When an era nears its end, there are a lot of obvious signs fans and pundits can point to while they prognosticate the complete collapse of a once imposing power. Injuries and age. Disgruntled superstars. Financially-conservative owners. There are a myriad of issues that could explain why how ironclad job security morphs into paper machete. But as the Toronto Raptors and their head coach Nick Nurse have shown us, sometimes there is an even simpler explanation. It’s just time.
Sure, the tangible results of the last couple seasons have been uninspiring and not in keeping with the organization’s high standards, but it is more than that. Nurse’s track record can survive a COVID-upended failure in 2021 and a mediocre 2022-23. No, there is just a vibe around this team and Nurse himself that portends a fresh start is needed for both parties.
The vibe effect has ended dynasties, so the one-time NBA Champion Nurse is firmly in jeopardy now that Toronto’s season is officially done. Sure, an 18-point collapse in the second half versus the Chicago Bulls in Wednesday’s NBA Play-In Tournament could very well be the last dirty dish of this potential divorce. But it speaks more to the negative aura that quickly displaced the one of pride and confidence that beamed brightly in the 6 following the franchise’s lone title in 2019.
That is starting to feel like a long time ago. And it shouldn’t. The core of that team is still largely intact with promising young forward Scottie Barnes coming aboard since then. It goes without saying that losing Kawhi Leonard was huge (have they built him a statue yet?, but the pieces are still there to compete at a high level. They just don’t seem to fit anymore.
This upcoming offseason was always going to be a pivotal one for the Raptors, but following their devastating 109-105 loss to the Bulls, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster are now forced to address all of their issues earlier than they hoped. Starting with Nurse. The tragic last nail in his coffin might have just been placed by a screaming nine-year-old girl.
The question now is should that be the case? This head coach has overseen the peak of the Raptors, but it just seems like the relationship has run its course. Let’s try to sort it all out.
Why Raptors must move on from Nick Nurse
This franchise is at a crossroads. The front office already put feelers out for Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby back in February, but the trade deadline passed without any movement. In fact, the Raptors played the role of buyers and acquired Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs. They will now reexamine their roster and future. But no matter what conclusions are drawn, it is obvious something needs to change before the team becomes fully entrenched in mediocrity.
After some doubt surrounding Siakam’s ability to ascend to the next level of stardom, he has established himself as a force in this league. The 29-year-old scored a career-high 24.2 points per game and led the NBA in minutes per game (37.4) for the second straight season. Anunoby remains a valuable commodity in this era of basketball with his combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. VanVleet regressed, shooting just 39 percent from the field and 34 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Though, he still remains a crucial leader. It may take many years to find a versatile core such as this one.
That means someone else would take the fall. Nick Nurse knows how quickly the tide can turn. That’s how he ascended to the head coaching position in the first place. Dwane Casey was fired in 2018 for not getting Toronto over the hump in the postseason. He was awkwardly named Coach of the Year a month-and-a-half later. Nurse, and obviously the addition of Leonard, did get the team to that elusive mountaintop. And he did his best to keep them there.
In 10 years total with the Raptors- first five as an assistant- he helped change the perception fans had of this snake-bitten franchise, won a ring, won Coach of the Year and developed multiple young, impactful players. Nurse has done an exemplary job. But even he has subtly indicated a change could be needed.
“I think when this season gets done, we’ll evaluate everything, and even personally I’m gonna take a few weeks to see where I’m at, where my head’s at, to see how the relationship with the organization is and everything,” Nurse said a couple weeks ago, via Sports Illustrated. “It’s been 10 years for me now. Which is a pretty good run.”
He reaffirmed his love for the Raptors following their exit from the NBA Play-In Tournament, but again, it sounds like there could be a decent burnout factor at play here. During his evaluation period, he may find that a new challenge could be very fulfilling in this next phase of his career. The Houston Rockets and their young group would offer a big challenge, but also an intriguing one. Especially if they emerge victorious in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Ujiri is aggressive and will want to repave the franchise’s path as quickly and efficiently as possible. A new voice in the locker room such as Ime Udoka could allow for a smooth transition if the organization plans to keep the roster intact. One of his leading responsibilities would be to unlock the potential of Scottie Barnes, something that unfortunately did not come to pass this past season.
All of these hypotheticals could come to fruition in the next couple weeks. Nurse deserves to hold a special place in this team’s history for all of time. He should not be the scapegoat. But the atmosphere needs new life.
It’s just time.
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