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No regrets for Nurse or Raptors after inevitable offseason split

Nick Nurse Philadelphia 76ers Nick Nurse - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Nick Nurse brought the elephant with him to Philadelphia.

The former Raptors head coach has long believed that the best way to deal with a serious or uncomfortable situation – the elephant in the room, as it were – is to address it head on. As a reminder of that philosophy, he displays a toy elephant in his office, a figurine that made the trip with him across the border.

“I actually have two of them now,” Nurse said just before his Philadelphia 76ers faced the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, his first trip back since he was let go in April and a 114-107 win for his new team.

It’s an approach that served him well in Toronto, at least initially. In his first season at the helm of an NBA team, Nurse managed big egos and navigated through the potential awkwardness of superstar Kawhi Leonard’s frequent rest nights and looming free agency on the way to winning a championship.

The following season, despite losing Leonard and getting derailed by a global pandemic, he had the following season’s team on a 60-win pace and was one game away from another trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, earning him a well-deserved Coach of the Year award.

That elephant has already come in handy with his new club. Since Nurse was dismissed by the Raptors and subsequently hired in Philly over the summer, no team has been quite as dramatic as the 76ers.

To recap: James Harden opted into the final year of his contract and immediately requested a trade. Speaking at a promotional event in China, he blasted team president Daryl Morey, eliciting a fine from the league. Harden no-showed on Media Day, was absent for most of training camp, and after his unexpected return to the club this week, he was removed from the charter and told to hang back at the practice facility for reconditioning while the team opened its season on the road.

There appears to be no end in sight, as talks between the Sixers and Los Angeles Clippers – Harden’s preferred destination – have reportedly stalled and Morey insists they won’t trade the future hall of famer for less than he’s worth. All the while, the rest of the league waits and watches with interest, wondering how much patience reigning MVP Joel Embiid has left. Elephant in the room, indeed.

“Do we have to spend a few minutes talking about it here and there? Maybe every day a little bit,” Nurse said. “But it's not like it's a huge waste of time and energy, just a little bit. And the guys want to play and they're fun to be around and they are intrigued about this team as it is. Let's see what happens.”

So, Nurse inherits an underachieving team with championship aspirations and a star with eyes for Los Angeles – and when you put it that way, there may not be anyone more qualified for the job. After 10 years in Toronto, five as head coach and five as an assistant, it’s a new challenge and the change in scenery that the 56-year-old Iowan seemed to be clamouring for as last season was going off the rails.

Technically, Nurse was fired, though it felt like more of a mutual parting. As his comments in – perhaps not so coincidentally – Philadelphia late last season indicated, he was uncertain about his future with the organization. The other interpretation is that he already had one foot out the door. It was a strange and somewhat abrupt breakup between a coach and team that had experienced so much success together. Does Nurse regret how things played out? He doesn’t vibrate on that frequency, as he likes to say.

“It felt it was time, probably from both sides,” Nurse said. “And it still feels that way to me, just looking around. I look at [the Raptors] play and they look like they’re playing great, and I’m really enjoying coaching this [76ers] team. So, I think everybody’s where they’re supposed to be.”

Nurse, the winningest coach in franchise history, was exactly what the Raptors needed exactly when they needed it. Former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was a players’ coach through and through, somebody who valued his relationships, and the kind of guy that players would run through a wall for. He was crucial in building the culture and setting the foundation, while Nurse – the tactician who wasn’t afraid to think outside the box and make in-game or mid-series adjustments – took them over the hump.

But nothing lasts forever in this ever-changing world of professional sports. The shelf life for most coaches in the NBA is short, let alone one who’s somewhat rough around the edges.

After experiencing two losing seasons in three years, Nurse’s message was starting to fade. His habit of challenging players publically through the media without speaking to them privately, which had produced results earlier in his tenure, was wearing thin. His relationships and communication with players, coaches on his staff and members of the front office began to deteriorate. Eventually, that became the elephant in the room.

While he wanted a new challenge to sink his teeth into, it was also time for a new voice in Toronto, a new energy, and the Raptors found it in Nurse’s replacement. Darko Rajakovic is a different coach with different philosophies, hoping to implement a different system, but whether different is better or worse remains to be seen.

Rajakovic wants to install a more structured and free-flowing offensive system. He wants to play more conservatively defensively and use a deeper rotation.

It all sounds great in theory, but it’s not like Nurse didn’t want to move the ball or go deeper into his bench. Rightly or wrongly, his teams played the way he felt they needed to in order to win games, given the roster construction. He tried to make up for a lack of shooting and half-court offence with a hyper aggressive defence and gimmicky schemes. He was reluctant to trust the younger, unproven players off the bench, so he leaned heavily on the starters.

This Raptors roster looks very similar to the one that Nurse coached, minus Fred VanVleet, and the plan was to bring him back until he chose to leave for the Houston Rockets in free agency. So, after everything that went wrong last season, the only major change that Raptors president Masai Ujiri and his front office opted to make was to overhaul the coaching staff. Whether it was their intention or not, that points the finger squarely at Nurse.

Naturally, people will have a tough time disconnecting whatever Rajakovic ends up doing with this roster from what Nurse couldn’t do with it. If he’s unsuccessful in remodelling the offence or can’t squeeze more out of guard Malachi Flynn and the team’s other underperforming reserves, it’ll almost feel like vindication for Nurse. If they improve under Rajakovic’s leadership, it’ll be hard not to see that as an indictment of his predecessor.

The early returns have been mixed. Through three games, we’ve seen flashes of Rajakovic’s vision. After hitting just one of their first 18 three-point attempts and needing nearly 26 minutes to break 35 points in Friday’s bizarre overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls, they shot a perfect 7-for-7 from three-point range and scored 36 first-quarter points against Philadelphia. The ball was moving, shots were falling and they were getting contributions from a second unit that had struggled the night before.

But they’re still prone to listless stretches, eerily similar to the ones that plagued them last season. They couldn’t take advantage of Embiid’s rest minutes to start the second quarter, getting outscored by nine points, and they were bested 35-20 during an uninspiring third quarter. Outside of Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, and occasionally Chris Boucher, the rest of the bench has looked shaky.

The reality is it will take more than a few games for Rajakovic to figure out what he has in guys like Flynn, newcomer Jalen McDaniels or rookie Gradey Dick, who hit four threes and scored 16 points off the bench on Saturday. It will take more than a few games to figure out who this team is and what they can become.

“It is going to be a journey, it’s going to be a process, and we’re going to stay together on that journey,” Rajakovic said ahead of Saturday night’s game. “I think the most important thing for us is understanding that it’s going to take some time to have clarity [with] what we really want to do and not get lost in competition itself, that ‘Oh, let’s get away from this because at some point something else might work a little bit better.’ We got to see the big picture.”

There’s plenty of uncertainty for Nurse and his new team, as well. How will the Harden situation play out, and can he – or whatever they get back for him – help Embiid and company get out of the second round and make a legitimate run at the title? Still, as long as they’ve got a healthy Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who scored 34 points apiece on Saturday, the Sixers can feel good about their chances of contending in the East.

If Nurse is losing any sleep these days, it’s not over his former team or their inevitable split.

“It ended the way it ended,” Nurse said.

And his new opportunity?

“It’s pretty refreshing. It’s been energizing for me, for sure. I don’t think there’s anything really in that other than it’s new and it’s different.”