After a dismal 2-8 start, the Toronto Raptors suddenly find themselves in a position to grab a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference, and they have head coach Nick Nurse to thank for the stunning turnaround.
As fans of the Raptors know too well, The NBA is all about narratives. It always has been, and it always will be. This year, the narrative for Coach of the Year is centered around Utah Jazz bench boss Quin Snyder. Everyone knows the Jazz has been a buzzsaw this year. They have the best record in the league, not to mention the second-ranked defense and third-ranked offense.
Having said that, if the Raptors can pull off their completely under-the-radar season turnaround and somehow end up with home-court advantage in the playoffs, then Nick Nurse without question deserves the award for the second straight season.
Since the 2-8 start in which the Raptors looked like a team completely void of competitive spirit, they have the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference. Nurse is laying the foundation for some extra hardware this season
Why should Raptors coach Nick Nurse win COY?
What makes it even more impressive is the fact that they’ve done it without any major roster additions, but with internal adjustments and unwavering discipline. A lot of other teams would have packed it in after a start like that, but this team has shown that their heart displayed in the 2019 title run is still beating.
So how have they managed to pull the season out of the fire? Nurse’s unique schemes that are ever-changing and unpredictable, giving his team a strategic advantage in virtually every game. Look no further than the 2-game sweep of Milwaukee last week, when the Raptors completely confused and discombobulated both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
Through the first three weeks, they were a bottom-five defense. Today? They’re all the way up to 12th. Given that trajectory, it’s a good bet that by season’s end, they’ll be in the top 10 in defense, and Nurse has his fingerprints all over the turnaround.
He’s deploying different zone looks to accommodate for their small-ball lineup, often putting OG Anunoby at the top of the key to wreak havoc. The eye test shows that their overall energy has changed as well, as they’ve have gotten back to flying around the perimeter and attacking shooters with purpose when closing out.
This won’t ever be a great rebounding team given their small lineup, but for what they give up on the boards, they make up for by causing turnovers and getting steals.
A big reason why the defense has shored up considerably is Nurse’s decision to replace Terrence Davis’ minutes with the more reliable DeAndre Bembry. Bembry has been a huge plus for the Raptors. He plays incredibly hard on the defensive end and can cover multiple positions, not to mention he stays within himself and he doesn’t need his number called on the offensive end.
A ton of credit for the Raptors’ difference in play over the past five weeks has to be given to the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell. All three have elevated their respective games to borderline All-Star levels. Nurse impact can’t be understated though, and the way manages his roster is downright masterful.
He has a complete feel of the pulse of the roster; when to play certain role players over others depending on matchups, and sensing when to push different buttons depending on the night. On Friday in Minnesota, when the Raptors were gassed and couldn’t hit the side of a barn door in the second half. Nurse decided to go to the seldom-used Davis for a spark, and it paid off.
He made some key plays in the fourth quarter comeback including hitting the game-winning shot in the final minute.
Nurse’s lineup switch was some masterful coaching
Nurse going small has done is essentially two things. First, it’s completely unleashed Powell as a legitimate 20-point scorer, thanks to an increase in minutes and space to operate. Second, Aron Baynes is playing less minutes. It became clear fast that Baynes just isn’t a starting-caliber talent, and replacing Serge Ibaka by just sliding him into that spot wasn’t going to end well for Toronto.
Baynes play actually been somewhat salvaged by the move as well, he’s much more effective in a limited bench role, and seems to have restored some confidence in his game.
The fact that the Toronto Raptors are in the position they’re currently in is, frankly, astonishing. The story went from “will they get the number one pick?” to “will they make a conference finals run?” in only a month’s time.
The Raptors’ final record may not be good enough in the end to justify giving Nurse the COY award. After all, the first ten games can’t just be erased to their win/loss totals. Still what he’s done with this team is an amazing feat. If they continue their upward trend, from where they started, it would be one of Nurse’s greatest accomplishments yet.