Early Monday afternoon, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and vice president Masai Ujiri were due to sit down for a face-to-face autopsy on the current season and put together a plan to the year to come.
After the platitudes, there is something to talk about.
The Raptors’ over-successful rebound from the Tampa Tank is already fading in the rearview mirror.
It’s not that he doesn’t deserve the respect he deserves: going from missing the playoffs and picking No. 4 overall in 2020-21 to a 48-win season and a fifth seed in the East, culminating in a disappointing but understandable six-game, first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, there’s nothing to scoff at.
But Nurse is not a patient coach. The goal a year from now is to be in competition at the end of May, if not June, and a lot of things have to go right for that to happen.
Working in favor of the Raptors is that Nurse believes he is on the same page as the team executive and they share a similar view that returning to the championship is a short-term goal rather than long-term.
The nurse dismissed a report from early April that the Los Angeles Lakers (whose stars are represented by the same agency that represents him) are trying to lure him out west to work out their issues – “I don’t know where does this stuff come from,” the nurse said.
But he stressed that returning to the NBA’s top flight is a priority for 2022-23.
“I’m not very good at planning for the future,” Nurse said during a 45-minute wide media availability at the Raptors’ practice facility Monday morning. “Like, if you try to time it when you think we got another chance to win [a championship], well, I’m ready. I’m ready to start hunting again today.
“I train to win.”
In that sense, Nurse thinks he’s in a good place, at least for now. Next season will mark its 10and with the franchise and his fifth as head coach. Only five coaches have been with their teams longer. He still has two years left on a contract that is supposed to earn him $8 million per season. Chances are, what happens over the next year will go a long way towards Nurse becoming to the Raptors what Eric Spoelstra – who is chasing his third title in Season 13 – is to the Miami Heat: less a coach and more of a cultural cornerstone.
But first, each team will look to improve this coming season.
“I think I’ve always said this: Masai and I have a great relationship, I think mostly because we want to win championships,” Nurse said. “I mean, it’s about trying to figure out how to win at all.
“This is, this is how I feel [Ujiri’s] try to do every day and that’s what I try to do every day. And that’s really important, I think it goes a long way in terms of synergy, for me.
“And he’s having conversations with me about my training and I’m having conversations with him about the roster…and we’re going to take some steps forward. Like how can we coach better, how can we play better or develop and how can we improve the roster how can we improve and get to where we want to go it’s been a great season but you know exiting the first round is not what we want to do.
So, about this list.
If you’ve watched the whole season, you might have noticed a few things about how the Raptors played and what they struggled with. Chances are they’re not that different from what Nurse was trying to get her way: working with a roster that had talent, but it was also a jigsaw puzzle with lots of oddly shaped pieces .
As a team, they didn’t shoot very well (27and in true shooting percentage), had no lob threat (the Raptors had 19and in team dunks and had no player in the top forty for individually dunks), got almost no production from anyone outside of his top seven players, and was last to score off the bench.
“I said it at the start of the year you can’t go into a season with eight or nine guys anymore, you can’t anymore. There’s Covid knocking out a bunch of guys and the injuries still prevalent seem to be a lot more frequent than I can remember,” Nurse said. “…So whatever the reason, that means your ninth, 10and11and12and13and14and guys better go out there and play and not just look like it once in a while, they have to be players. So that would be my first thing, we need to get some depth to keep up.
“[Also] we could probably use catch-and-shoot. I’m always looking for other wingers, other more athletic wingers so that we can continue to play against you in the style of play that we want to attack you.
And the threat of the lob?
“That would also help. I think that probably raises a bit of pressure for guys like Fred [VanVleet] and Gary [Trent Jr.]OG [Anunoby]those guys who might look more open in corners because of the low side rim pressure.
But Nurse remains sold on the Raptors’ style of play where they smashed the boards, stormed the passing lanes and sent a second defender to the ball on almost every opportunity.
The plan was to win more possessions than the other team (they took more shots than their opponents in 69 games) in order to mask the fact that the Raptors’ half-court offense wasn’t particularly good – for cleaningtheglass.com Toronto was 26and in this domain.
But Nurse will be hoping his club can retain the advantage they gained by winning the battle for possession, while remaining a more effective club offensively. He would like more depth, more shots and a lob threat, but he also wants longer wingers, or at least he wants those he needs to be able to fill more of the existing gaps.
He is still all-in on ‘vision 6-foot-9’.
“What I would say is I really like the length and all that,” Nurse said. “What I would say is we need to make these guys more versatile. We need bigger guys who can keep smaller guys and bigger guys or plans that can keep bigger guys when there’s has an extreme at each end.
Does he see the Raptors competing deeper in the playoffs, sooner than later?
That’s the ultimate question and could well impact Nurse’s long-term future with the Raptors. The 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year has built such a reputation that his services will be in demand by teams trying to make leaps and bounds in the coming years – from prospect to maid, or maid to the big one.
Fortunately, there is reason to believe – and for Nurse to believe, above all – that these same measures can be taken in Toronto with its own 48-win club, even without major off-season surgery, although undoubtedly some adjustments and adjustments would be welcome.
There is potential at hand.
The nurse mentioned the benefits that could come from Anunoby being injured less – the big forward has played 43 and 48 games due to a series of random injuries and hasn’t played 70 games since his rookie season – as a lift from the existing roster might provide: “We were better off with him there, that’s for sure.”
He also mentioned the need to keep VanVleet cooler throughout the season. The All-Star guard was tied for the lead in minutes per game at 37.9 but saw his True Shooting percentage drop from 57.2 before the All-Star break to 47.9 after. VanVleet struggled through the playoffs and eventually had to be stopped with a strained hip flexor suffered in the first half of Game 4. Leveling up VanVleet’s production would help, as would the potential for growth through the experience and off-season development of rookie of the year Scottie Barnes and sophomore big man Precious Achiuwa.
“It’s four pretty critical things with four really good players that I think have a really big impact,” Nurse said. “There’s probably more in there too, but it’s a really good start.”