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May 31, 2023

Nick Nurse's tactics will only matter if he learns from his past

If Nick Nurse learns from his past, good and bad, it will allow his creative and on-the-fly coaching to lift the Sixers to places they haven't been in 20+ years.

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Nick-Nurse-Tactics-Sixers-Coach-Raptors-Bulls-Feb-2023-NBA.jpg John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

Much like the team itself, new Sixers head coach Nick Nurse will need to adapt.

During Daryl Morey's recent end-of-season availability with the media, Philadelphia's lead executive ruffled some feathers with a comment he made about how coaches provide value. With many fans hoping for a tactical upgrade over the departed Doc Rivers, Morey insisted that consideration for tactics is just one piece of a coach's worth.

"I actually think people put too much importance on [tactics]. It ends up being a much smaller part of the game than people expect, relative to working with their star players, recruiting star players, things like that. It is an important element, but it tends to get overvalued, and it tends to get overvalued by people like me, frankly," Morey said recently. "It can only be one part of the puzzle, I promise you."

It wasn't the answer a lot of people wanted to hear. But there's someone who would tell you that assessment makes a whole lot of sense — Nick Nurse.

Nurse's candidacy for several high-profile jobs around the league was based primarily on his reputation as a tinkerer. He arrived in Toronto to juice up their offense after thriving in the offensive laboratory in Houston, and then somewhat reimagined himself as a defensive guy while surrounded by long, athletic wings for most of his tenure as Raptors head coach. When his name is spoken, your mind immediately jumps to the words "box and one," a defensive strategy he rolled out in the Finals to slow down Steph Curry and the Warriors at close to their apex.

As you'd imagine, Nurse's title run is a subject he likes to talk about and reference a lot as he tells the story of his coaching career. And while he was center stage at a coaching clinic last summer, Nurse provided this story about that box-and-one defense, and how the Raptors ended up playing it in the NBA Finals:

Steph Curry got me to the point of the box-and-one in the NBA Finals. That was just in my gut, and what I saw. We'd never practiced it, we'd never even talked about it as possibly something we were going to do. And I just, in that timeout I looked out there and I can't really remember what happened, but I knew Steph was the only star on the floor at the time. 

I said to Kyle Lowry, who was kind of my engine and my leader, I said I think a box and one is what we should do here. I said, we'll take Freddy Van Vleet and we'll put him nose-to-nose on Curry, and you go here, Danny [Green] will go here, Kawhi [Leonard] will go here, [Marc] Gasol will go here to sit in a box and zone. He said, "I love it!" And he took it into the timeout and told all of the other guys, 'We're going to play box-and-one!' 

They went out there and did it, and of course, Van Vleet stole the first two steals or something right away, and so now they're getting confidence. We didn't even win the game that night. We got beat. But it set kind of an interesting psychological tone that we weren't afraid of Golden State, the mighty mighty Golden State, and we thought we were going to pull out anything we had to do to beat them.

For all of us who aren't on the bench with the team during a game, what we see as an adjustment happens in the decision and execution. Those are things worth paying attention to, and coaches are criticized and praised most often based on the yes or no answer to "Did this work?" But this is the highest-level example you can possibly have of the player-driven culture of the NBA. When it was time for an eventual title-winner to shift to an unorthodox strategy in a big moment, the coach thought it was best for their on-floor leader to deliver that message to the group, only after running it by that leader beforehand.

Player ownership of team culture is something ex-coach Rivers stressed from the first day he arrived in Philadelphia three years ago, and his stance on that subject is no less relevant now after his departure from the team. Nurse brings nuance to the coach's chair that might help them squeeze out wins in playoff situations where they failed in the past, and if he does so, his hire would have been worth it for that reason alone. But as a new arrival in Philadelphia, lacking the tenure he had with the Raptors over 10 years as an assistant and head coach, Nurse's first job is getting in good with his players, developing the trust it will require to be the leader he has shown he wants to be.

Nurse's willingness to call a spade a spade will play well in Philadelphia, where fans were often upset with Rivers for downplaying or skirting past obvious issues in view of the public. The new man in Philadelphia is more willing to put his players on blast. For example, Nurse did not mince words when Raptors reporters asked him about a Gary Trent Jr. slump last fall.

"We'd like to get him a lot more aggressive on defense this year. I would say that's been a, well, I don't know what the word is — it's been a little bit of a negative. He's capable of really getting after the ball and getting his hands on the ball a lot, and that's what we want him to do," Nurse said in November. "We're gonna get him his shots and get him his points, but we want him to be a disruptor. He kinda fits us if he does that, and if he doesn't, he doesn't fit us. We need to get him back."

The thing about that sort of accountability is that it has to come with proper lines of communication in private. And according to Trent, who was asked about Nurse's call-outs after the conclusion of the season, those lines weren't always open.

"That's the thing, at the time or most of the time, I didn't hear it until you hear it, so I wouldn't know it was an issue until [the media] put it out there," Trent said during his exit interview in mid-April. 

Most players who have the mental makeup to carve out an NBA career are plenty capable of absorbing criticism. There's a much smaller list who will hear first-time feedback coming out of a press conference and view it as an honest assessment — you run the risk of making players feel like you're putting on a show rather than trying to make them better. 

The new Sixers coach appears to be off to a good start, having sold the power structure on an Embiid-centric future while also meeting with Embiid to get him on board with what that future looks like. While the Trent-level players of the world matter, Nurse's partnership with Embiid will be his most important relationship, and he showed he could walk a delicate line while coaching Kawhi Leonard through a load-managed year in 2018-19.

If Nurse learns from his past, good and bad, it will allow his creative and on-the-fly coaching to lift the Sixers to places they haven't been in 20+ years. But the only way that ingenuity can take center stage is if he starts by doing the work behind closed doors so that the belief is there when it counts.

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