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Nurse firing indicates Raptors are ready to move past their championship glory

Nick Nurse Canada Nick Nurse - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The greatest era in Raptors history is over, it has been for a while, and the organization may finally be coming to terms with that reality.

Each time a key figure of the franchise’s rise to championship glory moved on – either of their own accord or at the team’s hand – it signified that change was inevitable, whether they liked it or not. Over time, the roster changed. The on-court product changed. However, their mentality did not.

At one point, that was endearing. To be a championship organization you have to think and act like a championship organization. But the greatest organizations in professional sports, the ones that have been able to sustain championship-level success over extended periods of time, they understand that you can’t move forward by looking back and clinging to your championship past.

On Friday, following a week-long deliberation on the heels of their season-ending play-in game loss to Chicago, the Raptors announced that they had relieved Nick Nurse of his duties as the club’s head coach. It wasn’t an easy or obvious decision for team president Masai Ujiri to make, but it could indicate that they’re ready to start moving forward and embracing that change.

Nurse becomes the first casualty of a disastrous 2022-23 season that saw Toronto fall well short of expectations and finish with a record of 41-41 on the way to missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

From the very start of the campaign, something seemed off with the team. They knew it. Opposing teams could sense it. It was plain to see and never got resolved. Diagnosing the what, why and how of it all has proven to be complicated and will surely keep Ujiri and his front office busy over the coming months.

“You could see it throughout the year,” Ujiri said, an hour or so after the team made the Nurse firing official. “There was never that full excitement. There was never that full spirit. There was never that feeling of togetherness. We all saw it. You saw it… It wasn’t us. This year wasn’t us.”

There are theories, ranging from a flawed roster to a coaching staff that lost the trust of the room to selfish play and individual aspirations that didn’t quite align with the collective goal. But one thing that stood out all the way through was the hubris within the organization, from top to bottom, on the court and off.

Ujiri and the front office decided against addressing any of the team’s most obvious needs last summer, choosing to double down on their position-less brand of basketball. There’s a fine line between ambition and arrogance. Thinking that you could revolutionize the game by building a team of long and versatile 6-foot-9 forwards in lieu of essential NBA skills like shooting, rim protection and scoring in the half court bordered on the latter.

All the while, Nurse and the coaches wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt the style of play to the roster that they were given, and the players would often sleepwalk their way through entire quarters in the hopes of salvaging the game with what became known as the fake comeback.

They all ignored the warning signs and refused to believe what was crystalizing with each passing game: this was an average team performing as average teams do. They told themselves that it was only a matter of time before they snapped out of it and turned things around. Why? Because they’re a championship organization and that’s what a championship organization would do.

Privately, Nurse had been voicing his frustration with the criticism that he faced from the media over the final months of the team’s lost season. Ujiri also believes he’s drawing an unfair share of the blame. It’s not hard to imagine several players feeling the same way.

The irony is that nobody is putting this season on any one cause, person or player – at least they shouldn’t be. After a campaign like that there’s enough culpability to go around. That nobody seems willing to own up to their part in it speaks to the bigger problem.

Winning the title in 2019 was and remains one of the best things to ever happen to the franchise, but it’s also hindered their progress since. When you’ve spent the better part of four years hearing and reading that everything you touch turns to gold, you start to believe it. Once you start believing it, things begin to slip. That breeds complacency, which leads to a lack of accountability.

That’s something that came up repeatedly during exit interviews with players and staff this past week. An identity or style of play that fit a Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry-led club shouldn’t be expected to fit this current group. It doesn’t matter what’s worked in the past. If they’re going to improve as a team and grow as an organization, they have to be open to thinking and doing things differently.

“I think we’ve just got to find another identity, whatever that is,” Fred VanVleet said last week. “We can’t try to do that by osmosis and try to carry over a championship from four years ago and expect to add that to a group that we have now.”

“Sometimes there comes a time when there’s a little bit of complacency, I think,” said Ujiri. “When there was a little bit of complacency with us I think some selfishness seeped in… Did that happen because of the system or different things that we did, or was it them individually? Again, I’m not going to point fingers now. I just want to know how we’re going to do better. And whoever wants to do better, whoever wants to play the right way, whoever wants to win is going to come with us.”

