The Sixers on Thursday introduced Nick Nurse as the 26th head coach in franchise history.
Nurse, who was let go by the Toronto Raptors last month, spoke to the Philly media for the first time at the team’s practice facility in Camden, N.J. The 55-year-old was flanked by managing partner Josh Harris and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
Nurse discussed why he chose Philly, the team’s superstar duo and what the Sixers will look like under his stewardship. Here are five takeaways from the availability.
Why the fit made sense
Morey made it evident from his opening statement that his relationship with Nurse was a big factor. Morey hired Nurse to coach the Houston Rockets’ G League (then D League) squad, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, back in 2011. Nurse won a championship with the Vipers in 2012-13, implementing much of the analytics-based strategy Morey used with the Rockets.
Fast forward a decade, and Nurse now has an NBA Coach of the Year honor and a ring. It made him an attractive candidate on the open market — and an easy choice for Morey.
“Obviously, championship pedigree at multiple levels is a big factor,” Morey said. “His creativity. Like I mentioned before, a partner in how to create results together I think is a big factor. I think he sort of checks every box. Relationships with players. Working with star players. Tactics. Someone that people in the league want to play for. It’s a pretty long list and we thought he was a pretty special candidate.”
The “partner” part of this is likely a key point. Doc Rivers was not the most experimental coach, to put it kindly. In Nurse, Morey has a head coach that will be much more open to outside-the-box ideas.
And Nurse echoed that sentiment saying that Morey’s presence — along with Harris’ — was the biggest reason he made the decision to coach the Sixers. Obviously the roster and taking over a team that was a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals was attractive as well.
It’s a boss he knows well and a roster he’s studied tirelessly from competing against them so frequently in high-stakes moments.
“Once we started talking, there was a lot of analytical things, innovative ideas, etc.,” Nurse said of his prior experience with Morey. “And that really triggered me. I thought it’d be a chance for me to grow as a coach. I can just remember some of the things leading in there was like, ‘Use that like a laboratory. We’re going to try this and try that.’ And I think that was kind of what I’d been doing some of the other places I’d been coaching — just trying things. And when they work, we kind of keep them in our toolbox. When they don’t work, we crumple them up and get rid of them right away.”
On James Harden’s pending free agency
Now that the team has a head coach, the biggest question hanging over the Sixers is James Harden. The 33-year-old guard will likely opt out of his deal and test the free agent waters, with his former team in Houston his most aggressive reported suitor.
So, would Nurse like to see Harden return?
“James Harden’s a great player,” Nurse said, after a weird, abrupt question that cut him off mid-answer.
Nurse was pressed and expanded a bit.
“Well, I would say this: James has a decision to make, and I’d be very happy if he came back.”
Perhaps further proof that Nurse would like Harden to re-sign is that the two have already spoken. Nurse didn’t get into the details of that conversation, but said his sell to Harden is an easy one.
“Listen, we didn’t get into that when we talked,” Nurse said. “I’m going to sit down with all of the guys 1-on-1, face to face here shortly. But listen, I think that winning is always the sell. Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be a goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there’s a possibility of that.”
How does he get the most out of Embiid?
Nurse and Joel Embiid have had a contentious dynamic in the past. That’ll happen when teams meet in two physical, feisty playoff series.
On Thursday, Nurse chalked it all up to two competitive people being in the heat of the moment. It almost sounds like Nurse blacked out during a presser or two.
“When you’re out there and you’re in the heat of really competing, I didn’t even really remember [the things he said about Embiid],” Nurse said. “But I accidentally had my TV on yesterday, and I saw a couple of them. They were pretty good. (Chuckles.) I was like, ‘Man, I don’t even remember that, but now I know what everybody’s talking about here a little bit.’
“And then it kind of grew — for me, anyway — to such a respect level. We’d throw one thing and even in that playoff series, a game later he would adjust to it.”
If there was a defensive coverage that popped into Nurse’s mind, he used it against Embiid. During the 2019 postseason, the schemes worked well. In 2022, Embiid had the answers to the test.
Nurse believes years of effort trying to stop Embiid could be the best way to unlock his full potential as his current coach.
“We threw almost everything, I think, that you can possibly throw at a guy — because it was that hard for you to try to stop him,” Nurse said. “We threw a lot at him. So at least I think offensively, we can say, ‘This is what we did and here’s how we can beat it.’ ...
