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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – In a copycat sport, Nick Nurse has always found a way to be ahead of the curve.

After more than a decade of honing his craft overseas and then a few years of coaching back home in Iowa, Nurse’s innovative curiosity brought him to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the G League (formerly D-League) affiliate of the Houston Rockets.

At the time, the Rockets organization was at the forefront of an offensive renaissance in the NBA. Borrowing from those Steve Nash and Mike D’Antonio-led Phoenix Suns teams earlier in the 2000s, that Houston club aimed to push the game forward even further. With Kevin McHale and the newly acquired James Harden at the helm in 2013, they played at a frenetic pace and, notably, attempted more three-pointers than anybody had before.

Meanwhile, it was Nurse and the Vipers – who won a D-League championship the same year – that were experimenting with a lot of those stylistic principles at the ground floor. In 2011-12, Nurse’s first season there, Rio Grange Valley hoisted up 30.0 threes per game – the most in the history of the D-League and nearly six more than any other team that year.

It earned him a reputation that he had mixed feelings about. On one hand, being perceived as an ‘offensive guru’ and one of the faces of the three-point revolution helped him land his first NBA gig in 2013-14, when he joined Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto. However, with a wealth of head coaching experience around the globe, Nurse knew that he was more than just a specialist. Soon, the Raptors and the rest of the league would catch on as well.

Once again, Nurse presided over one of the sport’s most fascinating experiments this past season, his fourth as the Raptors’ bench boss.

For years, the NBA has been trending in the direction of position-less basketball, but when team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster built one of the most uniquely constructed rosters in recent memory, their goal was to test the limits of it.

Of the 13 players that logged at least 400 minutes for Toronto in 2021-22, 10 were listed between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 in height, most with enormous wingspans. At any given time, they would be able to put five guys on the floor, all of them long, quick and athletic, who could each play and guard multiple positions. That was the vision. The hope was that all their talent, the organization’s vaunted development staff and Nurse’s creative coaching would be enough to make up for some of their natural shortcomings.

Who knows, maybe in a few years from now everybody will be playing this way; it is a copycat league, after all. As of today, though, there probably aren’t too many coaches that would line up to inherit a roster without a traditional centre or much backcourt depth and outside shooting.

Nurse was the right guy to figure out how to get the most out of this unconventional group, and he did just that, even if it meant making the requisite adjustments to his own philosophies along the way.

“I think we [went] into the year pretty unsure of where the offence [was] gonna come from,” Nurse said on Monday morning, a few days after the Raptors’ otherwise excellent season came to an end with a hard-fought, albeit mildly disappointing six-game first-round playoff exit. “Where’s the shooting gonna come from? How are we gonna generate some kind of flow, chemistry and power to score enough to win?”

“I would say that the shot spectrum has veered off a little bit from what we normally talk about, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s probably a little further away from what I would maybe textbook or philosophically want.”

With only three above average, high-volume three-point shooters on the roster – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby – Nurse was forced to pivot from the optimal shot spectrum that he and his Raptors teams have been using for the past few years. Only 38 per cent of the team’s field goal attempts came from behind the arc, ranked 22nd in the league, down from 44 per cent in 2020-21 when they ranked fourth. They attempted 13.6 mid-range shots per game, fifth-most, up from 9.0 the season prior, the eighth-fewest.

So much of that was a product of defences adjusting and closing out on guys like VanVleet or Trent, who were given enough offensive freedom to put the ball on the floor and pull up from just outside of the paint. Pascal Siakam was licensed to do the same. In today’s game, most teams wouldn’t consider those to be good, efficient shots. In 2019-20, almost all of the Raptors’ attempts came in the paint or from three-point range; they took the third-fewest mid-rangers in the NBA. For this team, though, those were considered high percentage looks, and it wasn’t always easy generating high percentage looks.

“The one thing about this league is it’s like a cycle, and I’ve seen several different cycles over the course of time,” said 15-year vet and pending free agent Thaddeus Young. “I think this team is on the cusp of doing something that’s very unique, but it’s effective.”

