Nurse finds new home as Raptors near end of coaching search
TORONTO – In the end, things didn’t work out too badly for Nick Nurse.
It’s been two months to the day since the former Raptors coach was sitting at the podium ahead of a late-season game in Philadelphia, of all places. His team was approaching a disappointing conclusion to its disappointing season, and the 55-year-old took the opportunity to reflect on his decade-long tenure in Toronto and openly contemplate his uncertain future.
When team president Masai Ujiri ultimately let Nurse go a few weeks later he made it clear that those comments didn’t factor into the decision. But if nothing else, they tipped us off to what was coming and revealed that Nurse was souring on the organization, same as the organization was souring on him. Technically it will go down as a firing, but put it this way: you never got the sense that Nurse would lose much sleep after losing his first NBA head coaching gig.
So, when reports surfaced that Nurse was nearing what should be a lucrative long-term deal with the 76ers earlier this week, the coup was complete. Instead of trying to lead the Raptors out of mediocrity in the final year of his contract, the well-travelled Iowa native will get the chance to coach the reigning NBA MVP and chase championships in Philly.
He couldn’t have played his hand better.
Initially, multiple reports connected him to the Houston Rockets job, which was vacant following the dismissal of Stephen Silas in early April. Nurse had ties to the organization, having coached its G League affiliate before joining Dwane Casey’s staff as an assistant, but it was hard to see the fit. Nurse has been far more successful coaching veteran-laden teams than developing young ones, and the Rockets are still in the early stages of a rebuild.
While Houston had interest, Nurse declined to interview for the position, according to a source. The Rockets were looking for a quick commitment, which they wound up getting from former Celtics coach Ime Udoka, while Nurse wanted to wait out the first couple rounds of the postseason.
Worst case, he could have decided to sit the season out, collect the roughly $8 million that Toronto would have owed him, and then survey the coaching market again next summer. But inevitably, teams fail to meet their playoff expectations, and given the state of the business – where three of the last four coaches to win a championship have since been fired – many of those clubs opt to make a change.
First, the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks fell to the eighth-place Miami Heat in the opening round and parted ways with Mike Budenholzer, who led them to a title back in 2021. Then, the Phoenix Suns fired Monty Williams, last season’s Coach of the Year winner, after they came up short against the Denver Nuggets in Round 2. Doc Rivers suffered the same fate following Philadelphia’s embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics a few days later.
In just a few weeks, Nurse went from contemplating taking a year off to choosing between three superstar-led, championship-contending teams. On the surface, Philadelphia might seem like a strange choice compared to Milwaukee, where he could have coached Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Phoenix, where he would’ve teamed up with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.
The Sixers’ roster is far more traditional than the ones he coached in Toronto, meaning that he may not have the tools to tinker with unconventional lineups or unleash his preferred brand of defensive chaos. James Harden could become a free agent this summer and the resources to replace him are limited if he goes elsewhere. Then there’s Joel Embiid, with whom Nurse has a history.
Whether they were guarding Embiid straight up with Marc Gasol during that iconic seven-game series in 2019 or swarming him with multiple defenders over the past few years, Nurse’s Raptors teams managed to do something few others could. In neutralizing one of the league’s most dominant big men, they also found a way to get under his skin. Embiid has been critical of Nurse’s defensive tactics and penchant for arguing with the officials and campaigning for calls.
It could make for an awkward dynamic but given that they’re both among the very best at their craft and share a competitive fire, it’s not hard to envision them finding common ground and thriving together. After years of trying to slow him down – while also making do without a real centre of his own – Nurse gets to design plays for one of the game’s most talented bigs. He’s also reunited with 76ers president Daryl Morey, who he worked with in Houston. You can certainly see the appeal.
It will require some flexibility on his part, to be sure. In Toronto, he seemed reluctant to veer off his preferred style of play, especially on the defensive end, where his team looked overworked and outmatched last season.
But one could argue that they played that way out of necessity. Without much shooting or half-court scoring on the roster, Nurse believed the Raptors had to play an ultra-aggressive style of basketball in order to generate extra possessions and, for the most part, it worked. That might not work in Philly, but great coaches can adapt to the players they’re given, and if Nurse isn’t a great coach, he’s a really good one.
The pressure will be high, taking over a 76ers team that hasn’t made the Conference Finals since 2001, but this isn’t the first time Nurse has inherited a championship-level club that’s repeatedly failed to reach its championship-level goals.
It’s an enviable position to step into. If they continue to come up short, as they did under Rivers and Brett Brown before him, nobody will point the finger at Nurse; it’ll be on Embiid and Harden, assuming he remains. If Nurse can do what he did in Toronto and help them finally get over the hump, he’ll forever be a hero in Philadelphia, not to mention what that can do for his legacy, which already includes a championship and a Coach of the Year award.
While Nurse lands on his feet, his former team is still searching for his replacement. It’s been a long and extensive process, as the Raptors have conducted more than 12 formal and informal interviews with a wide range of candidates over the past month in the hopes of finding the franchise’s next head coach. They’ve been patient and operated quietly, both hallmarks of Ujiri’s front office, but the process appears to be nearing an end.
The Raptors have narrowed down the field to three or four candidates and are scheduled to hold a final round of interviews in Toronto this week. A decision is expected by the end of next week but could come as early as this weekend.
Former Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo, who has been coaching in his native Italy since leaving Toronto in 2021, is among the group of finalists, a source confirmed to TSN. Sacramento Kings associate head coach Jordi Fernandez also remains in consideration.
Other names in the mix have included some of the league’s top assistants, such as Milwaukee’s Charles Lee, Denver’s David Adelman, Memphis’ Darko Rajakovic, Miami’s Chris Quinn and Phoenix’s Kevin Young – who’s a frontrunner for the Suns job – in addition to a couple of unexpected names, Canadian icon and former Nets coach Steve Nash as well as NBA veteran turned ESPN analyst J.J. Redick.
Outside of re-establishing culture, something they felt like they lost under Nurse last season, Ujiri didn’t go into much detail when discussing what they would be prioritizing in their search last month.
As they get closer to naming Nurse’s successor, the sense is that they’re leaning towards an up-and-comer as opposed to a journeyman head coach. While they’ve explored the possibility of bringing in vets like Williams, Rivers, or Frank Vogel, that hasn’t gained much traction, according to a source.
That doesn’t preclude them from hiring someone who has paid their dues, either in the G League, internationally or as an assistant at the NBA level, as many of their top candidates would indicate. However, as they get set to turn the page, they seem intent on finding the next great head coach, the next Nurse.
Who might that be? We’ll find out soon enough.