One year ago, the Canadian senior men’s basketball team played host to the Dominican Republic to kick off the summer window of their FIBA Basketball World Cup Americas Qualifiers.
The game took place in front of a sold out crowd in Hamilton, Ont., where Canada’s star player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, went for 32 points in his hometown. It was the start of a dominant 11-1 qualifying campaign, where Canada finished with the No. 1 seed in the Americas and qualified for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
It was also the first time the Canadian team looked like true contenders on the international stage. Gilgeous-Alexander organized the team, creating and finishing advantages alongside his cousin and backcourt partner, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Meanwhile, the frontcourt pairing of veterans Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell played together seamlessly, covering up for each other's weaknesses and accentuating each other's strengths.
There was depth along the wings, with Phil and Thomas Scrubb, Kassius Robertson, and Kyle Alexander all filling up the box score. And Jamal Murray, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, and more were waiting in the wings for their opportunity to join the team next summer.
After the game, head coach Nick Nurse was asked about his responsibility coaching the Canadian national team. He said:
“I did not grow up here but I'm coming up on 10 years, right?”
“Yeah, he’s Canadian. He’s Canadian,” Gilgeous-Alexander interjected with a laugh.
“Listen, I've been here a long time now. Certainly consider it home. And I'm very honoured to coach this team. It means a lot to me,” Nurse said, adding that he often jokes that his two sons are future members of the national team. “I got my wheels and my brain turning a lot about how to get this program better… and set our sights on some really high goals.”
Oh, how the times have changed.
Nurse was fired from his day job as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors in April following a disappointing 41-41 season, where they finished ninth in the East and failed to get out of the Play-in Tournament. Despite assurances from both Nurse and Canada Basketball that he would remain committed to his role as the head coach of the Canadian senior men’s team throughout 2024, it was announced last week that Nurse would actually be stepping down from his role with Canada Basketball.
Jordi Fernandez, the associate head coach of the Sacramento Kings, will replace him as head coach, effective immediately.
So, what does it all mean for Canada Basketball? Given that the program went all-in on continuity during this three-year window, asking NBA players to commit three straight summers to the national team if they wanted to guarantee themselves a spot on the Paris 2024 roster, it’s certainly not a good look that the continuity on the coaching staff just went out the door.
But let's break down what it really means for Nurse, Fernandez, the core players, and a Canada Basketball organization that has been trying to build respectability for years.
Nick Nurse’s accountability is out the door
In the end, Nurse was on the bench for 19 games with the Canadian team, dating back to the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He finished with a 12-7 record as head coach.
Nurse played a big part in the program’s requirement to have players commit to a three-year window. He believed in the need for continuity and chemistry to win at the highest levels of the international level, where team play is of the utmost importance.
Nurse’s rigidness in his rules led him to come to a head with Mississauga, Ont., native Dillon Brooks at one point after Brooks was an unexcused absence from a training camp in Toronto last summer, per sources. It was Nurse’s rule that if one of the summer core NBA players missed a training camp responsibility, their spot on the roster would open up for a potential roster battle.
(Brooks told me last winter that “If my contract comes first, then I'll be playing for sure [at the 2023 FIBA World Cup], repping for my country.” He signed a 4-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets in the opening days of free agency.)
However, it was also Nurse — alongside Canadian senior men’s team Executive Vice President and General Manager Rowan Barrett — who wrangled commitments from star players like Gilgeous-Alexander, Murray, and Barrett. Nurse is a big name in the NBA community with a lot of respect after leading Canada’s lone franchise to its first and only NBA championship in 2019. He also had a ton of coaching experience at the NBA and FIBA levels. So there was a certain cachet that Nurse carried with him as a coach, even if he wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with.
For what it’s worth, Nurse was “gutted” to have to step down from the Canada job, per sources, but the combination of getting a new job in the pressure-filled market of Philadelphia — a team with a number of questions heading into next season — along with his understanding of how much time would have to be dedicated to each program, meant he had to drop out.
Nurse helped Canada Basketball identify Fernandez as a replacement.
Re: Nick Nurse stepping down from Team Canada, I'm hearing this is not necessarily something Nurse wanted, but he has been a big help in the process.
Canada Bball is happy to have landed Jordi Fernandez on short notice. People in the program had prior relationships with him...
— Oren Weisfeld (@OrenWeisfeld) June 27, 2023
Jordi Fernandez and the unanswered questions
As Nurse’s time with Toronto was beginning to wind down, Barrett began planning ahead just in case of emergency. Barrett didn’t know if Nurse would take a new job right away or take a year off from coaching in the NBA, so he had to prepare for any option that could impact the Canadian senior men’s team.
“I think from that moment, we started kind of looking to see what was potentially around the world in terms of the candidate to help support our work,” Barrett said over the phone this week. “... And then at the point that Nurse made clear that he would have to step down, at that point, we had already kind of gone through a number of candidates and kind of knew where we wanted to go. And so, within days, we were able to pull the trigger and hire our new head coach.”
Canadian basketball fans will likely be familiar with Fernandez since he was interviewed by the Raptors to fill Nurse’s vacant spot as the team’s head coach this summer, although he was reportedly not a finalist for the job. However, Fernandez has a ton of coaching experience at the NBA and FIBA levels, just not as a head coach. He also had existing relationships with people inside Canada Basketball, including with some of Canada’s best players like Murray and Trey Lyles.
