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June 01, 2023

The main takeaways from Nick Nurse's first Sixers press conference

From James Harden to Joel Embiid, here were some of the notable quotes and takeaways from his first day with the Sixers.

Nick Nurse celebrated his holiday weekend by agreeing to a new contract to coach the Sixers, and he closed the week by sitting down with the Philadelphia media for the first time. At least one of those things was probably enjoyable for him.

From James Harden to Joel Embiid, here were some of the notable quotes and takeaways from his first day with the Sixers.

Uncertainty surrounding James Harden

You could argue the theme of the press conference was a player who might not return next year. Nurse was asked about James Harden several times throughout his sitdown, and while it seemed clear Nurse would welcome having him, he also didn't sound like a coach who took the job thinking he would be coaching Harden.

Here are three different ways Nurse answered questions about Harden returning, or conversations with Harden, or whether he was here to coach Harden specifically:

  1. "James Harden is a great player. I would say this, James has a decision to make, and I'd be very happy if he came back."
  2. "I think that winning is always the sell. Can we be good enough to win it all? That's got to be a goal of his, and if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there's a possibility of that."
  3. "I took the job because of [Joshua Harris] and [Daryl Morey] and their track record of all of it. I think that I'll get a deeper dive and a deeper look at what we actually have and are going to have going forward later in the summer. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for me to go super deep into what we have until we know what we have."

There was no equivalent of "I expect James to be back," and it felt like a good summary of where things stand right now. The Sixers want Harden on the team, but they do not appear motivated to simply pay full freight and deal with the consequences. And if he doesn't return, it sounds like Nurse will manage just fine. 

Improvement is about more than X's and O's

In recent days, pieces of Nurse's book and his philosophies on coaching have resurfaced as a new fanbase gets acquainted with Nurse. Toronto's defense vs. Embiid was a part of that discussion, with Nurse having said previously that his teams wanted to fluster Embiid early to try to take him out of the game before the halftime buzzer sounded. 

That approach came from a place of respect, and as Nurse detailed changes they will and will not have to make as a group, he recalled the difficulty of trying to slow down Philly's top option, with Embiid learning/adapting quickly enough to neutralize strategies. And as many in Philadelphia begin to doubt Embiid's status as the undisputed king of the franchise, Nurse believes they can figure out how to elevate him even further.

"Joel has a lot of attributes, first of all defensively, very, very good, right? And then offensively is very, very skilled, and it's a little bit early. But I think that once it starts and it starts unfolding, and we start learning each other and all those kinds of things, we're just going to try to max it out," Nurse said. "Whatever that means. I can't sit here and tell you tactically what that means today, but we're going to certainly try to put him in situations where he's going to be super dominant."

At first glance, Embiid's preferred method of attacking — methodical, staredown isolations in the middle of the floor — are antithetical to how Nurse likes to run his offense. Prior to and during his run in Toronto, Nurse's goal has been to spread it out, move the ball, and get into your offense with speed so that a defense has minimal time to think. But he has certainly found success with a player in that slower mold before, with Kawhi Leonard's Herculean effort in the 2019 playoffs carrying Toronto to a title. Nurse did not speak like a man who thinks they have to imitate others to win. 

One of the reasons Nurse seems like a good fit for this job on paper is his track record in this exact spot. The Raptors were a perennial playoff team with a string of disappointing exits before he took over as the head coach, and while Leonard's arrival was the biggest difference-maker, Nurse believes the Sixers need to begin their journey by accepting that reality. The road forward, he says, starts by understanding what they have been in order to figure out where they'll go.

"It was the same in Toronto, we hadn't played that well, and certain players hadn't played that well, and all those kinds of things. The reality is that's the truth. So I would imagine from day one, we're gonna talk about that, and we're gonna try to attack that, we're gonna have to, we have to face it," Nurse said. "We're gonna have to rise above it. That's the mentality part I think you're going to have to take. And then there's all kinds of other things. Can we tactically do things, can we adjust on the fly, can we improve as the season goes on? want to keep getting better, and then you get to the playoffs and you're one team, that's a two-month-long journey. You got to be better at the end of those two months."

The path forward is fluid

Nurse's coaching journey is a fascinating one in that he arrived in Toronto (and first made his mark) as something of an offensive guru, shifting how the Raptors played to extract more out of the group they had. But he left the Raptors with more of a defense-focused reputation, in part because his roster was made up of long, rangy forwards who can fly all over the floor and disrupt opponents.

Those players are in shorter supply in Philadelphia, which prompts an interesting question heading in — should we expect Nurse to have a bigger impact on a specific side of the ball? In his ideal world, the answer is no.

"Both ends are really important. I think the style that ends up being the style for the team will be based on how we feel as a staff," Nurse said. "We like to guard, I think it's really important, our coaching staff is going to try to put great game plans on both sides of the ball together each and every night. We want to score efficiently. Can we create more possessions than our opponent, can we take efficient shots, can we have low turnovers, can we get on the offensive glass? All those things make an efficient offense, and it looks different for every team, and sometimes it looks different for the same team from season to season. So I think that's all TBD."

But sprinkled throughout his press conference were reminders of the sort of coach he has been over the last five years or so in Toronto. When Embiid's impact on the game came up, his mind went to defense first, with the coach presumably thinking about how nice it will be to have a real rim protector behind his guys. He talked extensively about how a player like Tyrese Maxey can move forward on defense, from screen navigation to full court defending to weaponizing his speed.

(We'll get more into Maxey later, but Nurse seems to have clear ideas for how he might take a step forward as a player.)

The overwhelming takeaway from Nurse's first Philadelphia session, though, was that nothing is set in stone for this group. You shouldn't base your expectations based on what happened at the end of his Toronto tenure, the start of his Toronto tenure, or anything other than what they can come up with in the months to come. He views this as a new challenge with a new set of requirements, and we'll see what that journey looks like soon enough.

"What we did in Toronto, it's just trying to maximize what the roster looked like. We really had to generate turnovers to get out and score, transition, and in 2018 it was a different roster. We did have [Marc] Gasol so we played a different style and a different defense, and it's going to be whatever's best for this team." 

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