The Toronto Raptors have almost two months to prepare for the NBA's return. Two months to get in shape, sharpen their skills and embark on a playoff run that lest we forget in a title defence.
With eight games remaining in the regular season, very little can be done to either win or lose an award. I've already written back at the All-Star break how Nick Nurse is the Coach of the Year this season, but the conversation has now changed. The award is still his to lose in my opinion, but heading into the Orlando bubble Nurse has the chance to prove why he's already among the NBA's coaching elite. If Nurse has been the best coach in the league this season, his coaching job in Orlando might earn him the title of best coach in the league full stop.
A label I believe he'll secure, regardless of whether the Raptors repeat as champions because Nick Nurse is the perfect coach for this unprecedented season.
The old cliche of 'play every play like it's your last' may hit a little different now. If this season has taught us anything it's that nothing is guaranteed and anything can happen. Nurse, a coach who's had to grind his way up the ranks, probably knows that more than anyone. Which is why, even on the brink of a championship a year ago as a rookie head coach, his message to anyone listening was simple: "There's still a lot of work to do."
It's that resolve when the pressure was the highest that helped Nurse secure his first NBA title. It's that same stay-in-the-moment attitude that has powered the Raptors this season and it's what might help Toronto make another deep playoff run in an unpredictable end to the 2020 season in Orlando. Without Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green and with the fifth most man-games lost to injury, Nurse had the Raptors on pace to eclipse their win total from a season ago. Nurse isn't the first bench boss to be able to get the best out of his team while it seems the world around them is in chaos. The world just watched Phil Jackson - one of Nurse's coaching heroes - navigate the Bulls to multiple championships with seemingly never-ending drama surrounding the team in the Netflix and ESPN series "The Last Dance." It's what made Jackson special, his ability to lead and block out the noise, something Nurse proved he could do a year ago.
After leading Toronto to its first championship with the cloud of Leonard's free agency constantly hovering over the team, Nurse proved he could get the best out of his unit under pressure. This season was no different with Leonard gone. He told Sportsnet's Michael Grange back in May that he felt there were some similarities between his Raptors and Jackson's Bulls after Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1994.
"We may not have one guy like Kawhi that can go and get you a bucket but I will say we have so many more weapons now - even though they're virtually the same guys - because they just had so many more reps and now they see more opportunities and they aren't deferring," Nurse told Grange. "They aren't saying 'I better get this back to Michael [Or Leonard]' they make their read and they go and make a play."
Jackson's Bulls, of course, finished with only two fewer regular-season wins than their championship season the prior year with MJ and came within a game of getting back to the Conference Finals for the sixth straight year. Everyone expected the Bulls to come back down to earth but were surprised when they pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Knicks to the brink of elimination in round two. It was Jackson's system and belief that he could get the best out of his roster that facilitated the better than forecasted year.
Nurse has done the same in 2019-20.
His belief in his system and ability to empower players has put the Raptors in a better position than most believed to defend their championship. Kyle Lowry was once again a force on both ends of the floor. Fred VanVleet has shown his Finals performance was no fluke. Serge Ibaka has been consistent regardless of whether he's started or come off the bench. Even the sparingly-used Chris Boucher has been encouraged to play his game - shoot when open and go all out defensively.
The Raptors have been able to do all that and stay within a system that promotes ball movement and player movement. In 2016-17, the Raptors ranked dead last in assists per game with 18.5. They've gradually gotten better year on year and this season they average 25.4 assists - which is just out the top five in the league according to NBA stats. No team has more transition possessions per game than the Raptors at 24.2 and at just 5.8 miscellaneous possessions per game, they don't waste possessions in the half-court.
In a playoff run that will need teams to come together quickly and get back to playing at a high level, Nurse's system is the perfect foundation for the Raptors. They won't need much time getting back into the rhythm, they'll be able to outrun teams that may not be in the best shape, and they don't waste possessions - something that may be key if we expect basketball to be sloppy upon its return. Add that to their stingy defence, which is second-best in the league according to NBA Stats, and Nurse can rely on the work that's already been done before we get into the bubble.
With so much unknown it's always a safe bet to trust what we do know and here's what we know about Nick Nurse: He's able to navigate tricky situations and come out on top, as proven in last season's championship run. He has a system in place that will get the best out of his players regardless of who's available, and lastly, he'll have bulletin board material to fuel the team's championship hunger through a lengthy playoff run.
Nick Nurse has the tools to get the best out of his team in Orlando and if he does, maybe just maybe he'll start getting the respect he deserves. Coach of the Year praise isn't enough when you're the league's best coach.
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