New Raptors coach Nick Nurse chases perfection with Kawhi Leonard trade only raising the stakes
Toronto's new coach is aggressive, creative and not afraid to get weird as he leads the team into a new era
LAS VEGAS -- Eight days before the biggest, boldest blockbuster in Toronto Raptors franchise history, coach Nick Nurse ran a practice in a high school gym for a team almost entirely devoid of players who will step on an NBA floor next season. Nurse, promoted from assistant coach in mid-June, decided to coach the Raptors' summer league team himself because he "just wanted to get to work a little bit," he told CBS Sports. As if he did not have enough to worry about, with a staff to fill out and a season to plan for.
"I've had more leisurely Vegas summers than this," Nurse laughed. "I'm pretty much just getting up and working and going to bed. Almost every lunch and dinner is a meeting of some sort with somebody. But that's just the way it is. It's a lot, it's a big organization, it's a big job. There's a lot of people you need to talk to and get their ideas and formulate some plans. It'll slow down."
That will be a while. At the moment, Toronto is buzzing after Wednesday's acquisition of superstar Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green in exchange for franchise pillar DeMar DeRozan, up-and-coming center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick. This was already the biggest opportunity of Nurse's professional life, but it suddenly got a lot more interesting.
On the one hand, Nurse won't have to answer any more tiresome questions about how the Raptors will be different than they were with the same roster Dwane Casey had. On the other, there is even more work to do. Leonard, if healthy, will be the best player to ever play for the Raptors, but there is no guarantee he will be more than a one-year rental. Part of Nurse's job is to foster an environment that would be tough for Leonard to leave.
Our conversation at Del Sol High School took place before the trade shot Toronto up the league's hierarchy, but Nurse's perspective will remain the same. There is a lot to carry over from the Raptors' 59-win 2017-18 season, he said, but anyone who got the gig was going to have ideas about three or four Xs-and-Os tweaks on each end of the court. He is obviously not going to throw out the offensive system that he designed. For him, the challenge is finding "a collective path to peaking at the right time."
In order to be playoff-ready in a way Toronto has never been, Nurse will explore every avenue to figure out what this team can be. His mindset suggests he will do everything in his power to get this right.
"I always say we're chasing perfection in an imperfect game," Nurse said.
Nurse is heading into his first season as an NBA head coach, but he is no rookie. He will turn 52 next week, and in Las Vegas he looked back at his early summer league experiences, from coaching with Ron Adams, Don Newman and Mike Thibeault under Terry Stotts for the Milwaukee Bucks in Atlanta and Boston in 1999 to showing up at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach more than two decades ago. He spent his winters coaching in England at the time.
"I was thinking, 'I gotta re-enter somehow to the States,'" Nurse said. "I went to Long Beach with nothing. I got a hotel, 30 days, walked to the gym. First one to the gym every day. Just said, 'Hey, want me to pass out anything? Want me to do anything?'"
He thought he'd hit the jackpot when a coach didn't show up and he was given a team of free agents to coach. They went to "some middle school and started practice," Nurse said, and then he was informed that the original coach had returned and wanted his team back. Nurse got his own squad the next year. He remembers Tyronn Lue, now the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers but then a Los Angeles Lakers rookie, almost joining the team.
Every time the Raptors took the court in Vegas, a small army of polo-shirt-wearing coaches went with them. "I think it's 19," Nurse said. It is not unusual for a summer league team to have a large staff, composed of assistant coaches, video coordinators, development people and G League coaches. One man, however, stood out. His name is Fabulous Flournoy.
Flournoy, who turns 45 at the end of July, is the coach of the Newcastle Eagles in the British Basketball League. He has also played for the Eagles since 2001. The New York Times' Scott Cacciola profiled him last December. Nurse wanted Flournoy to join the summer league staff because he thought it would be a great learning opportunity.
The two met 23 years ago, at what Flournoy called a "rocky time" -- Flournoy's older brother had been shot and killed at a nightclub. At first, Flournoy didn't know whether he should stay in Lake Charles, where he had played college basketball for McNeese University, try to pursue a pro career or "go back to the streets of New York and avenge my brother's death," he said. Nurse invited him on a barnstorming tour of England, then promised to try to help him get on a team.
