Why Nick Nurse soft launching his Raptors exit is unfair to the players

Nurse speculated about his future with the Raptors organization in a seemingly random, unprompted rant with his team in the thick of the playoff hunt.

It really seems like this is the end of the road for Nick Nurse and the Raptors. (Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It felt like Kevin Durant had one foot out the door during his final season with the Golden State Warriors in 2018-19. After repeatedly signing one-year contracts instead of anything long term, Durant's upcoming free agency became one of the biggest storylines in the NBA.

Reporters questioned the interpersonal dynamics on the team, especially after tensions boiled over onto the court when Durant and Draymond Green got into a shouting match one game and Green referenced Durant’s upcoming free agency becoming a locker room distraction. In fact, the Durant situation became such a big talking point that one of the Warriors beat reporters wrote a book about it.

The thing is, Durant didn’t even do anything wrong. Sure, he refused to sign beyond that season, but he didn’t play any less hard, disparage his teammates or coaches, or openly speculate about playing elsewhere. In fact, every time Durant was asked about his upcoming free agency, he tried to bring the conversation back to basketball. And he was ridiculed nonetheless.

That’s the reality of the modern NBA, where outside narratives can impact what happens on the court: If you allow your upcoming free agency to become a locker room distraction, you will be criticized for it — and it shouldn't matter if you are a player or a coach.

Nick Nurse knows that as well as anyone. The five-year head coach of the Toronto Raptors understands that the coach is the spokesperson for the organization, and that a huge part of their job is dealing with the media in order to keep the outside noise… outside.

That’s what made it particularly curious when Nurse not only allowed his upcoming free agency to become a talking point, but brought it upon himself without ever being asked. Despite still being under contract to fill next year, and with only six games remaining in what has been a tenuous regular season, Nurse openly speculated about his future with the organization in a seemingly random rant.

Like it or not, there will be consequences.

A little background

To give a brief synopsis of what has been going on with Nurse and the Raptors over the last few weeks, here it is: Steve Bulpett of reported on March 27 that former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka (who was suspended and subsequently let go for “violations of team policies”) would be of interest to the Raptors should they choose to let go of Nurse at season’s end.

The article referenced a Shams Sharania report in The Athletic back in late January that said, “Nick Nurse’s future as Raptors head coach is expected to come into focus this summer” after “there’s been frustration throughout the roster and staff with the team’s play at points of this season, and that has been directed toward Nurse at times too.”

On March 30, Doug Smith of the Toronto Star gave credence to those rumours by saying that conversations with people around the league have begun to focus on the Raptors coaching situation.

“You’ll hear that Nick Nurse may be out as the coach, you’ll hear that he’s destined for Houston, and then you’re going to hear that Ime Udoka is the front-runner to replace him in Toronto if they go outside the current staff, which seems likely,” he wrote.

It’s important to note that Nurse has ties to Houston from his days coaching their G League team between 2011-13, and that Udoka has ties to Masai Ujiri after being one of the final candidates for the Raptors head coaching gig back in 2018 and previously working with Basketball Without Borders.

On Friday, March 31, ahead of a game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Nurse took it upon himself to open up about his future. After being asked a general question about the Raptors up-and-down season by a reporter that had no idea about the rumours that were swirling, Nurse responded by saying:

"First of all, I think when this season gets done, we'll evaluate everything, and even personally, I'm going to take a few weeks to see where I'm at, you know? Like you said, where my head's at. And just see how the relationship with the organization is and everything. It's been 10 years for me now, which is a pretty good run. I don't know, over those 10 years we got to be up there in number of wins with anybody in the league. I don't even know where that is, but we've had a lot of big seasons.”

"And then, right now, my head is to make this as long of a season as possible. This team needs playoff experience. So that is where I'm at right now…”

When asked if that meant Nurse had considered his future being somewhere other than Toronto, he said, "No. I'm concentrated on this job, for sure, and this game, essentially. But I think 10 years is a good time to sit back and reflect a little bit. So I think we're going to do that all when the season ends."

Two days later, Nurse was asked a follow-up question about how he is going to make sure those comments don’t become a locker room distraction. He interjected and said that he had already gotten that question “about three games in a row” before opening up about it before the Sixers game, despite there being evidence that he had not. Weird.

