A lot has changed since the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Championship in 2019. For starters, the Raptors aren’t even playing in Toronto this season. The team is currently stuck south of the border in Tampa Bay, Florida, where even “home” games currently feel like time on the road. When Sharp caught up with head coach Nick Nurse late last year, just days before the start of training camp and the NBA pre-season, he still had no idea what the coming weeks had in store for his team. “It’s really up in the air,” he confessed, shortly before Tampa was chosen. “I’m waiting hour by hour for some kind of resolution. But we all want to be right there in Toronto.”
It wasn’t meant to be. And since kicking off the season stateside, the Raptors are experiencing something they haven’t done much of under Nurse’s tenure: they’re losing. The team is currently 1-6, the second-worst record not only in the conference, but in the league. Having lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to free agency in the off-season, Nurse has been struggling to keep his plucky championship crew together with their usual confidence and brio. And as they head to California to take on Golden State this weekend, it’s only going to get more difficult from here.
Amidst the confusion, we caught up with Nick Nurse, just off being named the NBA’s 2020 Coach of the Year, to discuss the season, last year’s struggles, and his new memoir, Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How To Find a Way To Win — Damn Near Anywhere.
In your book you talk about how little control you have over a draft. Where do you stand mentally before it happens? Nervous? Excited?
I’m mostly excited. There’s a twinge of nervousness. I got the job right before the draft two years ago now — two and a bit. It was June. And I was just super impressed with the whole thing. I got into that room and it was awesome: you could feel the knowledge. I’ve gotten a lot more involved and I’ve seen the potential [pick’s] workouts, videotapes, and things like that. I’m always excited to see what happens when we get in there. It’s very fast paced.
You talk a lot about the importance of developing the players you already have. Is that more important than drafting stars?
Sometimes you have to work with what you have. Sometimes you get a free agent and sometimes you don’t, right? Sometimes you get an already made all-star, and a lot of times you’ve got to make one yourself. At some point you get a team. That’s my job: take the team we’re given and make it the most it can be, no matter what. We were the first team in the history of the NBA to win the championship without a lottery pick. [Commissioner] Adam Silver said it when he gave us the trophy: [we’re] the first team from outside the United States and the first team without a lottery pick.
Is that a testament to your own coaching philosophy? Or does it just depend?
No, I think it’s everybody saying: “Look at the Bulls, how did they win? Look at Golden State, how did they win?” Well, [Golden State] had Steph, Klay, Draymond, and KD. The pieces usually form the championship puzzle, right? But listen, they drafted Steph and Klay and Draymond. They were super high-round draft picks because that team wasn’t very good for a lot of years, like in Philly with “The Process”. It has to be a combination of draft picks and player development.
You really emphasize player development as an ongoing thing, even for all-stars. Does that apply for you as a coach? Are you still improving?
For sure. [I’ll] relate a story to you about a famous musician: Pablo Casals. He was a great cello player. He practiced three hours a day, every day, all the way up until he was 97 years old. One of his friends said to him: “You’re one of the greatest cello players in the world. You’re one of the world’s greatest musicians. Why do you still practice three hours a day?” And he said: “Because I’m starting to see some improvement.”
I love that.
Right? For me, it’s the same approach. I’m watching game film. I’m reading about other sports, other coaches, other leadership styles, sports psychology, mindfulness. Whatever it is that can make me a better coach each and every day.
When you’re at the top of your field, how do you prevent yourself from resting on your laurels?
I don’t ever feel that I am at the top. I just try to treat each season like a new season. That was one of the surprising things about last season. It didn’t feel like we were carrying around this huge weight of being the champions. It didn’t feel that way at all. We hardly talked about it. We hardly revisited it. Mostly, we were trying to take the current team and max it out. We enjoyed playing the game and competing like crazy, and we were just trying to see how far we could take that group. Your goal is to win.
Did you think could win that season?
We thought we could win it. Maybe if the ball would’ve bounced a little differently, we would have again. It was close. We played really good basketball.
How much of a factor were “the Bubble” variables?
Listen, things were different there. A couple of our players didn’t quite play like their normal selves. But there’s no excuse there. The teams that did advance were worthy. Boston was worthy. Miami was worthy. I think maybe us, Milwaukee, and the Clippers went out a little earlier than expected. But the teams that advanced were worthy of advancing, so that’s about all I have to say about that.
There was a lot of criticism and animosity directed towards Pascal Siakam over the loss to Boston. Why do you think that happened?
People get emotional about the results of the games. Probably too emotional. That’s okay. That’s why our fans are so passionate and that’s why they’re so great. Some of that criticism is unfair, but that’s the world we live in. There are times I make mistakes and take heat in the media too. But I just say: “Hey, we get paid a lot of money to do this.” It’s certainly not that I don’t believe in Pascal. He didn’t play as well as he could have, and he’d be the first one to admit it. But hopefully it’s going to fuel him. I think it is fuelling him. Before the pandemic he was playing awesome.
You had some guys play well off the bench a few times in the Bubble, but I remember a press conference after one of the games when you just said: “Look, the team wasn’t trying hard to beat us and the game didn’t matter at all.”
[Laughs] I remember that. It probably wasn’t very nice. But everyone was getting a little carried away.
How much can a deep bench bring to the team, really?
Usually, the depth of the bench will help you get through an injury-plagued season. Like last year, we really missed a lot of games. I think we were third-most in the league, but we continued to click off the [wins]. Overall, it gives you confidence that you can be versatile. Play big, play small. Play all shooters, play all defenders. You can try a lot more with a deep bench.
Do you ever miss the freedom you had coaching in a smaller league, where the stakes were lower?
Nah, not really. It’s funny. The stakes didn’t feel lower to me then. Winning the next game meant the world to me. But it’s all about whether you’re able to handle it if the experiment goes awful in front of everybody, and whether you can handle the heat. Part of the job is handling the heat.
You have coaching aphorisms, like “Expect To Win.” What’s the value of these kinds of catchphrases?
I don’t really talk in that way often. You’re not going to hear me say “expect to win” a million times over the course of a season. It’s more for the day before the season starts. One of the big ones I had was “April, May, June.” That came from a team that was successful but underperformed in the playoffs. Is it a catchy phrase? Not really. It just put the reality of the organization right out in front. We knew this was the objective: we had to play better in the playoffs. It was all about what happens between April and June.
Who surprised you the most in the Bubble?
I would probably say Denver did. They came back twice from being down 3-1. I think Utah had a three-pointer go in and out, rattle-rattle, in game seven. They surprised me. I’m not all that surprised by Miami because they’ve got a really good roster and a really good coach, and they hit a path at the right time.
Say you beat Boston. Could you have beat Miami?
I thought that we probably could have beaten them. We could have won any series. Our team was good enough. We were one of maybe five or six teams that could have won it all this year. We didn’t quite get it done in Boston, but if we could have, yeah, I like the match-up with Miami. I like the match-up with the Lakers, for that matter. We spanked the Lakers twice in the regular season! [Laughs]
I think the amazing thing about the Raptors was that it didn’t seem like you were missing a star player. How did you fill the gap left by Kawhi?
The number of chances and opportunities that Kawhi had opened up [allowed] Pascal to take a step forward and be a go-to player. They opened up for Kyle, Fred, Norman, and Serge — a number of guys filled in. What happened was that a lot more of them took more opportunities. They took opportunities where before they would have maybe stopped and deferred to Kawhi. That’s who we became. It was a mindset where everyone was less deferential.