If you're going to change from a coach who just led you to 59 wins and is a favorite to win Coach of the Year in the NBA, then conventional logic would dictate that you should probably veer in a different direction altogether. That's what it looked like the Raptors might be doing when they followed their dismissal of head coach Dwane Casey with interviews for Euro coaching legend Ettore Messina and Euro playing legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to fill Casey's spot.
Instead, it was one of the first coaching interviewees who got the Raptors job - Toronto assistant coach Nick Nurse, who made a name for himself with his uptempo style as a coach in Britain and his willingness to take the concept of an offense based solely on 3-pointers and dunks to the limit in what was then known as the D-League.
The Nurse hire figures to have significant bearing on two major components of the Toronto organization. On the floor, that component is center Jonas Valanciunas, who was quick to pick up on the fact that Nurse's vision of the future of the NBA was something he needed to embrace. If Valanciunas wants to remain relevant in the NBA going forward, he will have to become a better 3-point shooter.
He certainly tried last season, much of which was spent working with Nurse on his perimeter shot. Nurse and Valanciunas would launch 100 3-pointers after every practice. Valanciunas had attempted just four 3-point attempts before last season. But as the Raptors went into a revamp of their offense - one that Nurse helped spearhead, with the approval of Casey - getting Valanciunas to spread his range and find some comfort zones beyond the arc became a priority. He shot 74 3-pointers, and made 30 of them, for 40.5 percent.
There are two ways to look at the hiring of Nurse from the perspective of a Valanciunas supporter. First would be that he does not fit the small-ball, 3-point-heavy direction toward which Nurse will surely take the offense. That's already gotten renewed trade talk bubbling around Valanciunas.
But sources with knowledge of the situation say that's not likely, that Valaniunas and Nurse will go nicely together. Valanciunas and Nurse had a good working relationship, and there is a sense that Valanciunas will only be encouraged to develop more confidence in his perimeter game, in an effort to space the floor and create passing and driving lanes for guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
If you're expecting the Nurse hire to be the forerunner of a major Raptors trade, especially one involving Valanciunas, know that it's unlikely.
The second component of the Nurse hiring that will be under special scrutiny in the aftermath of this decision will be president Masai Ujiri. Give Ujiri credit, over the years, for not coming into the Toronto organization and clumsily wielding a machete. When he arrived, the thought was that he would fire Casey and trade Kyle Lowry - which he nearly did, except that the Knicks pulled out.
In the end, Ujiri kept Casey on despite not having hired him. And Casey rewarded him by continually improving the team until its breakthrough (in the regular season, at least) this year. But now Ujiri is sticking his neck out, dumping Casey without making a splashy new coaching move. Nurse has had a fascinating coaching career to this point, but the reality is, he's just another NBA second-seater until he proves he is up to the job.
Ujiri's job is not in jeopardy, of course, but the move from Casey to Nurse indicates that he is feeling pressure for change, that somehow the Raptors need to figure out how to win the playoffs, even it's just promoting one of the assistants. It would have all made more sense if Toronto had gone with a completely outside-the-box selection as coach, but Nurse has always been an innovative thinker.
He'll have to innovate to get the most out of his center, a player whose limitations - to this point, at least - have made him less useful in the modern game. And he'll have to innovate to keep his boss, Ujiri, away from the hot seat in the near future.
It wasn't the expected hire. But if everything goes right for Toronto and Nurse, it could benefit Valanciunas and Ujiri, two guys who need to shine for this franchise to move forward.
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