Slowly, the Toronto Raptors are turning from the NBA’s most interesting team into the mid-aughties Sacramento Kings.
We’re nearing the end of this years-long process. No one believes the Raptors are good anymore, nor do they seem very bothered about getting better anytime soon.
Most dangerously, they are boring. Nice guys and all, but incapable of creating buzz. The Raptors have become that friend who texts once a year on your birthday, asks ‘What’s up?’ and then you go back to benignly ignoring each other.
So good on Nick Nurse. Right at the death, the head coach has decided to pick a fight.
It’s a fight with his own team, which isn’t always the best idea professionally. But one must salute his effort to make some noise on the way out.
Nurse got the Raptors’ top job because the team couldn’t get anyone they really wanted. Unable to secure a big name, they went with the assistant coach they already knew. It didn’t seem like a weird choice until Kawhi Leonard was acquired a month later. Then it seemed quite weird.
There were about a million ways it could have gone wrong, prime among them Leonard turning to someone in the training gym and saying, ‘Tell that guy in the glasses to stop talking to me.’
But it didn’t. Even knowing how it ended up, the whole thing was shockingly smooth. The nobody head coach and the NBA’s most intimidating employee finding a middle way through the season. Mostly, that was Nurse asking Leonard what he wanted to do, and then doing that, but a lot of people in sports would have found a way to screw that up.
Nurse came out of that championship run a star. “Box and one.” That’s how most NBA fans will know him his whole life.
Being tagged an old-school, tactical savant was good for the Nurse brand. You could feel him growing into it. The ‘NN’ initialled baseball caps; taking his guitar on road trips; a guest appearance on Murdoch Mysteries.
Once a man has had six lines on Murdoch Mysteries, really, what other mountains are there for him to climb? You know life will never be that sweet again.
This new Showtime approach from the coach did not exactly jibe with the team the Raptors became once Leonard abandoned them. A great team became a mediocre team that still walked and talked like it was a good team. It fooled people. For a while.
Inevitably, people began to blame Nurse. ‘You’re such a genius? Then why can’t you box-and-one the Raptors to fourth place in the Eastern Conference? And, seriously, what’s with the hat?’
As a coach, the danger of accepting any little bit of credit is that you open yourself to all of the blame. Nurse walked into that one.
What do you do when your team is boring and you can’t think of a simple way to improve it? You get rid of the coach. It doesn’t make the players any better. But it does excite people, which is the real job of sports professionals. If you can’t excite them by winning, excite them by leaving. If you really want to knock their socks off, leave in a big huff.
The formerly tight ship run by Raptors president Masai Ujiri began popping leaks last week. Stories ran suggesting that Nurse not only wanted to leave, but knew where he was going – Houston. They also had his replacement picked out – former Boston head coach Ime Udoka, a Ujiri friend.
When that many specific, moving parts are included in a “sources say” story, it might as well be a team press release. It has roughly the same authority.
Nurse could have let the rumours pass him by and made it to the end of the year. That’s only a couple of weeks.
It shouldn’t have been hard. Torontonians may be tired of him, but nobody wishes him ill. Now he gets to go somewhere they think he’s the basketball Da Vinci who won Canada an NBA championship. It’s good news all around.
But, God love him, Nurse could not let it pass. Someone asked him about the rumours.
“I think when this season gets done, we’ll evaluate everything. And even personally, I’m going to take a few weeks to see where I’m at … just see how the relationship with the organization is and everything,” Nurse said. “It’s been 10 years for me now, which is a pretty good run.”
Just say ‘I quit.’ That’s what you’re actually saying there. Or ‘No comment.’ Or deflect. If you don’t want to be bothered by this, there are a lot of ways to avoid that.
Instead, Nurse went with coyness. Maybe he was feeling a little starved of attention. Maybe he wanted to create a PR problem for his bosses. Maybe he wanted to hear fans begging him to stay.
Whatever the case, coy is only good for reporters. It’s not good for the reported.
It is a constant wonder to me that some people who speak to the media every day never figure out a single thing about how they operate. But here we are again. Having turned a small, local fire into an NBA-wide media mushroom cloud, Nurse seems amazed the story won’t die.
He was asked about it again the other night. You could feel frustration coming off him like heat as he answered.
“I’m not ... that’s exactly why I made it is to not have to answer that question every game, cuz I got it about three games in a row,” he said. “So let’s move on and talk about tonight and this team and this season, please.”
Print cannot properly capture the delightfully clipped way in which all of this was said, especially the pleading/threatening note on “please.”
Of course, no one cares what Nurse thinks anymore. The story is out of his control. It will dog the Raptors’ upcoming playoff run. When they lose, that’s his fault. If they somehow win, he won’t get any of the credit. Either way, he’ll leave under a cloud.
Considering all that happened on Nurse’s watch, it’s not a dignified exit. But nobody is promised dignity in professional sports. Regardless of what they accomplish, all they can depend on is a warm welcome upon arrival and a rough shove at the end.