“He's great with players,” Barrett said when asked of one thing that he kept hearing about Fernandez during the hiring process. “...He's been steeped in the NBA now for a number of years, working with some of the best players in the world and, you know, you're getting positive feedback.”
Fernandez has been an assistant coach in the NBA since 2016, first with Murray and the Denver Nuggets and more recently as Mike Brown’s right-hand man with the Sacramento Kings, who just finished with a 48-34 record, their best regular season since 2004-05.
More importantly for Barrett and Canada Basketball, Fernandez’s coaching upbringing is in international basketball. He started working with youth clubs in Spain at just 15 years old before becoming an assistant coach with the Spanish national program youth teams in 2013, and then an assistant coach with the Spanish senior men’s team between 2017 and 2019, when they won the FIBA World Cup. He was also an assistant coach with Team Nigeria at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
“He's steeped in FIBA, right? As he grew up, he’s Spanish, he understands this game very, very well — the FIBA game,” Barrett added about what made Fernandez the right fit for Canada Basketball at this time. “He's gonna understand the officiating, he's going to understand the other teams, the systems they've learned, he's going to understand those countries, those nations.
"He's going to have probably some understanding of some of the coaches and how do you beat them, and definitely some recency with coaching with Nigeria. You know, tremendous recency in terms of his time in FIBA.”
However, Fernandez has his work cut out for him with the Canadian team. The announcement that he was hired came just 59 days ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where Canada has the publicly stated goal of finishing top-two from the Americas in order to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics without the need of a last-chance qualifying tournament. He also was hired just one month ahead of training camp, which will begin on July 31 or Aug. 1 in Toronto, per sources.
Assistant coaches Nathaniel Mitchell and Nurse’s longtime right-hand man Nate Bjorgren will remain on the bench to coach alongside Fernandez. Michael Meeks, a former player and longtime coach with Canada Basketball, will no longer be on the staff.
The most interesting aspect of the first few months of Fernandez’s tenure will be to learn just how rigid he is with commitment rules compared to Nurse. Will Fernandez also declare that if a player misses a window that their spot will be up for grabs? Or will he take a more laid back approach for players who miss a window, relying on talent over continuity?
Barrett said the commitment requirements have not changed, but when it comes to a guy like Andrew Wiggins, who told me last winter that he “would love to play” in the Paris 2024 Olympics but could not commit to a three-year window, there could be a big decision looming for Fernandez and Barrett.
Also, how will the players respond to Fernandez’s hiring? While all indications are the same core group of NBA players are still committed this summer despite the coaching change, they do have more of an excuse to drop out, if they are looking for one. On a more optimistic note, there could theoretically be impactful players like Chris Boucher and Lyles who are more excited about joining the Canadian team now that Nurse is out and Fernandez is in. Only time will tell.
Not saying this will happen, but NBA players now have a built in excuse to drop out of their 3-year commitment. After all, it seems like the coach who recruited them and asked for this big commitment just dropped out himself. Not a good look for anyone involved!
— Oren Weisfeld (@OrenWeisfeld) June 27, 2023
What it all means for Canada Basketball
People inside Canada Basketball acknowledge this is not a great look for an organization that has been trying desperately to gain respect in the world of international basketball and within Canada. They will be the first to say they wanted Nurse to coach the team heading into this summer’s World Cup.
“Obviously, it's not ideal,” Barrett said. “The last thing you think you're gonna be doing a month and a half before training camp starts is installing a new coach, you know, obviously since we've been kind of building towards this. But things happen, and you have to adapt and you have to be ready... [we] felt really good [about Fernandez] and we made our choice.”
As far as pivoting on the fly goes, Fernandez seems to be a very good replacement. He is an assistant coach on the brink of bursting through the NBA’s glass ceiling, which comes with the pro of having a bit more time on his hands than an NBA head coach might. However, it also comes with a very real risk of him getting a head coaching job next summer — he already interviewed for several this summer — which could leave Canada Basketball reeling if he leaves them in a similar situation that Nurse did. Fernandez is signed through the Paris 2024 Games.
But one thing Team Canada will not get back is the critical time they spent together working through Nurse’s system and tactics last summer, when the entire core got together for two separate training camps and four games to build up chemistry and to get to know their coach and his system. Sure, it’s nice that the players were in the gym together working out and getting to know each other, but in hindsight, they wasted some precious time working on a different coach’s system than the one they will be running this summer.
Plus, Nurse had several years to get to know his players’ skill sets, including their strengths and weaknesses. Fernandez will essentially be starting from scratch with a critical tournament coming up less than two months from now.
Canada Basketball is set to announce an extended training camp roster during GLOBL JAM, which runs from July 12-16 in Toronto. That roster will include whoever is healthy from the summer core of NBA players as well as some key winter core players and potentially even a couple of new faces like Bennedict Mathurin or Andrew Nembhard. The plan is to then take a large group to Europe for their series of five exhibition games against top competition, slowly whittling down their list to just 12 players in time for the start of the World Cup on Aug. 25th in Jakarta, Indonesia.