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May 30, 2023

What are the Sixers getting in new head coach Nick Nurse?

Following a title run in 2019 in Toronto, Nick Nurse brings adaptability and championship experience with him as the new head coach of the Sixers.

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Nick-Nurse-Sixers-Raptors John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

Current Sixers head coach Nick Nurse during his time with the Toronto Raptors.

While you were grilling and hanging with the family on Memorial Day, the Sixers were busy hammering out the details of an agreement with soon-to-be head coach Nick Nurse. As arguably the top name on the market this summer, drawing attention from the Bucks and Suns in addition to the Sixers, Nurse's agreement is a big deal for an organization in need of a coach who can help push them from good to great.

With that in mind, here's a breakdown of what you might expect from Nurse as Sixers head coach.

A unique defensive coach

A lot of buzzwords get thrown around regarding Nurse — he's inventive, or creative, or flexible, or any number of other words that suggest adaptability. He earned that reputation almost exclusively on defense. You can't think of Nurse without recalling the words "box and one" after the 2019 Raptors busted that coverage out against Steph Curry in an NBA Finals series. 

Nurse's desire to mix it up on defense did not end after raising the Larry O'Brien trophy. In Toronto's 53-19 season immediately after Kawhi Leonard left, the Raptors toyed with some unpopular concepts at the NBA level, including a full-court press that infuriated Sixers fans when it brought Philadelphia to a screeching halt. 

But Nurse's main defensive principles were pretty consistent during his time in charge with the Raptors. Toronto was a paint-protecting team first, shutting off space around the rim and relying on repeated, hard-charging closeouts to prevent shooters from getting clean looks. The Raptors became an even more aggressive defensive team over the last two years, with an army of wing-sized players empowered to blitz, gamble for turnovers, and try to create transition points that they couldn't in the halfcourt. While you could see Toronto shift as the roster became more and more forward-heavy, the underlying philosophy remained in the same place.

Joel Embiid's presence at the rim gives Nurse something he lacked over the past two seasons: a true rim protector. In that sense, there should be a lesser burden on perimeter players to collapse and recover than there was in Toronto over the past couple of seasons. However, it'll be interesting to track how players like Tyrese Maxey (and James Harden, should he return) mesh with Nurse's general approach, which tends to put the most strain on guards and wings above all else.

(By that same token, the Sixers would appear to have some "Nurse players" already on the roster, with De'Anthony Melton an example of a guy who should fit right in with what Nurse likes to do defensively.)

Nurse was called a "mad scientist" by his former boss in Toronto, Masai Ujiri, and even with more traditional bigs in Toronto, they didn't tend to play a ton of drop coverage under his watch. That's something to monitor with Embiid at the center of the story for Philly.

A question mark on offense

The Raptors have been a bad offensive team in the halfcourt for a couple of years now, coinciding with a talent drain and a shift to "positionless" basketball with few noteworthy guards. Is the drop explained entirely by the talent drain, or was Nurse at fault there?

It's easy to forget now, but Nurse's elevation through the coaching ranks was primarily about his offensive background. When Nurse arrived to coach Houston's G-League team, he told an audience during a coaching clinic in 2022, the coach said he was presented with a basic prompt.

"They said these are the shots we should take," Nurse recalled. "Can you create a system for it?"

Nurse's desire to create more space and cut down on low-value shots caught the eye of Masai Ujiri, who hired him as an assistant on Dwane Casey's staff just two months after arriving in Toronto. Nurse would grow in stature over the next few years, eventually becoming the team's offensive coordinator while being credited for the team's offensive leap forward during the 2017-18 season. The task in front of Nurse was modernizing a Raptors offense that had been stuck in midrange hell — summer pickup games and training camp scrimmages featured scoring changes to goad players into "green shots" on their shot spectrum. It led to a dramatic decrease in mid-range shots and less isolation basketball.

As the Sixers aren't building around Demar DeRozan, you could argue there isn't as much low-hanging fruit to pick on this team. At this point in the NBA cycle, "Take better shots" is no longer enough to jolt a team on offense. So Toronto's lagging halfcourt numbers are a major concern for the time being — the Raptors were 25th in halfcourt offense in 2022-23 and 26th in 2021-22, and have only been average at best there since Kawhi Leonard left.

However, one of Nurse's key tenets is the "pace" portion of pace-and-space, with an emphasis on players making quick assessments and moving the ball rather than dawdling in isolation. In an ideal world, Nurse wants his team to constantly put the opponent in a position of having to defend the next action instead of sitting on an initial read. There are a couple of ways to look at that. Maybe Nurse will goad his iso-heavy attackers into speeding it up and creating more advantages for the group, democratizing the offense and empowering a speedy attacker like Maxey. But it's also possible that he'll have to adjust his own preferred method of offense to accommodate Philadelphia's deliberate, elbow-operating star in Embiid.

