When news leaked Tuesday that the Toronto Raptors intend to make assistant Nick Nurse their new head coach, the first reaction was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
This is a paradigm-shifting choice, in the sense that a team in need of a paradigm shift has decided it likes the paradigm the way it is. Choosing Nurse as head coach is a decision so outside the box that it’s all the way back inside it.
A month ago, Raptors president Masai Ujiri laid out his reasons for firing Nurse’s boss, Dwane Casey. There weren’t any. This was the closest Ujiri got: “Relationships come to an end. We’ll figure out a way to move on, a new voice, just new everything in terms of that position.”
Which was a funny way of saying an old voice and just old everything in terms of that position.
There’s nothing wrong with Nurse’s qualifications. Under Casey, he oversaw a Raptors offence that ranked fourth in the league last year. He speaks with assurance, looks good in a suit and is a nice guy. People have made careers out of much less.
There’s also nothing that pops out at you about him. At 50, he’s not precocious. Most of his experience is in the British Basketball League. He’s never been an NBA head coach.
He’s an unproven commodity, which is a vast improvement over his recent state of being: no sort of commodity at all. Five years ago, Nurse was a smart, middle-aged guy with a clipboard whom no one knew. Then the Raptors got good.
Today, he is still smart, still middle-aged and still largely anonymous, but he has pulled a golden ticket.
So hurrahs all around for the little guy. Perhaps you too may find yourself running a failing franchise on the English seaside one day, then elbowing Drake out of the way as you chase an official down an NBA court the next.
Some people are victims of circumstance. Nurse is a beneficiary of it. Good for him. He may turn out to be the next Red Auerbach.
But that does not solve the Raptors’ short-term, self-imposed identity crisis.
This team has saddled itself with a reputation for crumbling when it counts. No one doubts the talent, but it’s a showcase sort of talent. They can put it together in January when no one’s paying attention. But as soon as the calendar ticks over into April, the Raptors start making passes to the popcorn vendor.
This isn’t a coaching failure. An NBA coach teaches schemes. He isn’t expected to teach guys on eight-figure contracts how to play basic defence, or that you should try hardest in the fourth quarter. Players in their seventh or eighth professional season are expected to have mastered those skills.
Because they so routinely pooch things, no one expects much from the Raptors any more. Including the Raptors.
They’ve made a meal of the LeBron James excuse, but the totality of the recent postseason put the lie to that one. The Indiana Pacers came within a few minutes of beating James and His Seven Dwarfs. The Boston Celtics did likewise. Then the Golden State Warriors went scorched earth on them.
The only team that made the Cavaliers seem formidable was Toronto. It was hard not to notice the pattern.
They might have stuck with Casey and tried again, hoping that something would budge – as in James and his geographic relation to this continent’s coasts. That was the safe option.
In firing Casey, the Raptors went instead for the change option. This was change for change’s sake, since the roster is verging on immutable. The Raptors have no draft picks this year. They have no easy route to trading one or both of their playoff-shy superstars. They’ve given Serge Ibaka the equivalent of a lottery hit, and the only way they’re getting rid of him is if he decides to retire.
Yes, maybe Fred VanVleet will become Gary Payton and OG Anunoby is an incipient Charles Oakley, but historically that’s not how the NBA works. You see great players coming a long ways off. The pretty good ones can move their ceilings, but they aren’t likely to become postseason difference makers.
Out on the court, the Raptors are stuck with what they have. And what they have is unlikely to be any better next year.
Still – change. That’s what the Raptors decided matters. At this point, it doesn’t matter if it’s effective change. The important thing is letting people know that things are going to look and sound different.
Lithuanian bench starlet Sarunas Jasikevicius represented that sort of turnover. So did veteran Italian Ettore Messina. Even Jerry Stackhouse would have provided a wild card feel to the room (while offering good odds on “NBA coach most likely to punch a player”).
People would have had feelings about any of those guys. Not necessarily warm or confident ones, but feelings nonetheless. At the least, people would be talking about it.
But no. If these Raptors deflected cutters the way they avert interest, they’d be the Bill Russell Celtics.
Ujiri has decided on a neither/nor solution – not so different it represents a truly new outlook, but different enough to represent an unnecessary risk.
Today, the safe option is coaching the Detroit Pistons. The Raptors have replaced Dwane Casey with Dwane Casey 2.0 – but returned to default factory settings.
It may work, though no one will bother checking in for a year’s time.
For Ujiri’s sake, it had better. Because people in pro sports who resist real change when given the opportunity may eventually find themselves becoming it.