Despite over-achieving this season, Nick Nurse is ready for Raptors to go further

Early Monday afternoon Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri were scheduled to sit down for a face-to-face post-mortem on the season that was, and to kick into gear a plan for the year to come.

After the platitudes, there is plenty to talk about.

The Raptors’ over-achieving bounce back from the Tampa Tank is already fading in the rearview.

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve its proper respect: Going from missing the playoffs and picking No. 4 overall in 2020-21 to a 48-win season and fifth seed in the East, culminating in a disappointing but understandable six-game, first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, is nothing to scoff at.

But Nurse is not a patient coach. The goal a year from now is to be competing into late May, if not June, and a lot of things have to go right for it to happen.

Working in the Raptors’ favour is that Nurse believes he’s on the same page as the team’s executive and they share a similar view that getting back to championship contention is a short-term, rather than long-term goal.

Nurse dismissed a report from early April that the Los Angeles Lakers (whose stars are represented by the same agency that represents him) would be trying to lure him west to sort out their problems – “I don’t know where that stuff comes from,” Nurse said.

But he emphasized that returning to the NBA’s elite is a priority for 2022-23.

“I’m not that great at planning in the future,” said Nurse as part of a wide-ranging, 45-minute media availability at the Raptors practice facility Monday morning. “Like, if you’re trying to time it out when you think we have another shot to win [a championship], well, I’m ready. I’m ready to get back in the hunt today.

“I coach to win.”

In that sense, Nurse believes he’s in a good place, at least for the moment. Next season will mark his 10th with the franchise and his fifth as head coach. Only five coaches have been with their teams longer. He’s got two more years left on a deal believed to pay him $8 million a season. Chances are what happens over the next year or so will go a long way towards Nurse becoming for the Raptors what Eric Spoelstra – who is hunting his third title in season 13 – is for the Miami Heat: less a coach and more a cultural cornerstone.

But first things first: each side will be looking for progress this coming season.

“I think that I’ve always said this: Masai and I have a great relationship, I think mostly because we want to win championships,” said Nurse. “I mean, it’s about trying to figure out how to win at all.

“That’s, that’s what I sense [Ujiri’s] trying to do every day and that’s what I’m trying to do every day. And that’s really important, I think that goes a long way in terms of synergy, for me.

“And he has conversations with me about my coaching and I have conversations with him about the roster … and we’re going to make some moves to go forward. Like, how can we coach better, how can we play or develop better and how can we get the roster better? How can we get better and get to where we want to go? It was a great season, but you know first-round exit is not what we want to do.”

So, about that roster.

If you were watching all season, you may have noticed a few things about how the Raptors played and what they struggled with. Chances are, they’re not all that different than what Nurse was trying to manoeuvre his way around: working with a roster that had talent, but was a puzzle with a lot of odd-shaped parts as well.

As a team, they didn’t shoot very well (27th in True Shooting percentage), lacked a lob threat (the Raptors were 19th in dunks as a team and didn’t have a player in the top forty for dunks individually), got almost no production from anyone outside of their top-seven players and were last in bench scoring.

“I said this early in the year, you can’t go into a season with eight or nine guys anymore, you can’t. There’s Covid that knocks a bunch of guys out and ever-prevalent injuries seem to be way more frequent than I can remember,” said Nurse. “… So whatever reason that is it means your ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th guys better be able to go out there and play and not just look like it once and while, they’ve gotta be players. So that would be my first thing, we’ve gotta get some depth to keep up with the times.

“[Also] we could probably use some catch-and-shoot. I’m still after some more wing players, some more athletic wing players so we can continue to come at you in the style of play we want to come at you with.”

And lob threat?

“That would help too. I think that probably lifts a little bit of pressure for guys like Fred [VanVleet] and Gary [Trent Jr.], OG [Anunoby], those guys that could get more open corner looks because of the pressure being put on the rim on the weak side.”

But Nurse remains sold on the Raptors’ style of play where they crashed the boards, stormed the passing lanes and sent a second defender to the ball at almost every opportunity.

The plan was to earn more possessions than the other team (they took more shots than their opponents in 69 games) as a way to paper over the fact the Raptors’ half-court offence wasn’t particularly good – per Toronto was 26th in that area.

But Nurse is hoping that his club can maintain the advantage they gained by winning the possession battle, but still be a more effective club offensively. He would love more depth, more shooting and a lob threat, but he wants more rangy wing players too, or at least he wants the ones he has to be able to fill in more of the existing gaps.

He’s still all-in on ‘vision 6-foot-9’.

“What I would say is I really like the length and all that stuff,” said Nurse. “What I would say is we need to get those guys more versatile. We need bigger guys that can guard smaller guys and bigger guys or schemes that can guard bigger guys when there’s an extreme at either end.”

Does he see the Raptors competing deeper into the playoffs, sooner than later?

It’s the ultimate question and could well have an impact on Nurse’s long-term future with the Raptors. The 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year has built a reputation such that his services will be in demand among teams trying to make leaps in the coming years – from up-and-coming to good, or from good to great.

Fortunately, there is reason to believe – and for Nurse to believe, most importantly – that those same steps can be made in Toronto with his own 48-win club, even without major off-season surgery, though doubtless some tweaks and trims would be welcome.

There is potential at hand.

Nurse mentioned the benefits that might flow from Anunoby being less injured – the big forward has played 43 and 48 games due to a range of random injuries and hasn’t played 70 games since his rookie season – as one l lift the existing roster could provide: “We were better with him out there, for sure.”

He also mentioned the need to keep VanVleet fresher throughout the course of the season. The All-Star guard tied for the lead in minutes per game at 37.9 but saw his True Shooting percentage fall from 57.2 before the All-Star break to 47.9 afterwards. VanVleet struggled in the playoffs and finally had to be shut down with a strained hip flexor suffered in the first half of game four. Levelling out VanVleet’s production would help, so would the potential for growth through experience and off-season development from Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes and second-year big man Precious Achiuwa.

“That’s four pretty critical things with four really good players that I think have a really big impact, said Nurse. “There’s probably more in there, too, but that’s a pretty good start.”

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