It was reported on Thursday night that the Sixers will interview former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse for their vacancy at head coach.
We’ve all seen plenty of Nurse over the years as the Sixers have battled with the Raptors multiple times in heated postseason series. But we wanted to get the perspective of those that know Nurse, so we enlisted the help of Josh Kern from Raptors HQ to help us learn a little bit more.
As Joel Embiid can attest, Nick Nurse has a knack for whipping up creative and aggressive defensive schemes. What do you think his biggest strengths and weaknesses are?
Embiid nailed it there. Nurse’s defensive schemes are aggressive as all heck, and as Joel himself said earlier this year — somewhat pejoratively, but that doesn’t make it any less true — Nurse is great at developing schemes that limit an opposing team’s best player, such as the box-and-1 he deployed against Steph Curry in the 2019 Finals.
Nurse is also capable of tweaking things to suit his personnel; notably, the past two seasons, as the team lacked shooting depth, they focused more on creating turnovers and getting offensive rebounds to generate extra possessions.
But his base defense — collapse into the paint to limit shots at the rim, scramble back hard to close out on shooters — hasn’t changed, and that shows a streak of stubbornness that I think is one of Nurse’s weaknesses. That scheme didn’t work this year, and while it’s not clear exactly why it didn’t, my best guess is the Raptors were too dang tired to execute it effectively. Because that scrambling takes a ton of effort, and players need to be super sharp to close out quickly enough to contest, but in enough control not to foul or fall for pump fakes. I think playing such an aggressive scheme for five years simply burnt them out. Whatever the reason, it was pretty clear by December the players weren’t executing the scheme, and Nurse never attempted to adjust.
As for why his players might have been tired? This might be stubbornness too, but it takes an awful lot to earn Nick Nurse’s trust, and if a player doesn’t have it, that player is going to have a very short leash and will likely have extended stints in the doghouse. It’s particularly tough for young players to gain Nurse’s trust, and without room to make mistakes, they don’t grow and develop. (The Raptors’ previously-acclaimed player development system hasn’t actually developed anyone under Nurse’s tenure.) And all of that leads to Nurse playing the guys he does trust too many minutes. Pascal Siakam led the league in minutes for the second straight year; Fred VanVleet was second last year, and fifth this year. Those guys were wiped by the end of the season.
Lastly, the Raptors have been atrocious in the halfcourt offense for about four years now. While some of that is personnel-driven, there isn’t a lot of creativity in Nurse’s offensive schemes. When the 76ers went on that 6-minute scoring drought in Game 6, it gave me Raptors flashbacks, because it seemed like every damn game this season had an extended scoring drought.
What ultimately led to Nurse being fired and what was the reaction from Raptors fans?
I suppose the main reason was that the team didn’t meet expectations this year; if they’d followed up their 48-win 2021-22 with 50 wins in 2022-23, and/or a more competitive postseason, I think Nurse would still be the Raptors coach. But it was a frustrating season for everyone involved and it showed, no more so than when Nurse — unprompted — started speculating about his own future in March. (Also curious: Nurse didn’t do the typical “Thank you Toronto” thing after his firing, and no Raptors player has publicly said a word about his firing.)
So by the end, there was a sense that, in addition to what I noted about the players being burnt out by Nurse’s scheme, Nurse might have been burnt out by the players, or by the organization. Everyone just seemed tired of one another!
Fan reaction was kinda mixed. It was clear something wasn’t working and some sort of change was needed… but it’s also not clear that moving on from a championship coach was necessarily the right sort of change.
It might be — time will tell — and of course Nurse’s own desires seem to have played a part. But it was a big leap for Masai Ujiri to take, especially with several key free agents, limited cap space, and poor lottery odds (which played out on Tuesday). It’s pretty unsettling going into such a key offseason without a coach!
The Sixers and Raptors are built much differently. Do you think Nurse makes sense in Philly?
Nurse has only had one head-coaching gig in the NBA but given how well he did in his first two years, with a veteran-heavy roster, and the struggles he’s had since, with a younger roster, I think Nurse might end up with the rep of a guy who can take a veteran team from good to great. And I think that’s exactly what the 76ers need, isn’t it? Someone to get them over the hump?
And hey, in those highly successful 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Nurse had a traditional center with great defensive instincts to anchor his scheme. Joel Embiid isn’t quite the defender Marc Gasol was, but he’s pretty damn good — and offensively Embiid is on another level. I think Nurse and Embiid would be great together, so for that reason alone I think he makes sense. (Though expect the bitching at officials to increase approximately 249%.)
If James Harden stays, I don’t think he and Tyrese Maxey can execute Nurse’s base defensive scheme (and Harden will tire himself out with all that running by January). But it would be very interesting to see if Nurse can overcome that above-noted stubbornness and adjust his defensive approach for this personnel.
Offensively? Well, having Harden and Embiid would likely solve some of Nurse’s halfcourt offense issues!
Is there a player you think Nurse would want to try to pry from the Raptors to bring here if he got the job?
I think pretty much every team wants O.G. Anunoby, right? He’s the ultimate 3-and-D guy, who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make a big impact on the boxscore. I would hate to see it (and I’m not sure how it would happen) but Anunoby would be a perfect fit in Philly.
In a weird way, Sixers fans probably feel like they know Nurse as well as any opposing head coach with the battles the teams have had over the years. Is there something about Nurse that maybe isn’t known or appreciated outside of Toronto?
Seeing Nurse up close the past couple of years, I find him to be a bit of an enigma. He’s funny and seems personable and down to earth most of the time. His love of music, including his regular appearances on stage with The Arkells, and his embrace of Canada and Toronto (the guy made a guest appearance on the TV show Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian institution!) endeared him to fans…
… and yet there’s a hint of ego that percolates around him that makes you wonder, does he do all those things because he’s down to earth and just having a good time, or does he do it because he likes the attention? And doesn’t his dismissal, and the way the team seemed to tire of him, point to the latter?
I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure that he’s the only coach in the league that wears a hat with his own initials on it, rather than team gear, to his press conferences.