Any talk of the system he'll use is premature, but Nurse has generally earned high marks as a guy who searches for the little advantages. Free-throw rebounding, an insignificant piece of an NBA game, is a point of emphasis Nurse has drilled in the past to the point of including it in practice/shootaround reps. NBA vet Patrick Patterson once called him the best in-game play designer he'd ever played for. He might be stubborn on broader systems and structure, but he's fascinated in the night-to-night challenge of finding small exploits.

A man who may not be for everyone

Most coaches, including the Sixers' previous head coach, are pretty careful with what they say about their players in public. Even the guys with reputations as hardasses — like New York's Tom Thibodeau — tend to err on the side of protecting their guys.

Nurse is not cut from the old school Bobby Knight cloth, mercifully, but he's a little more willing to air things out in public, whether out of a desire to be honest or to occasionally motivate his players. Early this season, it was suggested by Nurse in a press conference that Gary Trent Jr. may not fit the Raptors if he couldn't get his act together on defense. Any head coach worth a damn would tell a player as much behind closed doors, but Nurse's occasional public air out could have interesting consequences in Philadelphia, with a bigger media contingent and a giant, dialed-in fanbase.

But the real point of intrigue will be Nurse's man management, from the star level down to the bench guys. A point in his favor would be Nurse's handling of the Kawhi Leonard experience for one season, seeing him through a stilted regular season while still maintaining a team culture and hierarchy that held up in the playoffs. Longstanding veterans like Kyle Lowry were a huge piece of that, and Leonard imitating Michael Jordan in the playoffs was the biggest factor, but Nurse has shown the ability to manage a team with a unique, health-challenged star en route to a title. Embiid's pre-hire meeting with Nurse went well by all accounts, but we'll see how they hold up under the stress of the spotlight and time.

Former Raptors players are split on Nurse, understandably so. Fred Van Vleet, who made the leap to a starting role under Nurse, showed excitement for his old coach after news broke on Monday:

On the other hand, Raptors bench player Chris Boucher had this to say during a podcast appearance following the end of Toronto's season:

To be honest with you, if you got the chance to watch practice and the training camp we had this year, everybody came in with a difference to the game, everybody had expectations this year, everybody went last summer and worked. We went to L.A. and everybody was doing really well — it’s hard work that guys were putting in and I feel like not everybody got their chances. That obviously takes different players to different places. You know me, back then, if I didn’t play it’d probably make me mad to want to work more, but some people are just different. [Hustle Play]

While we're on the subject of Boucher, he lost playing time at a point in December of this past season, at which point Nurse was asked if the return of Precious Achiuwa could help Boucher out. Nurse's reply was straightforward: "Chris needs to play better."

Some will argue that this sort of direct approach is what the Sixers need right now, stuck in somewhat of a weird place after another horrible playoff defeat. And while you can certainly see the case for that, it's a style with a more significant downside if things go off of the rails, with players perhaps more willing to take shots of their own if they aren't on board with the strategy. Hell, Nurse is now tasked with coaching Embiid, who doesn't really mask his feelings at the podium. That's a pairing with real downside risk, and Raptors players (including Trent) have suggested that Nurse's public-facing criticism came before Nurse came to them with similar complaints. 

It's probably a risk worth taking at this juncture, but a risk all the same.

A partner for Morey

And finally, we reach the part that fans care about the least but might quietly matter the most. Nurse is Morey's hire through and through, and the idea from Day 1 will be that they approach things as a partnership. This is not to say that Rivers and Morey were a bad match, and Morey has consistently praised the former Sixers coach for all that he did in Philly, but the reality is that Morey now has a coach who arrives immediately knowing (and ostensibly agreeing with) Morey's vision for the way forward.

What are the downstream effects of that? Nurse will have full say on who is or isn't on his coaching staff moving forward, but the two might have an open dialogue about what he may or may not need in order to beat round out the group. Roster decisions shouldn't be swayed too much — the two share a lot of views on what a good basketball player looks like — but they'll both have a clear understanding of wants and needs as players come and go in the years to come. They're cut from a similar cloth in their desire to look for the next edge, even if it's a small one, and that should unite them as they try to build a title-winner.

Having everyone in lockstep isn't necessary (or even always advisable!) to create a winner, but the incoming changes of the new collective bargaining agreement will put teams under more pressure to work the margins, develop talent, and turn things over at a quicker pace than ever. All parties appear to feel confident that Morey and Nurse can do so in Philly.

There was a degree of organizational urgency behind this decision, with the Phoenix Suns still seemingly in the mix for Nurse's services as Philadelphia moved to close the deal on a holiday weekend. Losing Nurse to a team that boasts Devin Booker and Kevin Durant on the roster would have been easy enough to spin. But the Sixers made a push to get the coach they believed was the best on the market, due to both his track record and the ability to create synergy at the top of the organization they have rarely had. 

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