Over the last couple of weeks, we've been grading each player on the Toronto Raptors based on how they've performed to this point of the season. So far, we have yet to give anyone an A+.
That is, until now.
Based on everything he's accomplished this season, it would be wrong to give Raptors head coach Nick Nurse anything other than a perfect grade. We've already written a lot about why he deserves to be the Coach of the Year - Carlan Gay said it was his award to lose around All-Star Weekend and we recently went back and forth with Micah Adams on why he's the clear front-runner - but in case you need a refresher on what he's done, let's start with the basics.
As you're probably well aware of, the Raptors lost not one, but two starters following last season's championship run in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They were still expected to make the playoffs this season - Caesar's Palace had Toronto finishing with the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference - but nobody saw the Raptors having the third-best record in the league through 64 games, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers in the standings, the two teams with the best odds to win the title.
It's even more impressive considering the Raptors have lost the fifth-most games in the league due to injury, let alone to key players at different points of the season. The only player on the roster who has appeared in every game is undrafted rookie Terence Davis. Just about everyone else, from Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam to Marc Gasol and Norman Powell, has missed extended time with injuries, which has forced Nurse to use 15 different starting lineups.
That's a staggering number considering the Raptors haven't made any changes to their roster since the offseason. The Raptors used more starting lineups last season (22), but they had to deal with Leonard being load managed and a mid-season trade for Gasol.
The one thing the Raptors have been able to hang their hat on regardless of who is available is defence. Even with players being in and out of the lineup, the Raptors have the second-best defensive rating in the league. According to NBA.com, they've been holding teams to an average 104.9 points per possession, a sizable improvement from last season (106.8) despite them no longer having two of the best perimeter defenders in the league in Leonard and Green.
Continuity helps - Lowry, Siakam, Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet each played a key role in Toronto's stifling defence last season - but Nurse set the tone before the season by calling out Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, two newcomers on the team, for not understanding how hard the Raptors play. While the Raptors still haven't gotten much out of Johnson, it lit a spark under Hollis-Jefferson, who has since become the most versatile defender in the league.
It's one of many examples of Nurse knowing how to push his players' buttons.
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Holding players accountable is part of the reason the Raptors have been able to build the defence they have. Nurse is also one of the best tacticians in the league. He's shown on multiple occasions that he isn't afraid to try new things, whether it's by playing a box-and-one to slow down one particular player, a zone to mess with a team's rythme or a full-court press to speed teams up, all of which are schemes you're more likely to see at the high school level than the professional level.
It hasn't always resulted in wins, but Nurse has proven to be the NBA's most adaptive and innovative coach in only his second season at the helm.
"The game has changed radically offensively in the last five years, and I just think that maybe it's the defense's turn to radically catch up," Nurse told James Herbert of CBS Sports this season. "And I think it's spreading really fast, as everything does in this league."
The Toronto Raptors full court press sparks a 30-point comeback win vs. Dallas, their largest in franchise history! #NBABreakdown@sixers & @Raptors face off tonight at 7pm/et on ESPN with each team seeking their 5th straight win! pic.twitter.com/yEVGmGRmX7- NBA (@NBA) January 22, 2020
The Raptors haven't been as dominant offensively - they've been just above league average on that end of the court - but that shouldn't come as a surprise given the amount of injuries they've dealt with, not to mention the loss of Leonard, who we voted as the best player in the NBA following last season's championship run.
Plus, it's telling that multiple players are having career years, such as Siakam, Powell and Ibaka. That speaks to Toronto's development system, not just Nurse's coaching, but he continues to put his players in positions to succeed while also getting the most out of them.
Ultimately, this was a no-brainer. Nurse has been steering the ship of the most surprising team in the league this season and, as Eric Koreen of The Athletic pointed out, he's the rare coach who can show some of his work. Raptors president Masai Ujiri said recently that he hasn't had a discussion with Nurse yet about a contract extension, but with the way he's coached the team this season, it's safe to assume that he has a big payday on the horizon.
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