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Nick Nurse and the Art of the Head-Coaching Save

Last summer, the Raptors replaced Coach of the Year winner Dwane Casey with Casey’s assistant. Now they’re in the Finals. Nurse is on the precipice of finishing what another coach started, and he’s not the first guy to do it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is what the Raptors always wanted but could never pull off. Between 2013-14 and last season, Toronto went 263-147. That’s a win percentage of 64 percent. It was by far the organization’s most successful five-year stretch. It was also the most disappointing. Over the same period, the Raptors lost in the first round twice, the semifinals twice, and the conference finals once. A lot of that had to do with LeBron James, who exiled them to the offseason in three consecutive years without compunction. That led to Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s making difficult decisions last summer when he traded one of the most popular players the franchise has ever had and fired a coach who won 59 games and went on to win Coach of the Year. Those were bold and risky moves, and they worked out well for Toronto. Kawhi Leonard has been a killer the entire postseason, and Nick Nurse has graduated from an assistant under Dwane Casey to a Coach of the Year candidate in his own right.

I recently spent a lot of time wrestling with how difficult it is to evaluate coaches, particularly in the playoffs, but Nurse has clearly done a terrific job. Aside from Leonard, none of the Raptors have been particularly consistent. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam have been the best and most useful of Leonard’s sidekicks, but they’ve also disappeared at various points this postseason when Kawhi and the Raptors really could have used some help. The same criticisms about untimely vanishing acts could be applied to Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. As Nurse noted after they won the Eastern Conference finals, his starting lineup of Lowry, Siakam, Leonard, Gasol, and Danny Green entered the playoffs without much of a feel for each other. According to, they logged just 161 regular-season minutes together over 14 games. The bench presented further complications. Fred VanVleet has made 14 of his past 17 3s, but before that he was something south of dreadful and still has the worst playoff plus-minus of any of the Raptors regulars. Meanwhile, Norman Powell alternated between hot and cold, which prompted Nurse to radically adjust his playoff time from series to series. Powell went from just shy of 20 minutes per game against the Magic, to barely 11 mpg against the Sixers, to more than 22 mpg against the Bucks.

Nurse and the Raptors navigated those potential potholes well, and now they’re just four wins away from holding a parade north of the wall for the first time. That’s not all Nurse’s doing, of course—Kawhi gets to claim as much of the credit as he likes and then we can divvy up what’s left among everyone else—but it’s hard to argue with the results he’s presided over. Toronto is one of the last two teams still playing meaningful professional men’s basketball and has a shot to slay the champs. The line in Vegas has moved toward the Warriors since it opened, but FiveThirtyEight, incredibly, has the Raptors as the favorite. I’m done trying to divine the future in the predictive model tea leaves, but no matter what happens next this has been a wild success by any measure for Nurse and the Raptors.

As a general rule, I’m dubious about making coaching changes as a way to boost a franchise’s fortunes, but it seems to have worked for Toronto. Casey ate up a lot of innings for them over the years—and then when the Raptors needed a fresh arm and energy in the worst way, Nurse came running out of the bullpen for the save opportunity.

Around this time a year ago, I was at the airport in Cleveland trying to catch a late flight out of town. The Warriors had completed a sweep of the Cavaliers in the Finals the night before, and a lot of people were scrambling to hop a plane to somewhere else. Dwane Casey was among them. I looked over at one point and saw him standing outside Starbucks with a prominent NBA reporter. A couple of random fans recognized him, stopped and asked to take a picture. Judging by body language, it seemed like the fans were doing the “we’re rooting for you” bit; both guys gave Casey one of those reassuring shoulder pats. This was less than a month after the Raptors had fired Casey, but before he won Coach of the Year and signed on with the Pistons.

I think about that moment a lot—Casey’s being consoled by strangers in an airport after losing his job and watching some other team win it all. I wonder how he felt about that, and how he feels now watching his old assistant accomplish something he tried and failed so many times to achieve. Casey isn’t alone there. He has company when it comes to unrequited love and exes who move on to become better versions of themselves.

David Blatt started the 2015-16 season 30-11 before the Cavaliers tossed him overboard and let Ty Lue steer the chip in Cleveland. The Cavaliers went on to win the only title in franchise history and ended a championship drought across all sports in Cleveland that lasted more than five decades. The Warriors won 51 games in 2013-14—the most victories they’d managed in 20 years—and then fired Mark Jackson. The next year, Golden State won its first championship in a run that included three titles in four seasons (and counting) with Steve Kerr as head coach. That has to sting when Jackson calls Warriors games as a color commentator—and even when he doesn’t.