The best coaches can adapt their style to fit the personnel that they’ve been given, and Nurse is nothing if not adaptable. As the season went on, they learned how to lean on their strengths while minimizing some of those weaknesses. Missed threes meant a lot of available offensive rebounds, and with all that length and athleticism on the floor, the Raptors became a team that would relentlessly crash the glass and force turnovers – they ranked second in both categories. Their most bankable quality was winning the possession battle; on average, they attempted nearly seven more shots than their opponent.

The defensive end is where they looked most like a Nurse-coached team, especially later in the season. Having versatile defenders who are physically capable of switching onto different positions is a nice luxury, but with so many new or young guys in the rotation, it took them some time to figure out how to execute Nurse’s complex schemes. Once they get on the same page and when they were at their best, you could really see the team’s vision come to life. They ranked fifth in defence after the all-star break.

“I think the players all trust [Nurse],” Anunoby said over the weekend. “We know he knows what he’s talking about and when you have a good coach you wanna listen, you wanna play hard for him, fight for him.”

In their annual post-season meeting on Monday afternoon, Nurse sat down with Ujiri and Webster to discuss their plan for the summer and how they can collectively get better. What’s clear is that the vision hasn’t changed. They’re happy with the way the roster experiment played out this year and position-less basketball isn’t going anywhere. Now, it’s just a question of how to refine it, and it does need to be refined.

Contrary to popular belief, their most glaring need is not at the centre position. It’s true, they don’t currently employ a player taller than 6-foot-9, let alone a big, hulking seven-footer, but they see that as more of a feature than a bug. If they could get their hands on one of the league’s elite centres, that’s a different story. Assuming Utah’s Rudy Gobert or Indiana’s Myles Turner become available over the summer, they’ll almost certainly make a call – they inquired into Turner before he got hurt ahead of February’s trade deadline, but the asking price was too rich for their blood.

But game-changing traditional fives are few and far between. The Raptors would rather eschew the position altogether than invest in a lower tiered big man who doesn’t fit their ideal style of play. They’ve gone down that road with the ill-fated duo of Aron Baynes and Alex Len in 2020-21. The difference, now, is that they’ve got a much better idea of who they are and how they want to play. They’re much better with small-ball fives like Precious Achiuwa, who make more sense in their system.

Their biggest area of need is on the perimeter, where they desperately need more shooting and perhaps another shot creator. Too often, their half-court offence would dry up, and if they weren’t creating turnovers or grabbing offensive rebounds, they’d get stuck in lengthy, five or six-minute scoring droughts. It was an issue throughout their first-round series with Philadelphia, where they shot just 30 per cent from long range.

The core of VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Achiuwa is under contract for next season and, barring a significant and unexpected shakeup this summer, that group will likely be back together. Assuming that’s the case, they won’t lack for length and versatility – things that Nurse liked about last season’s team. The challenge for the front office will be in building a more balanced, well-rounded roster around them.

“We saw it have a lot of success,” VanVleet said of the team’s starting five. “But I think basketball is such a flexible sport that you’ve got to have different options. Different things call for different matchups. I think having options never hurts.”

While most teams are reactive, rather than proactive, the Raptors tried to do something different, and for better or for worse, they’ve got a season’s worth of data to work with while determining where the great position-less experiment goes from here.

“Each year we are going to have to coach to what the roster kind of shapes into being,” Nurse said. “Sometimes you’re not quite sure what it’s going to shape into when there are a lot of new faces and all that kind of stuff… We knew we were going with this length and deflections and offensive rebounding and switching defence. We kinda saw that as the vision for the season. It got a little funkier only because they were able to do more interesting, different, unique things as they went, and that’s a credit to them. Earlier on, I wasn’t sure what they were able to comprehend and all of a sudden things started sinking in really [well] and we were able to execute a lot of stuff.”

“That’s who we were this year. We’ll see what we look like next year and how that transforms as the year goes on.”