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Nurse’s uncertain future looms over Raptors’ stretch run

Nick Nurse Toronto Raptors Nick Nurse - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – With the Raptors coming up on the final week of the regular season, hoping to salvage a disappointing campaign by scrapping and clawing their way into the playoffs, the last thing they need is another distraction.

They’ve had to manage their fair share of them over the past few months, from early-season injuries to trade rumours, speculation of locker room unrest amid losing stretches and, recently, drama with the officials.

Now, you can add the uncertain future of their head coach to that growing list.

On Thursday, Doug Smith of the Toronto Star reported that Nick Nurse’s decade-long tenure as an assistant and now head coach in Toronto may be nearing its end, connecting him to the Houston Rockets and former Celtics coach Ime Udoka to the Raptors’ job.

Asked where his head is at ahead of an important game against the 76ers the following evening, Nurse could have poured cold water on the fire. Instead, he added fuel.

“I think when this season gets done, we'll evaluate everything,” the 55-year-old told reporters in Philadelphia. “Even personally, I'm going to take a few weeks to see where I'm at, where my head's at, and just see how the relationship with the organization is and everything. It's been 10 years for me now, which is a pretty good run.”

It was a telling reply; surprisingly candid, considering Nurse is under contract through next season. To his admission, this has been a tough year for him and for his club, who have fallen short of expectations. Behind the scenes, there have been rumblings for a while – maybe Nurse and the franchise he helped lead to a title aren’t long for each other. But if there was ever any doubt about their validity, it’s an open secret now.

According to league sources, Nurse is seeking a long-term commitment. Those with knowledge of his situation insist that he has no intention of going into next season as a lame-duck coach, and his comments on Friday would seem to reflect that. It’s hard to imagine the Raptors would be comfortable with that arrangement either. One way or another, they’ll have to decide on his future this summer, either by extending him or letting him go. Based on conversations with people in and around the organization, both scenarios seem plausible at this time.

Nurse’s resume speaks for itself. He steered the Raptors to a championship in his first season at the helm and followed it up by winning Coach of the Year. If he were to become available, he wouldn’t be available for long. Nurse has ties to the Rockets, having coached their G League affiliate, but he would surely draw interest from several other clubs.

So, why would the Raptors let him walk? They gave him his first NBA opportunity, working under Dwane Casey, and his first head-coaching gig in the league, replacing Casey five years later. They made him one of the highest paid among his profession, continue to support his personal and philanthropic endeavours, and work closely together with the Canadian national team (to whom he’s committed through the 2024 Olympic cycle).

However, after coming into this season with the hopes of building on a promising 2021-22 campaign, the team has taken a notable step back. It’s not just the record – they fell to 38-39 with Friday’s 117-110 loss to Philadelphia and have spent the stretch run fighting for a spot in the East’s play-in tournament. As folks around the club have described, something has just felt “off”, suggesting a possible lack of buy-in from the players.

At times, they’ve looked completely unrecognizable from the team that won 48 games and established themselves as one of the league’s best defensive clubs a year ago, despite a similar roster makeup. Everybody shares in the blame, including but not limited to Nurse.

Once the dust settles, Masai Ujiri will have to determine the best way forward and whether Nurse is a part of it. From the sounds of it, he has some evaluating to do as well.

"Right now, my head is to make this as long of a season as possible,” Nurse said. “This team needs playoff experience. So that is where I'm at right now, finish out these [games], see where we land, see if we can't creep up a spot or two in the standings, and then give them hell in the playoffs, see if we can get in a real series and take it from there."

"I'm concentrated on this job, for sure, and this game, essentially. But I think that 10 years is a good time to sit back and reflect a little bit. So I think we're going to do that all when the season ends."

By this point, the Raptors should be accustomed to drowning out the outside noise; they’ve had to do it all season. Just about every player in the rotation would have heard their name pop up in the rumour mill leading up to the February trade deadline. Now, it’s Nurse making headlines.

This is not the news they were hoping to make at this time of the year. It’s not the reason why they allowed the 76ers to score 77 points and shoot 77 per cent in the first half of Friday’s loss – they’ve dropped eight of their last nine road games, and many of them have played out in similar fashion. Still, having their head coach openly question his future with the organization can’t possibly help elicit the buy-in that they’re going to need if they have any hope of making noise in the postseason.

Nurse isn’t the only one thinking about what comes next. Pending free agents Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and Jakob Poeltl are all playing for new contracts. Pascal Siakam can sign an extension this summer. And, depending on which direction Ujiri and Bobby Webster decide to take, everybody’s Raptors future could be up in the air.

The difference is, whenever VanVleet, Siakam or any of those other guys have been asked about their plans beyond this season, they’ve pleaded the fifth. With five games left in a season that has been teetering for months, Nurse has opened the door to the possibility that this could be his last in Toronto. Now the question is, will he walk through it?