Is Nick Nurse the right coach to lead a potential Raptors rebuild?

With tough decisions on the horizon for Toronto on stars like Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby, the future of head coach Nick Nurse is anything but certain.

Would Nick Nurse want to be part of a Raptors rebuild? (Getty)
Would Nick Nurse want to be part of a Raptors rebuild? (Getty)

On Monday, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s contract is set to expire after next season, meaning talks about his future with the team will heat up this summer.

Generally speaking, it’s bad faith for an organization to have a “lame duck” head coach on the final year of his contract without an extension in place — something Nurse surely won’t want to be.

According to Charania, Nurse initially signed a contract extension with the Raptors in September 2020 through the 2023-24 season worth $8 million per year, and will likely be looking for a raise as he’s widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA.

A big decision on Nurse is on the horizon for the Raptors this summer, with the central question being whether or not the organization feels he's even worth keeping.

Though their trade deadline direction doesn’t look to be decided yet, when you consider the fact the team still finds itself mired in 12th place in the East with a 23-29 record following Monday night’s 114-106 loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix Suns team, it looks like this is a club that’s leaning towards taking a few steps back and looking to rebuild.

If that is indeed the case, then keeping Nurse around for a rebuild doesn’t make much sense — as his history with the Raptors and beyond will tell you.

Nurse has been a winner at just about every spot he’s been as a head coach. He won championships in the British Basketball League, NBA D-League (now called the G League) titles, and has found similar success in the NBA as the Raptors’ head coach — leading Toronto to the 2019 championship.

A constant during Nurse’s entire coaching career has been the fact he’s always prioritized winning and finding ways to win, and that includes those so-called "meaningless" regular-season games.

It’s a great mindset to have if you’re looking to keep your job in a business as volatile as coaching can be, but not if the team you’re coaching is on the cusp of rebuilding as the Raptors appear to be.

For as good a coach as Nurse is, he simply might not be the right guy for where Toronto could be heading, and the proof is in what we’ve witnessed of him as a head coach over the last four-and-a-half seasons.

From his first season at the helm, when the Raptors won the championship, Nurse has had Toronto play with a defence-first mindset. Simply put, if you aren’t going to buy into Nurse’s defensive scheme and go all-out on that end of the floor, then you’re probably going to be called out for it and will likely not see many minutes.

This approach works just fine for a veteran-laden team like the Raptors boasted when Nurse first took the reins with the likes of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol leading youngsters like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, talking them through tougher times.

In a rebuilding situation, where the future of the team looks to be 21-year-old and 23-year-old Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa and likely even younger players acquired through the draft, mistakes are going to happen — especially on the defensive end. And though it won’t lead to much winning, the head coach will need to allow these young guys to play through these mistakes as it’s the only way they’re going to learn.

Will Nurse’s coaching manifesto allow that to happen?

Even if players like Siakam and VanVleet do stick around for a potential Raptors rebuild and are there to offer sage advice to young players, chances are they’ll still be playing a lot of minutes anyway, which presents another issue with Nurse as head coach of a rebuilding situation.

The amount of minutes the Raptors starters play under Nurse have been well documented. It’s a continual point of pain for many a Raptors fan who have seen this team break down physically at the end of a season one too many times now.

As frustrating as it might be to watch at times, though, Nurse plays his key guys big minutes because it gives the Raptors the best shot at winning.

It’s a rationale that’s tough to argue against, unless winning ball games isn't the primary focus of a season. If development is more important, as it would be in a rebuild, then there’s really no reason to play VanVleet 40 minutes over, hypothetically, a rookie like Scoot Henderson or Nick Smith, who likely decreases your chances of winning the game over a veteran, but would need to get reps for the future fortunes of the franchise.

Nurse has done great things as head coach of the Raptors, obviously, but his greatest strengths might ultimately hold him back from being a part of their future.

Yes, as an assistant with Toronto he did an outstanding job developing the young players of the once-vaunted bench mob of Siakam, VanVleet, Powell and Delon Wright. However, his focus as a head coach has appeared to vastly differ from that of an assistant, for good reason.

If the Raptors do decide to opt for a rebuilding path, as painful as it may be to do, mutually parting ways with Nurse might be the best course of action.

Though it’s rare, there is the option of trading Nurse. You’re allowed to trade coaches for draft picks, something that would be a major win for Toronto even if it were to be just a couple of second-rounders.

With the Feb. 9 trade deadline creeping nearer, we all knew tough decisions were on the horizon for the Raptors. The one they’ll have to make with Nurse is no different.

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