What ever happened to lying?

Nurse’s comments on April 2 proved something that anybody who has been following the team has known about Nurse for a while: that he is very capable of twisting the truth when he sees fit. Nurse has done it repeatedly throughout his Raptors tenure when it comes to smaller things like not knowing the starting lineup one and a half hours before the games. Which begs the question: why not lie — or at least refuse to bring it up — when it came to the rumours about his future?

Nurse’s comments were peculiar to say the least, and we can break them down in any number of ways. Maybe his comments were a negotiating technique used to help him sign a lucrative extension instead of walking into the final year of his deal as a lame-duck — something coaches of his stature almost never do. But by essentially laying out his resume with “we got to be up there in number of wins with anybody in the league” and acknowledging that “10 years is a good time to sit back and reflect a bit,” Nurse opened up the possibility of not only leaving the Raptors at season’s end, but also created the optics of pitching himself to other teams.

Maybe the comments were a result of frustration after the relationship between Nurse and the Raptors front office and/or players was already fractured beyond repair. After all, Nurse went out of his way to say that he will “see how the relationship with the organization is and everything,” which is not something you typically hear from someone who has a consistent, healthy dialogue with their superiors.

But regardless of the reason — even if Nurse feels like he has been wronged by the organization in any way — there is no excuse for making these comments right now, with the Raptors in the heat of a play-in race and when every single game matters, focus is of utmost importance, and distractions are unwelcome.

Do Nurse’s comments insinuate that he is not fully bought in with the team on the stretch run of the season? No, I don’t think that would be fair to say. But they certainly don’t make things any easier for the guys responsible for actually taking the Raptors as far as possible in what has already been a trying season: the players.

How do the players feel about this?

Ultimately, the reason that Nurse’s comments are inappropriate is because of the position it puts the Raptors players in and what it appears to say about double-standards and power dynamics between players and coach.

After all, Pascal Siakam has already been asked about his coach’s future in a recent appearance on NBA Today, saying “that’s a question above my pay grade” as his big bright smile turned into a frown when asked about what he hopes will happen with the Raptors coaching situation next season.

All this comes on the heels of the Raptors most grinding season since before the championship, and certainly of the Nick Nurse era. In fact, the Raptors have been practicing almost every off day since the start of the new year — and as much as any team in the NBA — working diligently to dig themselves out of a hole. And Nurse has talked openly to the media about wanting more effort and professionalism out of his players at times this season, hence the increased workload.

For Nurse to ask that from his players and then talk about his own future in such an ill-timed and unprofessional manner might not sit well with some of the players, who are going to be left answering for Nurse as long as the season continues despite having enough problems of their own.

There is an idea that what Nurse did was fine because at least he was being honest. After all, as a media member, I appreciate honesty from the coach. But the coach doesn't work for the media — they work for the front office and, by extension, the players, because this is a players’ league and the stars will always matter more than the coach does. A good coach has the self-awareness to understand that and to know how much a comment like that can become a distraction in a locker room.

Nurse is a human. And it’s very possible he made a mistake in a moment of weakness by openly speculating about his future — it’s possible none of this was planned and that he regretted saying it the moment it came out of his mouth. But to then completely deny it, falsify past questions about it, and refuse to take any accountability about it when asked to follow-up the next game shows that Nurse doesn’t demand the same accountability from himself that he does from his players.

This isn’t about whether Nurse is a good coach or not. In fact, he has clearly shown to be a smart basketball mind with some of the most creative defensive schemes the modern NBA has seen. And lasting five years as a head coach with the same team is no small feat — you can never take away the championship he helped Toronto win. But coaching is more about managing interpersonal dynamics than ever, especially as younger players have more and more power in the league. And these comments are at the very least a blemish on Nurse’s record when it comes to his ability to read the room.

The relationship between the Raptors and Nurse didn’t have to end on a sour note. Unfortunately, in light of these comments, if it does in fact end this offseason, you can be assured it will not be sweet. When you sow seeds of dysfunction within an organization that prefers to act in quietly the shadows, that is what you get.