If you are looking for certainty, predictability and things that unfold according to widely agreed-upon standards and practices, don’t become an NBA head coach.
Maybe try something like accounting.
Of course Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse already tried that.
That was his major at Northern Iowa University, and he gave it up to become a 23-year-old playing coach for the Derby Rams in the British Basketball League for the 1990-91 season.
His only regret, he would tell you, is that he didn’t choose to ‘waste’ an easier degree.
Nearly 30 years later, Nurse is still dealing with the uncertainties that being a professional basketball coach brings, although the pay days are better in the NBA and he’s flying private rather than driving the van.
But the day-to-day is the same in that it’s always different. Plan carefully and then make it up as you go along. The Raptors’ defence of their 2019 title is like every other season that way.
“The circumstances are we have a lot of new guys, we have a lot injuries and lot of starting lineups,” said Nurse after the Raptors practised Friday at the OVO Athletic Centre. “There’s been all kinds of stuff [this year]. The roller-coaster has been a little bumpier, right? But it was still a roller-coaster last year and you know it’s coming and you ride the ups and downs and try to have fun.”
So far so good as the Raptors remain on pace for a 54-win regular season even as they lead the NBA in Win Shares lost to injury, according to mangameslost.com and are third in total man games lost to injury.
The news Friday is that Nurse and the Raptors are on the verge of getting some of their most important players back to full health, which – barring another nearly unprecedented wave of injuries hitting the team – could mark the first time this season the defending champion Raptors operate at anything approaching full health.
Nurse confirmed that Norman Powell (shoulder) will be back in the lineup Sunday against the visiting San Antonio Spurs after missing 11 games with a partially dislocated shoulder.
Both Pascal Siakam (groin) and Marc Gasol (hamstring) did ‘semi-live’ work at practice Friday. There is a possibility — after another day of practice scheduled for Saturday — that they might be available for Sunday although Nurse cautioned that timeline “might be a bit ambitious.”
Also Fred VanVleet (hamstring) remains out with no projected return date, so there’s always something.
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Siakam was still sounding cautious in his first public comments since getting hurt in the closing minutes of a game against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 3.
“The most important thing for me was being able to see if I can be explosive and move laterally,” said Siakam, who leads the Raptors in scoring with 25.1 points per game. “I can definitely run straight on the floor, but the problem is figuring out if you can move and be explosive. I have to make sure I can be 100 per cent and do everything I’m capable of doing and everything that helps my game. Until I feel like that, we’re going to take our time with it.
Nurse has been the constant and, in a roundabout way, the beneficiary of his team’s constant health-related upheaval. The Raptors have managed to remain in the mix for a top-four seed in the East by playing an aggressive, ever-changing defence that has allowed them to remain among the best defensive teams in the league.
Coaches finding a way to win with patchwork rosters get people’s attention, particularly when they are coming off a championship.
Nurse has almost certainly worked his way to the forefront of Coach of the Year discussion should the Raptors manage to keep winning, regardless of circumstance.
It’s not easy. Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was lamenting last week about how difficult it has been to create any consistency while ‘load managing’ former Raptor Kawhi Leonard. The deep and experienced Clippers – widely picked as the championship favourite before the season started – are only 5-5 in the 10 games Leonard has sat out.
The Raptors went 17-5 with Leonard out of the lineup last season.
As the Raptors’ herky-jerky season has rolled along, Nurse has been unwilling to make or accept excuses and has proven willing to hold his players to a high standard, regardless of status.
Last season he called out Leonard for coasting at one point during the season. Earlier this year he made clear Siakam needed to “be smarter” about picking up fouls and making too many turnovers as the focal point of the Raptors’ offence. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson have all heard Nurse be frank about shortcomings in their play. The results have been good and have arrived in short order, in part because to the extent you can be in Nurse’s ‘bad books’ he’s willing to turn the page quickly.
The latest example is rookie Terence Davis. He played eight inconsequential minutes in the Raptors loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday and, when asked, Nurse said he had played him “five minutes too many.”
Davis got his first NBA start the next night against the Charlotte Hornets and responded with 23 points and 11 rebounds – both career highs.
“Sometimes I’m maybe a little too forthright or pissed off or whatever it is,” Nurse said. “Somebody says ‘Why didn’t you play him more?’ and I thought the question should have been ‘Why did you play him so much?’ I don’t know. There are lots of ways of communication. Lots of ways of getting your message across. We’ll explore all those options until we can hopefully help these guys. Like I said, it’s only for their best interest and the best interest of our team.
“I don’t know if there’s an art to [calling players out] but I think if there’s a problem it has to be communicated. If there’s a problem, there has to be a solution.”
The Raptors should gradually have a good measure of their problems solved in the coming week as they get key pieces back and healthy.
That they’ve made it this far in one piece is as good an example as any why the Raptors should be grateful Nurse didn’t opt for something more certain than coaching. An accountant couldn’t balance the injury-riddled club’s fortunes any better.
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