'A Smart Son of a Bitch': Can Nick Nurse Out-Think Raptors' Biggest Rivals?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2018

TORONTO, CANADA - APRIL 17: Lucas Nogueira #92 and Assistant Coach Nick Nurse speak during the game against the Washington Wizards in Game Two of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2018 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Nick Nurse was a 40-year-old former mid-major point guard and longtime British Basketball League coach when he found the idea that would change his life.

He heard the NBA was in the midst of expanding its developmental league.

This, Nurse thought, was his chance.

He approached Jerry Crawford, a fellow Iowa native he had known for nearly two decades. Nurse met Crawford in his Des Moines office one day in the summer of 2006 and shared what he had heard, knowing that Crawford, a prominent lawyer and bigwig lobbyist for the Democratic Party, was a basketball fanatic and also the kind of guy who knew the right people in the right places.

"We should bring a team to Iowa," Crawford recently recalled Nurse telling him.

Crawford agreed. That February, the NBA D-League awarded an expansion team to Des Moines, the Iowa Energy. Nurse was named head coach. 

"He had to create a team in order to coach," Crawford said this week in a phone interview, "to lead to what has happened today."

DES MOINES, IA - APRIL 29: Nick Nurse Head Coach of the Iowa Energy calls a play during a time out of Game Three of the NBA Development League Finals against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers at the Wells Fargo Arena on April 29, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. NOTE
Brian Ray/Getty Images

Crawford was speaking a few hours after learning that his old friend had been named the new head coach of the Toronto Raptors. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported that Nurse reached a three-year, $10 million deal with Toronto, and Raptors team president Masai Ujiri has since confirmed the hiring to The Athletic's Mike Scotto

The team will officially announce the hire during a press conference Thursday.

Nurse, who has been a Raptors assistant since 2013, now inherits a team standing on shaky ground. The Raptors are coming off a franchise-record 59-win season, one in which they were the only team to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But a humiliating playoff loss to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight year cost Nurse's predecessor, Dwane Casey, his job.

The Raptors have since turned to Nurse, who players and executives credited with overhauling the team's offense last season, transforming it into a ball-moving, three-point-heavy attack.

At the moment, it's unclear what kind of team Nurse will be coaching in 2018-19. Will the Raptors run it back with the same roster and hope Nurse propels them into the Finals for the first time in franchise history? Or will they cut bait on prominent players such as DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry and rely on Nurse to guide a rebuild?

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Those who know Nurse best, from friends and family to former players, insist the Raptors will be in good hands regardless of the path they take. 

"He's just a smart son of a bitch," Crawford said. "His raw intellect is substantial."

Crawford witnessed this firsthand during Nurse's tenure with the Energy, which culminated with him leading the team to a D-League title in 2011. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets' D-League affiliate, then poached Nurse that July.

There, at the urging of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Nurse was able to construct and unleash the type of offense he always wanted.

As a player, Nurse was a sharpshooting sniper. He drilled 170 three-pointers during his four-year collegiate career at the University of Northern Iowa and connected on 46.8 percent of them, a school record. Like Morey, Nurse loved triples and believed them to be the game's most efficient shot, but he also understood how best to implement them into an offense.

"There's a difference between saying, 'OK, let's shoot a lot of threes' versus being really good at being able to empower players and put them in the right spots," David Nurse, Nick's nephew and an NBA skills trainer, said in a phone interview. "What Nick's really great at is empowering the players on the court."

"He seemed to know the type of shots that players thrive off of and puts us in the position to get those," Thunder forward Patrick Patterson, who played for Nurse in Toronto and faced him in the D-League, said in a phone interview.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Vipers led the league in treys attempted in each of Nurse's two years at the helm, and they went on to win the 2013 D-League title against the Santa Cruz Warriors. Soon after, the Raptors hired Nurse to serve as an assistant on Casey's staff.

In the summer of 2017, the Raptors elected to elevate Nurse's role. Their stale, isolation-reliant schemes had repeatedly been exposed in the playoffs. Ujiri wanted the Raptors to play with more pace and rhythm—and to shoot more threes. And he wanted Nurse to teach them how.

He handed Nurse the key to the offense, a move the team was not shy in broadcasting. Nurse spoke with national outlets like the New York Times and CBS Sports to detail his revamped offense.

The Raptors spent training camp scrimmaging with a new set of rules. At the urging of Nurse, three-pointers made from the corner counted as four points. Any shot beyond the paint but inside the three-point line was either worth zero points or, occasionally, it would result in a demerit.

The tactic worked. The Raptors ranked fifth in percentage of shots taken behind the three-point line last year after finishing 22nd the year before. But in the end, they found themselves back in a familiar position: getting sent home from the postseason by LeBron.

Could that change with Nurse now at the helm instead of Casey? 

No one interviewed for this story wished to contrast Nurse with his former boss. They did, howeverm list reasons why they feel Nurse is primed to succeed.

Patterson, an eight-year veteran, said Nurse's ability to instantly draw up plays is better than any coach he's ever been around. Crawford said all of the emphasis on Nurse's offensive scheme downplays his ability to adroitly coach a defense as well. David Nurse said Raptors players, many of whom he's worked with over the years, love being around Nick.

"That's actually something he's gotten much better at," Patterson added. "Finding that line of how to be friends with players off the court but hard on them on the court and balancing those two roles. In Rio Grande"—where Patterson played the year before Nurse arrived—"he was still trying to find that balance, but when I got to Toronto, I think he had it down pat."

Part of those struggles could be a result of Nurse keeping his off-court interests to himself. Patterson described Nurse as being a basketball junkie who, he imagined, had limited interest away from basketball. Yet according to David Nurse, Nick is a "concert-level pianist" who loves jazz. His other hobby, according to Crawford, is attending horse races in Des Moines. 

Perhaps one day Nurse will be comfortable revealing that side of himself to his players. For now, though, he appears content to be known for what he's done on the court.

There's no debating Nurse's X's and O's acumen. The question now is whether he can apply all he has learned over the years to a team in desperate need of a makeover. 

           

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here.

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