Report: Raptors promote assistant Nick Nurse to become new head coach

After serving as an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff since 2013, Nick Nurse (right) will reportedly become the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/tor" data-ylk="slk:Toronto Raptors">Toronto Raptors</a>’ new head coach. (Getty)
After serving as an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff since 2013, Nick Nurse (right) will reportedly become the Toronto Raptors’ new head coach. (Getty)

One month and one day after firing Dwane Casey, the Toronto Raptors have found his successor … and they didn’t have to look very far.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday morning that the Raptors will elevate Nick Nurse, a longtime assistant on Casey’s staff, to fill the vacant head coaching position. It will be the first crack at a top job at the NBA level for Nurse, but the 50-year-old has previously served as a head coach in the British Basketball League (where the former Northern Iowa guard briefly served as a player-coach) and in the D-League, earning Coach of the Year honors at both stops before moving up to the NBA ranks under Casey in Toronto. Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Nurse will receive a three-year deal worth nearly $10 million to take the Raptors’ reins.

Who is Nick Nurse?

Nurse has been regarded as a hot candidate to move to the head of an NBA bench for years. He has earned praise for the breadth of his experience in Europe, the D-League (where he won championships with the Iowa Energy and Rio Grande Valley Vipers) and at the Olympic level (he served as an assistant on the Great Britain national team during the 2012 London Games, running the defense for now-Pelicans assistant coach Chris Finch), and for his work as the ostensible offensive coordinator for a Raptors team that finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the last five years.

Nurse was widely credited for “the overhaul of Toronto’s offense this season,” which saw the Raptors shift from an isolation-heavy attack dominated by All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — at team president Masai Ujiri’s urging — into a more free-flowing and democratic system featuring increased ball and player movement. The Raptors made that change about as seamlessly as you could ask. They threw about 27 more passes per game as a team to rise from 27th among 30 NBA teams in that category in 2016-17 to 16th this past season, while going from sixth in the league in how often they went iso on offense to 22nd, according to NBA.com’s stat tracking … and they did it without skipping a beat offensively, finishing third in the league in points scored per possession behind only the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors and their Western Conference final quarries, the Houston Rockets.

Time for a change in Toronto

Fueled by that offensive overhaul, and by how Casey and his staff weaponized the youth and depth at their disposal to develop the NBA’s best bench, the Raptors stormed through the regular season, winning a franchise-record 59 games and locking up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. For the third straight year, though, things fell apart when Toronto met LeBron James in the playoffs.

The Raptors gagged away Game 1 of their second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers at home, setting the stage for a second consecutive four-game sweep that left Ujiri searching for new answers for a team that seemed to have stalled out on the precipice of taking the difficult step from competing to legitimately contending. That led, fairly or not, to the firing of Casey … and now, after a monthlong process that included interviews with San Antonio Spurs assistant coaches Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka, former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, former NBA guard and rising Euroleague coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, fellow Raptors assistant Rex Kalamian and Raptors 905 G-League coach Jerry Stackhouse — and one day after Casey agreed to become the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons — to Nurse’s promotion.

A great opportunity … and a great challenge

Viewed through one prism, Nurse could be stepping into the best situation of any first-year head coach. He inherits a team fresh off three straight 50-win seasons, led by two bona fide All-Stars and featuring a slew of intriguing young two-way pieces — forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, center Jakob Poeltl — who could provide the bridge to a new, still competitive version of the Raptors as DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka begin to cline. On the other hand, perhaps no new coach will be expected to immediately produce as much as Nurse will.

Ujiri fired Casey because, after five straight playoff appearances and the longest sustained run of success in franchise history, simply being good was not longer good enough for the Raptors. Nurse’s task will be to figure out how to make them great, right now, without giving back any of those hard-earned gains. It’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for ever since he first stepped on a sideline two decades ago. It’s also going to be one hell of a challenge.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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