While Kawhi Leonard may have received all of the headlines after helping the Toronto Raptors capture their first NBA Championship, the Raptors received key contributions from role players like breakthrough forward Pascal Siakam, veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, and sharpshooter Danny Green. However, one of the forgotten pieces of the Raptors title run was head coach Nick Nurse.
Nurse is now an NBA Champion head coach. His journey to the top was far from straightforward. After playing college basketball at Northern Iowa, where he still holds the school record for three point percentage, Nurse decided to travel to England to pursue a career as both a coach and a player. Straight out of college, the native Iowan travelled across the pond to become a player-coach for the Derby Rams of the British Basketball League.
Nurse quickly found out that while he may not be able to play at the professional level, he had a natural talent for coaching. Returning to the states, Nurse was hired as the head coach of Grand View University, becoming the youngest college basketball head coach at the time at just 23 years of age. After short stints at Grand View and the University of South Dakota, Nurse returned to the UK, winning two British Basketball League championships and winning the league’s Coach of the Year Award twice, all while changing teams three times.
After Nurse’s success in Europe, the perfect opportunity arose for him back home. Des Moines had just received an expansion D-league team, the Iowa Energy, and Nurse was hired as the organization’s first head coach. Just like in his previous ventures, Nurse immediately found success, leading the team to division titles in two of their first three seasons. After a job at Iowa State University fell through, Nurse returned to the Energy, where he earned the league’s Coach of the Year Award by leading his team over the hump to their first D-league championship.
Now a hot commodity after his success with the Energy, Nurse was hired by the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, one of the Energy’s main rivals in the D-league. Nurse wasted no time with his new organization, leading the Vipers to the league’s best record and a D-league title in just his second season with the team.
Finally, after achieving almost immediate success everywhere he went, Nurse was finally noticed by the NBA. Hired by the Raptors in 2013, Nurse was tasked with running the offense under head coach Dwane Casey. Nurse quickly rose from the newcomer position to Casey’s number two as his tactics of quicker passing and more three point shots were major factors for the team’s success, as they reached the postseason in five consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Unfortunately, for all the team’s regular season success, Casey couldn’t lead the team to postseason triumph. Even after leading the Raptors to a franchise record 59 wins two season ago, Casey was fired after the Raptors were swept in the second round of the playoffs.
After an extensive coaching search, the Raptors finally realized that the best candidate for the open head coach position was right in front of them all along. In June of last year, Toronto promoted Nick Nurse to head coach, and the organization helped their coach out by trading for former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in July.
In his first season as head coach, Nurse used his unconventional past to deal with every situation the Raptors dealt with throughout the year. Looking back at what had allowed him achieve success in Europe and the D-league, Nurse used defensive strategies that were unheard of in the NBA to throw his opponents off guard. In addition, Nurse’s past championships runs allowed him to successfully prepare his team for the postseason, something Casey could never get quite right.
In the end, Nurse led the Raptors to their first title in franchise history, but Leonard was given all of the credit for the team’s success. Now, after Leonard’s offseason departure to Los Angeles, the Raptors have seemingly been thrown back into NBA obscurity. Projected win totals for next year show the team fighting for one of the final spots in the playoffs, returning to mediocrity just a year removed from winning a title.
However, throughout his more than 25 years of coaching, Nurse’s teams have never been anything less than championship contenders. Even with a revolving door of players at two different D-league teams, Nurse’s squad always found themselves deep in the postseason. Even while coaching three different British Basketball League teams over six years, Nurse was still able to pocket two league championships.
With a solid core of veterans in Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, and a collection of young talents led by the still-improving Pascal Siakam, the Raptors shouldn’t be counted out of a shallow Eastern Conference. With Nurse at the helm, I expect the Raptors to be battling with the Celtics and Pacers for home court advantage in March and April, with Nurse in the midst of the Coach of the Year discussion after leading his team way above preseason expectations.
And, when the postseason comes, never count Nick Nurse’s team out.