Nick Nurse understands he's not going to be judged by regular-season wins. He's taking over a team that is perennially near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but has ended consecutive seasons with a whimper. It's always nice to get the No. 1 seed, but it wouldn't mean much for this particular group next season. The last time it happened, a second-round flameout followed.
Like anyone who accepts a head-coaching job, Nurse has thought about a few things he'd like to do differently on offense and defense. His main challenge, though, is to find "a collective path to peaking at the right time," Nurse says.
Nurse says this after a summer league practice at a Las Vegas high school. It's July 2018, weeks after the Toronto Raptors promoted him. He does not know that the Raptors will go on to slay their playoff demons and win their first championship the following June. He does not even know that they will soon trade for Kawhi Leonard. He certainly doesn't know that, five years later, he'll be , tasked with taking a theoretically top-tier team to the next level.
April, May, June
When Nurse took over the Raptors, he wanted them to be thinking about the playoffs before training camp had even begun, so hewith "AMJ" -- i.e. April, May, June -- on them. Also on the wristbands was the phrase "expect to win," a motto he'd first used as the coach of the Birmingham Bullets in 1995.
If he doesn't have more of these made for the Philadelphia 76ers, he'll at least deliver similar messages. The Sixers tried to get tougher and more playoff-ready last summer, and when they took a 3-2 lead against the Boston Celtics three weeks ago, it seemed like they might break through. Games 6 and 7, however, were the type of losses that can weigh a team down.
By firing Doc Rivers, Philadelphia was not blaming him for all that went wrong. Team president Daryl Morey said that Joel Embiid, the 2023 MVP, was "shocked" by the decision and that the front office would be looking for a replacement that shared many of Rivers' attributes. In the NBA, firing a coach is often more about projecting the team's future than punishing the person for the past. As Nurse's old boss said last month, sometimes a team needs the jolt that comes with a major change.
"There are things you have to shock, you have to hit," Toronto president Masai Ujiri said when discussing Nurse's firing. "I think there has to be some kind of friction in some way to do that."
The last time Embiid mentioned Nurse publicly, he was firing a shot. "[The Nets] kind of took the Nick Nurse route of begging for free throws," Embiid said during the first round. Last December, Embiid said it seemed like the Raptors cared more about shutting down star players than winning. Both he and Harden have been swarmed by Nurse's teams over the years, to varying degrees of success. If that created some friction between them and Nurse, maybe the Sixers see that as a good thing. After the Boston series, Embiid put the onus on himself to figure out how to counter the kind of defenses that he sees in the playoffs, according to Morey.
If history is any indication, then Nurse will experiment with different lineups and defensive coverages in case he needs to use them in the postseason. He will give playersso he can see what they do with it. He will try to make Philadelphia more unpredictable and more aggressive, in the name of making them more equipped to survive the playoff crucible.
There might be some consternation about how short the Raptors' rotation became later in Nurse's tenure, which resulted in both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet averaging a league-high 37.9 minutes this season. Nurse also, however, presided over the title-winning team that popularized the term "load management." Considering how many times Embiid has been banged-up in the playoffs, do not expect the Sixers to run him into the ground.
For the last two seasons, Toronto has played some of the most chaotic basketball the NBA has ever seen. It was not the first team to play without a conventional center, emphasize ball pressure, willingly put itself in rotation, vary its defensive coverages, force tons of turnovers, attack the offensive glass or run like hell. But it was the first team to do all of these things at once, taking an extreme approach to the idea that styles make fights.
Does Nurse expect Tyrese Maxey to hold his ground against bigger players as well as VanVleet does? Will he ask Harden to study OG Anunoby's isolation defense or tell Tobias Harris he has to cover ground like Siakam? Unlikely! And he's not going to take Embiid, one of the game's premier rim protectors, away from the basket all the time, either. Ideally, though, the Sixers can get something out of Nurse's experience winning on the margins, without leaning all the way into chaos.
In recent NBA history, the easiest way for a new coach to put a stamp on a team was to get more conservative: Control the defensive glass, take care of the ball and play a professional, predictable and plodding style in which everyone on the court understands where he is supposed to be. The new way to capture low-hanging fruit, though, is to go wild: Speed up, take the opponent out of its comfort zone and find easy baskets however you can. Next year's Sixers don't need to be No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage, necessarily, but this year's were No. 25, way too low for a team that starts Embiid and PJ Tucker. They finished 24th in transition frequency, too, according to Cleaning The Glass, and were almost as bad when it came to transition defense. How those numbers change in 2023-24 will be more interesting than the win total.
It's impossible to predict exactly how Philadelphia will play under Nurse without knowing what will happen with Harden's free agency. If he re-signs, then the coaching change could be the biggest move the team makes in the offseason. If he doesn't, then Morey might have to shuffle several other rotation players around. Regardless of what the roster looks like, though, it's worth remembering that Nurse had a reputation as an offensive guru before he became the guy who used a box-and-1 in the Finals. The Raptors' identity shifted out of necessity -- Danny Green, and they only went all-in on interchangeable, centerless lineups, length and offensive rebounding in 2021-22, a season after the front office attempted to replace Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka with Aron Baynes and Alex Len.allowed them to improve on that end after losing Leonard and
The hyper-aggressive, positionless style seemed to wear thin in Toronto this season, but, on a team that desperately needed more shooting, there may not have been a better option. To describe Nurse as inflexible is to ignore the years of talent drain that forced him to play that way.
For one thing Nurse might be able to borrow from his 10 years in Toronto, let's rewind to the 2017-18 season, his last as Dwane Casey's lead assistant. Back then, the Raptors' second unit -- VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Siakam and Jakob Poeltl -- was far and away the best in the league: Of all lineups that played at least 300 minutes, only Philadelphia's starting five was better.
The Sixers likely won't bring two future All-Stars off their bench next season, but, if they're intentional about it, they might be able to build a second unit that has an identity of its own. That season in Toronto, the reserves took to the new, Nurse-designed offense even better than the starters did. When they checked in, opposing teams had to deal with a different look: more ball movement, more speed, more switching, more 3s, more aggressive defense. That is a good formula for Philadelphia when Embiid is on the bench, provided that it has the requisite athleticism and shooting on the roster.
In the 2022-23 regular season, Philadelphia was outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions in non-Embiid, non-garbage-time minutes, according to Cleaning The Glass. Scoring wasn't a problem, as long as Harden or Maxey was on the court, but the defense was disastrous. Fortunately for the Sixers, their new coach has spent a lot of time thinking about how to get stops without a 7-footer patrolling the paint.