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Stylistic identity could determine Nurse’s Raptors future

Nick Nurse Nick Nurse - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – As Raptors president Masai Ujiri takes the coming days, weeks and months to decide the future of his team – and what that means for its head coach – he isn’t just determining where they want to go and how they’re going to get there, but also who they want to be.

For the bulk of their shared tenure in Toronto, Ujiri and Nick Nurse have been in lockstep on that vision. First and foremost, they’re both completely obsessed with winning. Spend even a couple minutes with either of them and that comes through immediately. They won a championship together in 2019 and they’re in it to win more; that much they’re likely to always agree on.

And the path to get back there? For a while, they seemed to be on the same page in that regard as well.

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster built a unique roster around long and versatile wings, which fit Nurse’s ultra-aggressive style of play, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. It worked so well in 2021-22 that they doubled down on it going into this season, when the results were significantly less encouraging.

With their disappointing campaign coming to an appropriately disappointing conclusion on Wednesday, coughing up a 19-point lead to Chicago and getting knocked out of the play-in tournament after just one game, it’s reasonable to imagine that there are some differing opinions on what went wrong and how to fix it.

Less than 15 hours after his team’s elimination, the always-candid Fred VanVleet offered up an interesting theory.

“I think we just have to find another identity, whatever that is,” VanVleet said in response to a question about offseason needs. “The chaos and the [offensive] freedom worked when it worked. I think going forward, just pick what we are going to do. It’s not really that complicated.”

“For us, the devil is going to be in the details. I think that we have to rep that and build that. 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. We have to build that every single day starting as soon as we get back in gym this summer.”

If memory serves, this was the first time that anybody in the organization has publicly questioned the team’s style of play. VanVleet was mostly referencing Nurse’s free-flowing offence, which made a lot more sense with a veteran club featuring Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry than it does now, with one of the league’s worst half-court scoring teams. But it’s fair to wonder whether the defensive system is also worth re-evaluating.

For the second straight season, the Raptors were among the league leaders in forcing and scoring off of turnovers. However, any defensive possession that didn’t end with a turnover often led to a made bucket for the opposition. Whether it was at the rim, in the paint, from the corners or above the break, Toronto had a hard time challenging shots and making other teams miss.

One possible explanation for the drop off from the season prior, and something that VanVleet also brought up, was that teams had a year’s worth of tape and data to prepare from. They weren’t sneaking up on anybody this year. However, playing that style of defence – predicated on switching, picking teams up full court and changing coverages on the fly – can be physically taxing and is especially difficult for a team that relies on its starters to log big minutes.

If they’re going to reinvent themselves on either or both sides of the ball, it obviously starts with the front office. In fairness to Nurse, he can only play the guys that he’s given. He hasn’t had much shooting to work with, there’s very little depth behind VanVleet at the guard position, and up until Jakob Poeltl was acquired at February’s trade deadline, he didn’t have a centre at his disposal.

As high as the front office has been on position-less basketball, the addition of Poeltl may signal that they’re open to a more tradition style of play. Coming from a more conservative defence in San Antonio, Poeltl had to adapt his game to the Raptors’ aggressive system, because it’s much tough to adapt the system to the player in the middle of a season. Assuming he’s with the team in training camp – he’s a free agent this summer but is expected to re-sign with Toronto – that would be another good reason to strongly consider playing differently.

Where does this leave Nurse? Are he and Ujiri still aligned on their vision?

“I think we got a front office, a president in Masai who passionately wants to win,” Nurse said. “We’ve got a head coach who passionately wants to win. That’s why we’ve always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goal is to win here and that takes some evaluation on all fronts.”

Nurse is regarded as one of the league’s most innovative and creative coaches, but that doesn’t necessarily make him adaptable. At least to this point, he’s been reluctant to dial back the aggressive nature of his defence or add more structure to his offence, despite their mixed results this past season. If Ujiri determines that it’s time for a new identity, would he be more inclined to bring in a new voice to implement it?

Multiple reports have surfaced recently, suggesting that Nurse could be looking for a new opportunity after spending 10 years in Toronto – five as an assistant and five as a head coach. He’s been widely connected to the job in Houston, which is now vacant after the Rockets parted ways with Stephen Silas over the weekend.

Nurse intensified the speculation over his future with his unprompted comments before a game in Philadelphia last month, saying that he would take a few weeks to see where his head is at and assess his relationship with the organization once the season ends.

Despite his ties to the Rockets organization – he coached their G League affiliate – it’s hard to see Nurse ending up in Houston, where he wouldn’t be any closer to competing for a title than he is in Toronto, barring some lottery luck. An extended evaluation period wouldn’t be a bad thing for Nurse, who would surely be highly coveted if he were to become available. With time, a few postseason flameouts (Philadelphia? The Clippers?) and the upcoming draft lottery, some intriguing coaching options could open up.

Even if Nurse isn’t in a rush, the Raptors may not be as patient. Being that he has one year left on his contract, they’re in the driver’s seat. One way or another, they’re going to decide on his future this summer, either by extending him or “mutually parting ways”, rather than letting him go into next season as a lame-duck head coach.

It certainly feels like this is headed towards a split. As you can imagine, the front office was not happy about Nurse’s comments in Philly and they let him hear about it, according to sources. And even after he walked them back a bit on Thursday – “Listen, I love it here,” he said – there are players in the room who did not appreciate hearing their coach openly question his future with two weeks left in a season that they were still trying to salvage.

But this is the NBA, where things can change on a dime. And if nothing else, Nurse and Ujiri will always be able to find common ground in their mutual passion for chasing another title. Could that be enough to keep him in Toronto? We’ll likely find out soon.