TORONTO — Soon after Nick Nurse sat down with the media in his traditional season-ending press conference on Monday, the Raptors coach planned to meet with team president Masai Ujiri.
The two planned to rehash the season, said Nurse, with everything up for discussion. How can he coach better? How can the team play better? How can they make the roster better?
While reports last month had Nurse as a top target for filling the Lakers’ head coaching position after Frank Vogel was fired at the end of the regular season, he certainly didn’t sound Monday like he was going anywhere.
He went as far as to brush aside the rumours entirely.
“I don’t know where that stuff comes from, and I’m focused on coaching this team,” Nurse said.
The Lakers and Vogel parted ways after L.A. failed to reach the post-season.
Nurse, who has two more seasons on the contract extension he signed with the Raptors in the fall of 2020, talked to reporters for 40 minutes on Monday after the team was ousted from the playoffs by Philadelphia in six games last Thursday.
A season that began with low expectations amid huge question marks about the roster ended with a sense of pleasant surprise. Nurse called it a “great season.” His young roster had been a revelation, enduring setbacks around COVID-19 and injuries to earn the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. They beat the league’s best teams in the regular season with hustle and hard work, a lunch-bucket identity largely stamped into the Raptors’ culture by Kyle Lowry before the all-star guard left for Miami.
And now, Nurse is excited to get back to work with Ujiri on next season.
“If you’re trying to time it out, when you think we have another shot to win (a championship), well, I’m ready. I’m ready to get back in the hunt. Today,” Nurse said. “I coach to win.
“And I’ve always said this: Masai and I have a great relationship, I think mostly because we want to win championships. It’s about trying to figure out how to win at all, right? That’s what I sense he’s trying to do every day and that’s what I’m trying to do every day. That’s really important, that goes a long way in synergy for me.”
The Raptors don’t have much wiggle room to work with this off-season. Montreal native Chris Boucher is their one key free agent, and they have only the No. 33 pick in next month’s draft.
But Nurse sounds satisfied to work from within.
Betting sites picked the Raptors to win around 35 games this season, but what Nurse has called a “funky” roster of predominantly athletic six-foot-eight players, and built around all-stars Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, they finished with 48 wins, most over the second half of the season, once they’d shed their COVID-19 outbreak around the Christmas holidays.
And the young players such as NBA rookie of the year Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and Gary Trent Jr. grew by leaps and bounds, particularly once they understood their interchangeable Swiss army knife roles.
“Sometimes, you’re not quite sure when there’s a lot of new faces … stuff of what it’s going to shape into,” Nurse said. “We knew we were going with this length and deflections and offensive rebounding and switching defence and multiple defence — we kinda saw that as the vision for the season.
“It got a little funkier only maybe because they were able to do more interesting, different, unique things as they went. I wasn’t sure what they were able to comprehend, and all of a sudden things started sinking in really good.”
Nurse had high praise for Barnes, who ticked “all the boxes” even before Toronto drafted him No. 4 last season.
“I talked to his college coach (Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton) and he couldn’t have said more great things about the guy, about how much he loved to play, about his personality, about how great of a teammate he is … and how he thought he was maybe the best secret in the draft.
“When I met him, he was the same, and he stayed that way all year long.”
The 20-year-old averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the regular season, and shared point guard duties with Siakam when VanVleet sat out two playoffs games with his hip injury.
Nurse said he had “very few 20-year-old moments.”
“He had a couple here and there. He’d wander around the first half wondering, ‘Where am I and what game is this?’ And then before you know, he’d pour it on in the fourth quarter and finish it off with a good game. He was great. The future’s bright. He’s a wonderful person, great teammate, great to coach, very talented. Loves to be a Toronto Raptor, loves Toronto. There’s a lot to love about Scottie, that’s for sure.”
Siakam also had an excellent season, finally exorcising the ghosts of the Disneyworld bubble plus a shaky start to this season after off-season shoulder surgery. His teammates and Nurse praised his leadership.
“What surprised me a lot this year was he’d have a 43-minute night, 30 points, 10 rebounds, and he’d be out here at eight o’clock in the morning (the next day) and make me tired seeing him out there,” Nurse said with a laugh. “I used to say this about Kawhi (Leonard), he understands what a day looks like to be a great player. And there’s nothing that veers him off that, not even a hard-played game.
“It’s super impressive. It never fazed Kawhi at all, right? And with Pascal, it’s almost enjoyment. You see him coming in and he’s out there with a smile on his face going to go into work.”
Nurse, who took in a Toronto Blue Jays game this past weekend, said among his immediate tasks was meeting with Canada Basketball later Monday. The Canadian men have their second window of FIBA World Cup qualifying beginning on June 30. Canada went 4-0 in the first window.
Nurse signed a contract extension to coach Canada through the 2024 Paris Olympics.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press