What the Miami Heat are doing in the playoffs is extraordinary. They’re an eight seed that lost a play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks (and nearly lost to the Chicago Bulls) and then ran through the East like a hot knife through butter.
The Denver Nuggets are on the opposite end of that. They were the one seed out West for most of the season and have looked the part in taking down the star-studded (albeit banged up) Suns and LeBron’s Lakers.
These two teams have a couple things in common. The first thing is that they’re in the NBA Finals while neither was considered the favorite to make it there when the playoffs began. The other: continuity. Sure, they have stars, but they also have cultures fortified from players spending time playing together and within their team’s system under the same head coach.
The Sixers, who face another year of potential roster upheaval and will have a new head coach in Nick Nurse next season, don’t have that and will try to obtain it in an offseason. Nurse knows the challenges ahead.
“It takes a bit to get to know each other — both coaches and staff knowing players, and players knowing the coaches and staff,” Nurse said at his introductory press conference last week. “And then we’re just constantly polishing and testing and moving — whatever it is — as we prepare to get to the end of April and May and then June, hopefully.”
Jimmy Butler has become a brilliant playoff performer. His ability to seemingly coast through the regular season and turn it on come playoff time is remarkable. Maybe an approach his pal Joel Embiid can implement.
And Nikola Jokic has been superb. Despite missing out on what would have been his third straight MVP, it’s between Butler and The Joker for who has been the best player this postseason.
Both players have elevated their games to another level. They’ve gotten great support from their “Robins” in Bam Adebayo and Jamal Murray (though both have looked like a “Batman” at times). The Heat’s cavalcade of undrafted players and the Nuggets’ shrewdly selected supporting cast have been instrumental in their teams’ success.
But the biggest thing still is continuity.
Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. Third is the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, and right behind him in Michael Malone. All four of those coaches were hired in 2015 or (in some cases much) earlier. Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies (2019) is the only other coach hired before 2020.
Miami and Denver have cultures. Yes, that word can be overused, but there is an expectation of guys fitting a certain profile when they come into those organizations. They acquire players through all means, but those players need to fit the program. It’s something the Sixers have lacked for nearly two decades.
That’s not to say Doc Rivers or Brett Brown should still be here. Brown’s tenure hit an obvious expiration date. For as storied a career as Rivers has had, he never felt like a great fit here. Now, you’re asking Nurse to build something it took the Heat nearly 15 years and the Nuggets nearly eight years to build — and you’re asking him do it over the course of an offseason.
Continuity amongst players matters too.
Jokic and Murray essentially came into the league together. Murray arrived in Denver in 2016, a year after Jokic. Their games complement each other perfectly and seven years worth of chemistry together shows on the court. Though he was injured when he was drafted, Michael Porter Jr. has been in the Nuggets’ system since 2018. Those are Denver’s three best players and they’ve all been together for five years.
Butler arrived in Miami in 2019. On that team: Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Gabe Vincent. And all five players are a part of the 2023 version.
“I think we’ll have some continuity on the floor, and I think that’s probably the most important thing,” Nurse said. “So I like that there’s going to be some continuity. We know that, right? There’s plenty of guys that are under contract coming back. And then it’s going to be our job as a staff to try to get them up to speed and build it as we go.”
The Sixers will have a lot of their playoff rotation from 2023 returning, especially if James Harden comes back.
But think of all the roster turmoil Embiid has faced since he made his debut in 2016. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton are his longest-tenured teammates. Neither player was in the playoff rotation this year and both might find different homes this offseason. The only current playoff rotation player left from the team that lost to the Hawks just two years: Tobias Harris, who also might not be long for this organization on an expiring contract. Tyrese Maxey had big moments, but wasn’t consistently in the rotation in 2020-21. That was two years ago!
That’s not to say the Sixers were wrong to blow the team up a couple times over. The Butler trade was too good to pass up. The Harris trade ... well ... solid arguments to be made against that one. Subsequently, something needed to be done when the Al Horford and Josh Richardson era was a disaster. When Ben Simmons demanded a trade, Daryl Morey did well to get a star in James Harden back in that deal.
Ironically, the only departed player worth keeping to build continuity with would’ve been Butler. Alas, that didn’t happen.
This is the point of the post where you’re supposed to be given a little hope. Well, that hope mostly centers around Nurse as one of the most innovative coaches in the game and someone who is familiar with getting a team to connect at warp speed.
Look at the job Spoelstra has done this postseason. There is unquestioned talent on Miami’s roster, but to take an eight seed this far, the coaching edge absolutely matters. We’ve seen Spoelstra get creative with defensive looks as recently as a Game 2 win in the Finals. We’ve also heard stories about how no nonsense he can be with players. Nurse is a guy that checks the creativity and demanding of his players boxes.
Nurse was in his first season as a head coach when he won the Toronto Raptors’ first title in franchise history. Of course Nurse did get an outrageous postseason run from Kawhi Leonard. Also, the last coach to win championships with two different teams was Phil Jackson, who won the second of back-to-back titles with the Lakers in 2010. The only other coaches to do it: Pat Riley and Alex Hannum. Of course Riley, Jackson, Popovich and Kerr winning seemingly all the titles muddies things. A quartet of coaches winning 25 rings since 1982 skews everything a tad.
But there’s simply something to be said for connectivity amongst ownership, the front office, coaching staff and players. Perhaps Morey looks at Nurse, who was hired by Morey a decade ago, in a similar vein. He referred to Nurse as a “partner.” It’s also worth noting that Nurse took a team with a newly-acquired superstar in Leonard and won a title — a sign that he could potentially take a team like the Sixers from good to great in a hurry.
“I’ve studied the Sixers a lot in preparation for playing them,” Nurse said, “but as I do a deeper dive into studying them, I think it always comes down to this: I’m going to keep all the things that I think are really applicable and that they do really well. We’re going to try to cut out of the things that maybe we can improve. And it’ll kind of develop from there, and that journey will start Day 1.”
The Sixers are trying to build something it took teams like the Heat and Nuggets a mighty long time to build. Can it be done in one offseason? Possibly. Nurse isn’t a stranger to this scenario.
“I think winning a title in the first year as head coach is too hard,” Morey joked. “It probably can’t be done.”
But you need special efforts from special people to accomplish something extraordinary.
Nick Nurse, you’re up.