is most important … I love being here … I love being back on the women’s side. I don’t need the stamp of approval from the NBA.” 

Hammon has denied that she bullied a former player who was pregnant, but she was suspended two games by the WNBA — though it’s believed both sides had agreed to move on before that news became public.

Yes, the Raptors will consider coaches with current NBA experience, with recently fired Suns head coach Monty Williams on Toronto’s radar.

Yes, long-time Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin remains the leading internal candidate.

No, head coaching experience  — or even coaching experience — is not required: 15-year NBA veteran and current broadcaster and podcaster JJ Redick remains in consideration after he predictably impressed in his interview.

Although Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in the aftermath of firing Nurse that having someone in place before the June 22 draft, where the Raptors are slated to choose 13th overall, was his preference, there is no timeline otherwise.

The focus internally is no stone unturned; the emphasis being to find the right candidate rather than the timing of the decision.

With most NBA front offices in California this week to see many of the projected lottery picks in agent-run showcase workouts after the pre-draft combine in Chicago, the impression is the Raptors could still be a couple of weeks away from getting down a short list, which would take the process to the first week of June.

If a hire was made in the second or even the third week of the month, it would still leave time for a new coach to get up to speed on the roster-building possibilities heading into draft week.

There are a couple of ways to interpret that: one is the Raptors are zeroed in on some assistants on teams that are still playing – Chris Quinn on the Miami Heat’s staff and David Adelman with the Denver Nuggets have each been linked to the Raptors’ opening. Presuming the Heat join the Nuggets in the NBA Finals, that would conceivably leave a decision on either of those candidates until after June 18, if the Finals go seven games.

The other possibility is that Toronto doesn’t feel that one of its preferred candidates is likely to land with one of the other teams looking for coaches, which would lend some credence — and we are reading tea leaves here — to the idea that the Raptors are thinking outside the box with their next hire.

The one thing that rings true is that Toronto is determined to hire someone who can be a long-term solution. Ujiri’s patience is perhaps his most identifiable trait during his 13 years as front-office decision maker, and it’s perhaps most evident in how he’s dealt with coaches.

He inherited George Karl in Denver and worked with him for the three years he was general manager there; Karl was fired after Ujiri joined the Raptors before the 2013-14 season. Dwane Casey had coached two losing teams in Toronto when Ujiri arrived but went on to five winning years working for Ujiri. After hiring Nurse from Casey’s staff in the summer 2018, the Raptors coaching situation remained stable for five more years. That might still be the case had Nurse truly wanted to stay on.

All of which is to say, based on track record, the Raptors are unlikely to let any self-imposed deadline dictate who gets hired this time around, and Raptors fans could be waiting for a while for a decision on who the ninth head coach in franchise history will turn out to be.

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