The following is part of the Raptors Republic articles reviewing seasons for the Toronto Raptors. YYou can find all the pieces in the series here.
Coaching could be the ultimate black box in the NBA. It’s easy to see the input – the coach’s name is right there in the interviews with the players! — and it’s easy to see the output, at least insofar as we see how many games a team wins and how far they get in the playoffs. But everything that happens in the middle is basically invisible, as far as the average fan (and even the acknowledged reporter) can tell. Sure, we can (and seem to love) to criticize or praise rotations, which is basically the extent of the average fan’s understanding of the role of a coach. Perhaps we can identify a team’s offensive structure, or even the plays played on inbounds. Some teams, but not all, have unique philosophies designed to exploit market inefficiencies across the league. Even if you can understand all this, it’s just the bare role of a coach in the NBA. It’s ridiculous trying to judge a coaching session without seeing the practice sessions, without knowing who is calling the games, without knowing the relationships, and seeing all the threads of the web that bind NBA teams together. Trainers are crucial but invisible.
Shout out understanding of the tip of the iceberg. And despite it all, Nick Nurse has been fantastic in 2021-22. Probably.
The Toronto Raptors had a series of tremendous mistakes early in the season that would likely break almost any team’s back. They had some of the worst shooting in the league, from the top to the bottom of the roster. They were undeniably the two or three worst driver teams in the league. And they haven’t had a single traditional center capable of drop defense and defending both the roller and ball handler without giving up a problem elsewhere on the court. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors’ Brain Trust didn’t address any of these issues all season, and their drop defense problem arguably worsened when Khem Birch’s knees refused to heal.
As a result, Nick Nurse was forced to solve each night’s equivalent of Ocarina of Time’s Shadow Temple defended by some of the best athletes in the world. With all the above caveats that certainly apply, he arguably did as skillful a job as any coach could possibly have. Nurse identified unique, unexpected solutions that had little priority in the NBA, and he applied them with relative flexibility, allowing the team to build alongside the approach to overcome the weaknesses.
The shootout never opened the way for Toronto’s long-limbed wings, but Fred VanVleet cheered it on 12th most three-pointers per game in NBA history, surpassed only in attempts per game by James Harden, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Buddy Hield. (Incidentally, Harden has never matched VanVleet’s combination of frequency and accuracy in his 2021-22 career.) Similarly, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent jr. fired off a boatload of triples, and the three players averaged more than half of all triple attempts in Toronto. Other relative non-shooters, perhaps best represented by Thad Young, were empowered to start three-pointers from the corner. Distance didn’t become a strength, but the Raptors crawled to the league version of “hey, it’s a livelihood.”
Toronto’s rim pressure was disastrous throughout the season, leading Nick Nurse to reverse engineer his team by the mid-2010s, giving players like Pascal Siakam and Trent the freedom to shoot away from long middle. It didn’t exactly blast the doors, but it did allow Toronto to find something other than banging their heads against a closed door over and over again in half-court. For all the shots they missed by allowing their stars to fire pull-up midrangers and their non-shooters to throw triples over the break, the Raptors relished it second highest offensive rebound rate in the league. They were the team-wide embodiment of the Kobe assist, turning misses into offensive advantages by playing long, sharp, athletic wings in every position.
In fact, Toronto could only win 48 games because VanVleet was above ground in the first half of the season and Siakam was even better in the second. Judging by talent and roster build alone, 48 wins wasn’t a reasonable expectation. Aside from just giving them the ball, the Raptors did very little to make the game easier for their stars, but these talents still found incredible success. How much of that belongs on the coach’s shoulders? My short answer is I have no idea. My long answer is that I have absolutely no fucking idea. I shouldn’t even try to judge an impossibility – the arrogance! – but the incessant maw of content demands constant worship. So: Toronto has done better than it should have, and certainly VanVleet and Siakam deserve praise (and All-Star and All-NBA berths as a result), but it definitely can’t hurt our take on Nurse.
On the defensive side, Toronto managed to overcome their lack of the most important singles role on the court by playing a hypermodern combination of shifting, flashing, rotating and snarling defense style. Who needs a rim guard when it’s defended in committee, often with guards mopping from below? And who needs a big one to defend two players at once when a team is pre-rotating, intentionally pulling in a defender from the corner, and want his players regain extraordinary distances? Because they played such a wild defense, they forced it highest turnover rate in the league.
Another result was that Toronto gave up many more at-rim attempts than they should have 13th most on a per 100 ownership basis. And they underperformed, just 22nd in the league, at forcing errors. Worse, Toronto gave up the highest percentage of corner kicks in the NBA. And this is a team with several elite single defenders in VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa. Toronto finished with that 10th best defense in the league.. Is that better than it should have been given weaknesses around the perimeter and corners – the two most efficient points on the pitch during live play? Or is it worse than it should have been given Toronto’s incredible cast of defensive talent? Hard to say, but the Raptors necessary Crossover points like a mouse needs cheese: both are important and life-giving to be sure, but sometimes finding fastbreak buckets (or cheese) leads to some ugly deaths that really don’t need to happen. Toronto ended slightly below average offensively and slightly above defensively. Realistically, it should have been a lot better defensively and a lot worse offensively, but the team made a conscious decision to sacrifice defensive solidity in order to launch a transitional offensive. And, hey, again: with 48 wins, you can’t argue.
That’s the ultimate praise for Nurse, and it doesn’t require analysis of opacity to understand it. The Raptors have won more games than they should. Playing a unique and groundbreaking style, attacking the offensive glass and forcing turnovers on the defensive, they saw themselves capitalizing on philosophical weaknesses league-wide.
There were certainly some hiccups with the overall look. The rotation was leaner than Chris Boucher’s and arguably resulted in some of the stars – namely VanVleet – being less healthy than they should have been in playoff time. It’s easy to point out that he leads the league in minutes per game (level with Siakam) and never finds his health. That’s not necessarily an accurate description of causality – again, it’s impossible for us to know what’s actually happening without access to team doctors and a hefty dose of truth serum caused Injury – but it would make sense if Nurse’s rotations led to VanVleet’s poor playoff performance. Malachi Flynn never had a chance to improve, mostly because he’s a pick-and-roll point guard on a team that doesn’t seem to want any of those coming off the bench. Yuta Watanabe never had a leash to stretch his legs and help through growing pains. OG Anunoby may be unhappy with his role in Toronto’s read-and-react offensive, fueling all sorts of trade speculation this offseason.
At the same time, there were more frequent and more effective successes. Precious Achiuwa from being virtually unplayable on offense to one of the most influential and productive players on the team. As in so many other areas, the credit there goes almost entirely to Achiuwa himself, but Nurse stuck with him and at least gave him game time to get over the quirks. Achiuwa’s growth into a potential future star is worth more than all of their failures combined. More importantly, Siakam has grown into one of the best players in the NBA. Scottie Barnes could have the brightest future of the bunch.
And yet we still have no idea how much of that is thanks to Nurse. Possibly none of that. And sure, we might not be able to analyze the opacity of an NBA coach’s job, but it would be a bloody fluke if Nurse did Nothing to do with. Surely the players themselves are most responsible for the team’s play and the development of their games. Nevertheless, the team with Nurse at the helm is making further steps forward. That counts. The players are improving more than you’d expect, and the team just keeps winning more games than it should (apart from the Tampa Bay season). That’s the output, and even if you don’t understand what happened inside the black box, you can still tell the plane had a pretty seamless flight. Probably Nurse 2021-22 did an incredible job. And this interpretation of his performance is just the tip of the iceberg.