TORONTO – Nick Nurse was in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League last July when he learned the news: Kawhi Leonard, the player most responsible for leading his Raptors team to a championship a month prior, had agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
It could have been a time of great distress – and probably would’ve been for almost anybody else in that position – but Toronto’s head coach barely flinched. Instead of wasting energy lamenting what he and his club just lost, he started to think about what they still had, and what he could do with it.
It turned out to be a defining moment for the franchise, which hasn’t missed a beat in the post-Leonard era – finishing the 2019-20 season with the league’s second-best record and the highest win percentage in team history. But for Nurse, it was just another puzzle to solve, another obstacle to conquer.
“It’s kinda like the way I approach a lot of things,” Nurse said on Saturday afternoon, a few hours after learning he had won NBA Coach of the Year.
“It’s not unlike the playoffs – you get in these games, you think the series are going to go long, sometimes you’ve gotta take some of the eventualities of what happened and be able to keep moving. So, that’s it. I think we knew it was a possibility [that Leonard would leave], thought we had a great chance for him to come back considering how the season went, but it wasn’t meant to be. And again, you can’t blame anybody for wanting to go home. But we still have a job to do, and we looked at it as opportunities for the other guys.”
Fresh off a remarkable campaign in which his team overcame the loss of two championship starters – including the Finals MVP – and a barrage of injuries to key players, there was little doubt that Nurse would be named Coach of the Year. Still, he was not expecting the announcement to come when it did, and on live national television.
He had been asked to appear on TNT’s studio show ahead of the afternoon game between Milwaukee and Orlando. He wondered what the popular and award-winning panel of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal were going to ask him, but didn’t give it too much thought. He’s got other things on his mind – the Raptors can sweep Brooklyn and advance to the second round with a win on Sunday.
Once they started playing a recorded message from his high school basketball coach, Wayne Chandlee, he figured something was up. When Chandlee, who coached him as a ninth grader at Kuemper Catholic School in Iowa, congratulated him on winning Coach of the Year, it nearly brought him to tears.
Fittingly, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet – the first two players that Nurse spoke to after Leonard made his decision last summer – delivered him the trophy. A landslide winner of the award, Nurse received 90 of 100 first-place votes from a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.
“It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure,” said the Raptors’ second-year head coach. “It’s a humbling award, it really is.”
Nurse had coached all over the world before Dwane Casey and the Raptors hired him as an assistant in 2013. From the British League to Division I basketball, from Belgium to the NBA Development League – he’s won championships and coaching awards at almost every stop.
When Nurse was in his second stint in England, he admits that he considered packing his bags, going home and giving up on coaching for good. He was in his mid-20s at the time, his team was hovering around .500, and he remembers going back to his hotel room and making a list of four things he thought he might want to do instead. It included real estate, accounting, and running a recreation centre.
“They all looked like absolute s--- to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out,” he joked.
Years later, after Casey was let go and Nurse was interviewing for the Raptors’ job, one of the things that stood out to Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster & Co. was his ability and willingness to improvise and adapt on the fly. Throughout his career, he’s always had to be flexible and go with the flow.
To him, replacing Leonard’s elite production without adding a player at or even close to his calibre didn’t seem all that different from chasing a D-League title with the Iowa Energy and finding out that his star player got called up to the NBA an hour before a big game.
“When you see Nick on the sidelines, that’s who he is as a person – relaxed but so hard working, creative and dynamic, always setting the tone for our team [by] attacking our next championship, rather than defending our last,” Ujiri said in a press release. “That is who Nick is, that is why we believe in him. His journey to this tremendous honour has been a long one – we are so happy to see him recognized this way.”
It’s not a coincidence that this Raptors team has adopted so many of those qualities. They play hard every night but there’s a calmness and quiet confidence to them. They always seem to find a way to figure things out – whether they’re undermanned going into a game, or battling back from a double-figure deficit. Just like their head coach, they never seem overwhelmed. They never panic.
Nurse is laid back – a man that doesn’t seem to let the pressure of a stressful profession get him down. He’s almost always smiling and upbeat. He has a passion for music that rivals his love of basketball. He’ll make references to his time in the D-League and play his favourite Earth, Wind & Fire tracks during practice, yet he’s still able to relate to each of his players.
He also doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s a strong communicator, who is straightforward with his team – and with the media – and tells it as it is. He knows which buttons to push and how to get the most out of his players, which is why so many of them have had career seasons under his watch. In addition to his approach, they can probably identify with his story. Like Nurse, many of the Raptors’ players have had to scrap and claw to get their big break in the NBA.
“I think it’s part of the makeup of a lot of our guys,” Nurse said. That’s hard to manufacture, it’s hard to teach, it’s kind of something that’s in your gut, in your heart, or it isn’t, and we’ve got a group of guys that are like that. Now some of it is contagious and it spreads and I think it becomes part of who we are up and down the roster.”
Nurse has a collaborative coaching style. He takes feedback from his players and tight-knit staff. He’s always thinking outside of the box, looking for innovative ways to defend and to score. There’s nothing, no matter how outrageous it may seem, that he’s unwilling to try on the court. If it can help win games, it’s very much on the table.
“I think that my training gave me a chance to try a lot of different things,” said the 53-year-old. “I guess when I finally did make it to the NBA as an assistant and kinda saw some things, I thought if I ever got a chance to become a head coach, a lot of the things that I tried in some of those back-water places I thought maybe would still work. And that's probably just the basis for that. But I would say this, too: Masai and Bobby as the leadership of the organization encourage a lot of [that]. They wanted me to go out on a limb or do things different or try to shake things up once in a while, so that also helps you to be able to go ahead and do that.”
The resume speaks for itself. In his first two seasons at the helm, Nurse has led the Raptors to a championship and he’s got them in position to compete for another. But it’s not just what they’ve accomplished that speaks to Nurse’s impact, it’s how they’ve accomplished it. This Toronto team embodies the personality of the man in charge, and that’s the mark of a great coach.
“There’s a player development segment, there’s a way we play defence, there’s a way we share the ball, there’s competitiveness, there’s a never-give-up attitude,” Nurse said. “There’s lots of things that have emerged from this team, but I think that the biggest one is the way we try to go out and play hard and try hard defensively, and how we try to figure things out almost each and every possession, on each and every night. We don’t do it every night, but we come out fighting most nights and that’s the trait that I think I would say we should all be proud of, anybody that likes the Raptors.”