“... And as far as building the relationship, listen, I think he really competes and he really wants to be great. It’s a collaborative effort, like, ‘How do you see it? Here’s how I see it. Let’s figure this out.’ For me, I just want him to have as much success as possible, and for that to translate to team success as well.”
Watching Nikola Jokic carve up the NBA from the center position, it’s easy to wonder if Embiid can weave more facilitating into his game. (It also might be fair to wonder if Nurse and his coaching staff can turn Tyrese Maxey into Jamal Murray.)
We’ve seen Embiid grow as a passer and processor, able to dissect double teams and find an open teammate. It sounds like more of that could be in order instead of Embiid leading the league in scoring for the third straight year.
“I think he’s got the ability to do that,” Nurse said. “I think it’s part of what I historically like to do as well. I also think that there’s a lot of changing defenses now — a lot more than you’ve probably seen six or seven years ago — so you’ve got to combat and be ready for all of those.”
How does the team get over the second-round hump?
The Sixers’ goal is to win a championship. In order to do that, they have to make it past the second round, something they haven’t done since 2001.
While folks in the Delaware Valley have pointed fingers all across the board for the team’s playoff failures, there’s talent here. That’s why Nurse came here. He sees a team that isn’t as far off as some think.
“My first thought on that is this team could be playing tonight [in the NBA Finals],” Nurse said, “along with some others in the Eastern Conference that wish they were getting ready to throw the ball up tonight. And that combination of staying healthy, the ball bouncing your way, figuring out the long grind that it is to go from the start of the playoffs to winning a title … all those things are very difficult. ...
“And as far as the rest of it, I look at it this way: I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it’s going to be only focused on what we’re trying to do going forward. That doesn’t matter. Whatever’s happened for the last however many years doesn’t matter to me. It’s similar to Toronto a little bit. It’ll be kind of a clean slate for me.”
One of the ways Nurse can improve upon the team’s past collapses: adjustments. Nurse is not afraid to try different things. More importantly, he’s not afraid to scrap something if it’s unsuccessful.
“If it doesn’t work and it’s a really bad idea, like I said, we’re going to crumple it up pretty quick and move on to something else,” Nurse said. “But if it does (work), we kind of put it over here. Sometimes we call it our playoff toolbox — something we tried that worked on a certain guy that we may need down the road.”
What will Nick Nurse’s Sixers look like?
Nurse has been lauded for his creativity and occasionally unorthodox game plans. It’s likely to be a refreshing change of pace from Rivers.
He admitted that it does take buy-in from players, selling them on ideas and why he believes they’ll work — while also accepting feedback. The best thing Nurse said he plans to do is tailor his system to fit his players, not the other way around.
“I think that’s what we did in Toronto,” Nurse said. “We’re just trying to maximize what the roster looks like. We really had to generate turnovers, and get out and score in transition and all those things. But 2018-19 was a different roster. We did have [Marc] Gasol and we played a different style and a different defense. Again, it’s going to be whatever’s best for this team to try to get ‘em to be the best they can be.”
One of the more encouraging parts of Nurse’s presser was when he talked about Tyrese Maxey. He lauded the 22-year-old guard’s speed and improvement as a shooter and defender while also pointing to where he believes Maxey can get better.
“He’s got a tremendous chance to improve and take a step forward,” Nurse said. “And from all indications, he’s really hungry to do so. Good worker, good person, really wants to get better.
“There’s some specifics, I would say … being more of a creator. Well, what is creating? Creating is you’re scoring or you’re drawing more people than one, and then you’re creating for others. So can he make all the reads? I think that’s the first place I’d start offensively, is getting him more reps in the pick-and-roll so he can make the reads to all the other players on the floor, depending on what he sees.”
The reason this is an encouraging response is that Nurse identified an area of improvement for Maxey and, instead of sort of saying “he can’t do this,” he’s saying “I want to put him in a position where he has to do it.”
Coaches are tasked with putting their players in the best position to succeed. Sometimes, that requires putting players in a position where they aren’t always the most comfortable and hoping it leads to future success.
Who knows if Nick Nurse’s Sixers will be better, but they will definitely be different.