About a year later, Nurse called and announced he'd been hired as coach of the Birmingham Bullets. He asked if Flournoy was still interested in playing. Flournoy, who was working security at The Gap, couldn't believe it. This was all he needed to start what became an accomplished international career.
In 2017, Flournoy, an athlete who makes his own almond milk and toothpaste and, as part of a fruitarian diet, ate 30 to 40 bananas per day for about three months, according to the Times, was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He said he connects with Nurse because they are both always trying to push their personal boundaries.
"What I see in Nick as a person is someone who is striving to be a better person, to be a better coach, to be a better man," Flournoy said. "On all fronts. In his personal life, in his coaching life, in his career, with his friends. He's always striving to improve himself so he can help others. And that's the beauty of Nick. And that's what I can only talk about. Because that's what I see in him. I see how I want to be."
Anyone who has been on the Raptors' staff for the last five years is familiar with Nurse as more than a basketball coach. Every time they held a meeting in a hotel ballroom with a piano, he sat down and showed another side of himself.
"I'm not a very good piano player and the guys around here have heard my maybe-seven-song playlist a few times," Nurse said. "That might be generous, even. I do like to play some improv blues, which makes it seem like I'm not really playing anything. Which I'm not. But I love to play. I also play the guitar a little bit. Again, that's like a four-song playlist that goes over and over and a lot of that is Johnny Cash. Nobody really likes it when I play that."
Nurse would never call himself a renaissance man, but he is not your typical basketball lifer. He almost became an accountant before becoming a coach, and he still takes online courses about whatever interests him. He is obsessed with reading, and in England he devoured books about soccer and rugby. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told The Athletic's Eric Koreen that Nurse used visual cues stolen from college football to signal defensive schemes while coaching the Rockets' G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
"I think I'm always a little bit under construction," Nurse said. "I'm a project that I'm trying to improve upon. And the reading and the classes and some of that stuff are just interesting to me."
With the Vipers, Nurse burnished his reputation as a creative basketball mind. The team was essentially a lab for him to try stuff out, with Morey's full support. Everybody knew taking a high volume of 3s was good, but how far could you push that idea? Why not try substituting all five players at the same time every few minutes, hockey-style?
Nurse acknowledged that there is a parallel to Toronto's upcoming regular season in terms of experimentation. He is sure to clarify, though, that this will not be as extreme as it was in Rio Grande Valley.
"We were really out on the edges of not caring about what happened because it was such a cool idea," Nurse said. "And I think people are going to care what happens here. And, you know, they asked me that at the press conference, like, 'Well, you're supposed to be so innovative -- what are you going to do?'
"And I said, 'Well, you'll probably see some things I haven't tried before because I come up with them sometimes on the fly and I may just do it.' And they're like, 'Well, what are you going to do if they ain't working?' And I said, 'Well, I'm going to be here, standing in front of you guys, trying to explain it.' There will be a few of those. So, get ready."
Do not be surprised, then, if Nurse's Raptors try various starting lineups. Don't be surprised, either, if they dial up the pressure on defense, particularly with Leonard and Green in the fold. "I like to play aggressive, in general," Nurse said, and he does not want his players to have to learn entirely new concepts under postseason pressure.
"I just have found, in my experiences, we start doing a lot of things in the playoffs because there's more chances for adjustments, there's more things happening that are unexpected -- even though you're playing the same teams -- that you haven't really worked on enough," he said. "So, yeah, I would expect to test a few more things in the regular season just in case."
The Leonard trade raised the stakes higher than ever in Toronto. Can anyone be absolutely certain that Nurse will thrive guiding an NBA team with Finals aspirations? Maybe not, but the Raptors have given a deep, versatile roster to a coach who is not afraid to get weird and has spent his life preparing for this.
"He's not in it to let anyone down," Flournoy said. "He's not in it for the ride. He's going to leave his mark as best he possibly can."
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