In 2007-08, Avery Johnson won 51 games as head coach of the Mavericks. But Dallas also lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season. Johnson was replaced with Rick Carlisle, who beat the Heat three years later to win the Mavericks’ only NBA championship. Carlisle also knows what it’s like to be on the outside of an organization’s window with his nose pressed against the glass, looking longingly inside at what might have been. Before he won it all with Dallas, he won 50 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals with the Pistons in 2002-03. Detroit got swept by the Nets. The next season, Larry Brown took over and the Pistons won the title, besting the heavily favored Lakers to become the only team in recent memory to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy without a top-tier superstar. Gregg Popovich took over for Bob Hill midway through the 1996-97 campaign. Two years later, the Spurs won the first of five championships under Pop. And perhaps most famously, Doug Collins got canned in Chicago after the 1988-89 season just as the best player on his team was becoming maybe the best player ever. Phil Jackson went on to win six championships with Michael Jordan and the Bulls—and then five more later on with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers when he succeeded poor Del Harris.

Each of those situations was unique. I think we can all agree that Jackson is pretty safely a better coach than Collins or Harris, but he also had an uncanny knack for inserting himself into the exact right situation at the exact right time. (Minus his naked cash grab with the Knicks.) Pop is one of the greatest coaches of all time and built a sustained culture that many franchises across the league have tried to emulate but few, if any, have managed to replicate. Larry Brown is a Hall of Famer, but I also saw his finger-wagging, father-knows-best routine wear thin and fail in Philly with Allen Iverson before he ultimately succeeded in Detroit. Kerr has proved to be an excellent coach and, especially, a manager of outsize personalities—two things Mark Jackson wasn’t. The best attribute Lue had going for him might have been that LeBron didn’t have to see Blatt on the bench anymore. As for Nurse, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Kawhi replace DeMar DeRozan or to upgrade Jonas Valanciunas with Gasol. Still, the Raptors offensive and defensive ratings this season were almost identical to last season. I’m not sure there’s a common theme here beyond change. Sometimes a team gets to the precipice and it just needs a different voice to convince the players to jump.

It’s a fickle business. Nurse knows that better than most. Prior to his five seasons as an assistant under Casey, he held a lot of what might be considered fringe jobs. He coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Iowa Energy in the then-D-League. Before that, he coached the London Towers, Manchester Giants, and Birmingham Bulls of the British Basketball League. Did you know there’s a British Basketball League? I’ve been to England a bunch and I’m not sure the British know there’s a British Basketball League. He also had stops as coach of Telindus Oostende in Belgium and Grand View University in Iowa. And way back in 1990-91 he was the player-coach of the Derby Storm, then known as the Derby Rams, in the BBL.

In advance of that fateful Game 7 against the Sixers in the second round, Nurse was asked about his travels and what it meant to be part of such a massive moment in the best and biggest league in the world. He replied that coaching the Manchester Giants against the Birmingham Bullets for the BBL championship back in 2000 “meant a lot to me in that moment” and he couldn’t imagine Game 7 versus the Sixers meaning any more. Which, come on. That’s ridiculous. Though, in fairness to him, the Manchester Giants Wikipedia page points out that the team won two titles under Nurse, which was the most successful period in franchise history. Hard to argue.

All of that probably helps put things in perspective for Nurse. Even if he was overselling how important his BBL experience was to him, Nurse seems to be enjoying where his unconventional coaching career has led him. At the very least he appears at ease during what ought to be a pretty stressful time. He was photographed sauntering off the team plane in Milwaukee with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a pair of Beats headphones. He’s been on the receiving end of multiple on-court back rubs from Drake. His famous “oh” face became a meme and one of the most memorable moments of the postseason. And perhaps my favorite of all, he’s been wearing—and has also addressed wearing—what has become his signature hat: an all-black cap with his initials “nn” stitched in lowercase on the front. It’s an incredible flex.

Before Game 7 against the Sixers, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, bless him, asked the question the rest of us were dying to pose when he said to Nurse: “What’s the deal with the hat?” Nurse played along. He laughed and explained that earlier in the season he was wearing a TravisMathew hat with a similar color scheme and design until a Nike rep told him he should wear his own gear and had the “nn” hat custom made for Nurse. “It’s all black,” Nurse said. “I can wear it with anything. Fits real good.” He added “there are four total” in existence but declined to say who has the other three. I assume Drake got at least one as payment for the back rubs.

It’s hard to imagine things going much better for Nurse. Along with Mike Budenholzer, whom he just beat to advance to the Finals, Nurse is considered one of the favorites to win Coach of the Year. And a recent report revealed that he’ll be the new coach of Team Canada. It wasn’t that long ago that he was winning titles in the BBL; now he has a real chance to win one in the NBA. No wonder he’s enjoying himself. He should. One day down the line he’ll have his own airport moment when some rando wishes him well after the inevitable breakup. It happens to every coach eventually. But that’s for later. Right now he’s in a healthy relationship, and he and the Raptors are living their best lives.