In hindsight, we probably should have seen the tension amongst the Toronto Raptors coaching staff coming.
Following head coach Nick Nurse’s firing late last week, Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported that there was a lack of cohesion between the Raptors 13-person coaching staff — which included nine assistants and four player development coaches. “Had Nurse stayed on, there would likely have been sweeping changes,” Grange wrote. “The fact that issues were common knowledge meant management was surely aware.”
A couple days later, on April 23, the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith reported that Nurse and assistant coach Earl Watson — who joined the Raptors in July of 2021 after spending parts of three seasons as a head coach for the Phoenix Suns — “were never going to pal around or hang out away from the arena or practice facility… it was another layer that grew thicker as the season went on.”
Smith went on to say that, “There were people outside the organization — all with agendas, so things had to be taken with a grain of salt — who were promoting Watson (33-85 record as a head coach in Phoenix) as a mid-season replacement for Nurse.”
It is even possible that Watson could be the same coach that Nurse sent home after an altercation early in the New Year, when Nurse allegedly told an assistant coach “not to accompany the team on an upcoming road trip, without the prior knowledge or permission of [team president Masai] Ujiri,” according to TSN’s Josh Lewenberg. “The assistant missed one game and Ujiri later smoothed things over, but the relationship between the coaches was described as “tense” for the duration of the season.”
With all this stuff coming to the surface about Nurse mismanaging his coaching staff, Ujiri’s most interesting and under-discussed comment during his 45 minute end-of-season press conference now stands in a new light.
“On the overall, maybe manage people better and maybe see things a little bit deeper,” Ujiri said when asked what he could do better going forward. “Because when we hire people I let them do their jobs. That’s been a strength of ours the last 10 years here, but I pay attention now a little bit more.”
What could Ujiri be alluding to when he suggests that he has to manage people more closely? And what does it mean going forward as the Raptors search for a new head coach?
In hindsight, now that we know one of the factors that led to Nurse’s dismissal was his inability to manage a healthy, communicative coaching staff, we probably should have seen Nurse’s decision to re-hire assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren in late 2021 as a “consultant” as a red flag. The two Iowa natives started coaching together in 2007, but Bjorkgren was let go from the Indiana Pacers after just one season at the helm, and his tenure there brought some of his worst characteristics to light.
In a scathing report released by Yahoo Sports' Jake Fischer, then with Bleacher Report, shortly before Bjorkgren’s dismissal from the Pacers, Fischer reported that Bjorkgren was difficult to work with, “stubborn,” and lacked the desire to build relationships with players, but that he was "meticulous in his presentation" to team executives and owners. Allegedly, T.J. Warren, who played under Bjorkgren when he was an assistant in Phoenix (more on that later), requested a trade upon learning of Bjorkgren's hire, while one Pacers assistant coach grew agitated with him and another left the job altogether.
"He was really hard on his [coaching] staff," added another NBA source who overlapped with Bjorkgren in the G League. "He expected a lot from them without giving a lot of ownership or trust back.” While a league executive said, “He doesn't mind embarrassing his coaches."
In hindsight, the most interesting points are the ones Fischer made about Bjorkgren’s time in Phoenix, when he was an assistant coach under, you guessed it, Earl Watson. It was reported that “he operated in an often clandestine fashion… and sought ways for himself to channel daily communication from players and other coaches to Watson.”
"He would get in early and kind of orchestrate the path for himself," said a Western Conference assistant general manager. That behaviour seems to have continued in Toronto, where Bjorkgren allegedly acted like a “politician's chief of staff, at times preventing other coaches and Toronto's players from holding conversations with Nurse that did not go through Bjorkgren first.”
That was all during Bjorkren's first stop in Toronto between 2018 and 2020, and it’s possible that he learned from his mistakes and changed his ways his second time around as a “consultant.” But even as a consultant, Bjorkgren was the first coach to get Nurse’s ear after almost every Raptors timeout, and it was obvious he had big responsibilities on that staff.
None of this is to portray Bjorkgren as the scapegoat regarding the Raptors coaching staff’s tension. But it became clear by the end that there was tension, and that Ujiri wasn’t happy with how everyone in the organization was doing their jobs. Sure, Ujiri could be referring to the equipment managers, but as we await a “mass exodus” from the coaching staff, according to the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith, and hear Ujiri say that “We are making big changes” when asked directly about the assistant coaches, you can make an educated guess as to which parts of the staff he plans on managing more closely in the future.
League sources say Raptors have been quietly interviewing possible assistant coaches this week, expecting a mass exodus from the staff
Nate Bjorkgren likely gone, Adrian Griffin up for other jobs, futures of Trevor Gleeson, Earl Watson TBD
— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) April 21, 2023
So, how does all this affect the Raptors coaching search going forward? It’s clear Ujiri wants someone with good character, energy, and spirit who can get the most out of his non-traditional roster. But it’s also likely that he is planning on managing the new coaching staff a little bit more closely than he has in the past, with no head coach walking into the job and having all-out autonomy when it comes to roster decisions or, perhaps, even the assistant coaches they get to work with or other luxuries some head coaches take for granted.
Many Raptors fans have accepted the premise that coaches like Nurse and Ime Udoka would prefer to coach a team like the Houston Rockets over the Raptors because it's a better situation — ie. because they have more cap space and draft picks, and therefore are in a better position to succeed long-term. But given the way Ujiri talked openly about his desire to “manage people better,” it could be that these coaches desire power and autonomy and were promised more of that in Houston than what was being offered in Toronto.
"This is more attractive than a lot of the mid-level teams that kind of have that 'five-seed ceiling',” Udoka said during his introductory press conference with the Houston Rockets who, it should be noted, have been the laughing stock of the league over the past two years. “Some teams that do reach out, I'd rather start with a young core group."
Here's the clip of Ime Udoka talking about why he signed with Houston over other offers.
"This is more attractive than a lot of the mid-level teams that kind of have that 'five-seed ceiling', some teams that do reach out, I'd rather start with a young core group." https://t.co/BojWBTBFMq pic.twitter.com/RRynYbTz9I
— Adam Laskaris (@adam_la2karis) April 26, 2023
There are obvious pros and cons of having the front office more involved in managing a coaching staff. But a new head coach will have to compromise with Ujiri, and vice versa.
That need to work a little more closely could make it more likely that someone with an existing relationship with Ujiri could land the job, including any of the three former Raptors 905 head coaches who have gone on to do better things, including Patrick Mutombo in Phoenix, Jama Mahlalela in Golden State, and Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt.
The reality is that the Raptors are still viewed as a top-class organization from people inside and around the NBA, and that despite lacking cap space or extra first-round picks going forward, their organization, market, city, and core group of players is going to be considered very attractive by any number of potential head coaches.
The question is: will those coaching candidates be willing to work closely with Ujiri and the Raptors front office instead of demanding full autonomy? Because that is likely not going to be promised in Toronto anytime soon.