Is the Raptors’ Nick Nurse a Lock to Win NBA Coach of the Year?

Nick Nurse might be the understated catalyst behind the Toronto Raptors’ first championship in history. Sure, Kawhi Leonard might have been the leader of the franchise during his season up north, but Nurse was also a welcome addition following the controversial firing of the reigning coach of the year, Dwane Casey. This year, Nurse might be doing an even better job than he did last year, and that should scare the league. 

Nick Nurse’s rise in the coaching ranks

It would be hard to find a basketball league that Nick Nurse hasn’t been involved in. According to SportsNet, he put his sharpshooting abilities to use during four seasons playing for the University of Northern Iowa. He became an assistant coach with the team during his fifth year of college. Then, he became a player-coach for the Derby Rams of the British Basketball League.

He got his first college head coaching job at Grand View University at just 23 years old. After taking another assistant job at the University of South Dakota, he returned to the British Basketball League, where he won two championships across the league. He traveled Europe for several years and even coached in the United States Basketball League. 

By 2007, Nurse got a taste of the NBA in the form of the D-League. He was named head coach of the Iowa Energy, where he coached for three years before yet another return to college at Iowa State as an assistant before returning to the D-League yet again. He remained there until 2012 when he finally got a call-up with the Toronto Raptors. 

With the Raptors, Nurse climbed the ranks of Casey’s staff and helped create their offensive schemes that stressed 3-point shooting and passing. When the Raptors fired Casey, Nurse was the ideal candidate to take over. 

Nurse delivers an NBA championship for Toronto

The Kawhi Leonard experiment in Toronto went about as well as a single-year experience with a superstar player can go. It wasn’t an instance of a forgettable pit stop for a superstar, but the brief rise of a juggernaut that fired on all cylinders. Nick Nurse stressed the Raptors’ depth all year, and even in games where stars Leonard and Kyle Lowry weren’t at peak form, the team was able to win games. 

All of that culminated in a deep playoff run that included a series-winning, buzzer-beating shot in Game 7 and an exciting series win against the league-best Milwaukee Bucks. By the time the Raptors faced the Warriors in the NBA Finals, they had shown that they belonged there. The Warriors  suffered catastrophic injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, and Nurse’s Raptors took full advantage.

Many credit Leonard for his and the Raptors’ success, and rightfully so, but Nick Nurse was able to get production out of every player. Pascal Siakam had a breakout year, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka had renaissance seasons, and Lowry was able to overcome a negative reputation in his playoff performances. 

Why Nick Nurse should be in the NBA Coach of the Year discussion 

Given the roster shakeup and injuries early in the 2019-20 season, the Raptors' Nick Nurse should be on the shortlist to win NBA Coach of the Year.
Nick Nurse. | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Without Leonard in Toronto, many believed that the Raptors would face a major regression. Leonard, after all, is one of the best players in the NBA and was the MVP of the team’s Finals run. To top that off, the Raptors have been facing injuries all season to many of their biggest players. Arden Zwelling of SportsNet covered a particularly rough stretch for the team in which six players were injured at once. 

One might expect the Raptors to be struggling with all of that working against them, but that hasn’t been the case. Despite losing one of the game’s best players, facing the expectations of an NBA Finals winner, and dealing with injuries, Nick Nurse has kept the Raptors on course.

Siakam has emerged as a leader for the Raptors in terms of play, and the depth of the team has once again paid dividends. Emerging players like Terence Davis have provided sparks in limited minutes, and the returning players all play with a goal in mind of repeating last year.

Nurse might have gotten too little credit for the Raptors’ championship, but this year has helped prove that it was no fluke, that Nurse and his team are here to stay. The Raptors are likely to fall short of last year’s success, but the fact that they still 18-8 after 26 games shows that expectations and reality can often contradict each other.