Friday morning’s news caught some people in the organization by surprise. Even with Nurse’s uncertain future in the spotlight recently, one member of his staff admitted that he didn’t see it coming. Ujiri met with Nurse four times in the nine days between last week’s play-in elimination and Friday’s firing, which is uncommon for an executive and head coach about to part ways. There was a growing sense that no news could mean that the two were working towards a continued future together, especially with roughly $8 million remaining on Nurse’s contract for next season.

Ultimately, though, the decision was made. Ujiri felt his team needed a new voice and after 10 years in Toronto – five as an assistant and five in the main chair – Nurse also welcomed the change.

He’ll land on his feet quickly, whether that’s in Houston – a job that he has been tied to – or elsewhere. He leaves Toronto with a record of 227-163 – second in franchise history in wins and first in winning percentage. He has a championship under his belt, has won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, and is considered to be one of the league’s best tacticians. It’s hard to imagine the Raptors winning the title in 2019 without his elite game planning, as well as his willingness and ability to tinker on the fly.

That was enough to at least make Ujiri think twice about cutting him loose. But over the years, and specifically over the course of a tumultuous 2022-23 season, some key relationships within the organization became strained. Where he and management once seemed on the same page, they were no longer aligned. They didn’t always see eye to eye on the best way to hold players accountable or to develop the young guys at the end of the bench, who played sparingly on Nurse’s watch.

There were also questions about his style of communication. Nurse would often call players out publicly without addressing his concerns with the player privately first, or in some cases at all. After a bad loss to Memphis in late December, Nurse held closed-door individual meetings with players and members of his staff that were described to TSN as “intense” and “confrontational.” According to sources, after an altercation early in the New Year, Nurse sent an assistant coach home and told him not to accompany the team on an upcoming road trip, without the prior knowledge or permission of Ujiri. The assistant missed one game and Ujiri later smoothed things over but the relationship between the coaches was described as “tense” for the duration of the season.

When a team is looking to reinvent itself, the head coach is often the first domino to fall, if for no other reason than it’s the cleanest change to make and the easiest to justify. But far too much has gone wrong to simply scapegoat Nurse, opt for status quo and hope for smooth sailing from there. He may be the first to be held accountable but he can’t be the last.

With Nurse gone, the only prominent front-facing figures that remain from that 2019 team are VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby, and their futures are very much uncertain as well. VanVleet will opt out of his contract and join Jakob Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. as unrestricted free agents this summer. Siakam and Anunoby have been and will continue to be featured in trade speculation. Outside of Scottie Barnes, who is coming off a disappointing follow up to his Rookie of the Year campaign, everybody and everything is on the table as the off-season kicks into high gear ahead of the draft in late June and free agency at the beginning of July.

Ujiri is an executive that has often favoured patience and continuity over big roster shakeups, most recently at the trade deadline. He’s also shown a reluctance to break up the core of VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby. But without cap space, next season’s first-round pick – which was lightly protected and sent to San Antonio for Poeltl and the deadline – or an obvious path to contention, he may not have a choice but to dismantle a group that he built, developed and believes in. Does he have the heart for it? It’s worth noting that the last time he fired a head coach, Dwane Casey, he followed it up by making his biggest and most callous trade to date, moving loyal solider and beloved franchise icon DeMar DeRozan for Leonard in the name of chasing a title.

“I think changes are going to be made on all fronts,” Ujiri said. “We’re going to address that with the team. We saw how different players on our team would rise, would do well, but we never did it collectively. Maybe that could be fit. Maybe that could be system, sometimes role orientation, sometimes accountability – all the things we are going to really look at it how our roster is built. We believe in the players we have. Whether it’s tweaks or major changes, we’re definitely going to look at everything.”

But before they address the roster they have to find Nurse’s replacement, and before they can hire a new head coach – presumably one who’s aligned on their vision for the future of this franchise – they need to determine what that vision is.

If Ujiri and those around him at the top of the front office hierarchy are serious about setting up the Raptors’ next great era, instead of merely clinging to the previous one, the next step is to look in the mirror.

Memories of the team’s remarkable title run will live on forever, as will Nurse’s contributions to it, but the Raptors are not a championship organization – not right now, not anymore. Who are they? What do they stand for? It’s on them to figure that out, and as tough as it was to move on from Nurse, the decisions that lie ahead will be far tougher.