Nick Nurse didn’t know why he was being asked to appear on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” basketball program on Saturday afternoon.
He knew that the panellists Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal had a penchant for joking around, but he figured something was up when they played a video from Wayne Chandlee, Nurse’s high school basketball coach.
Wearing a Raptors sweater, Chandlee was the first to congratulate Nurse for being voted the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Toronto Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet then appeared to present Nurse with the Red Auerbach Trophy.
“I didn’t really figure it out until coach Chandlee appeared on the screen,” Nurse said in a videoconference from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Saturday. “(The panellists) showed my high school team photo, and they joke around a lot and kid a lot, and I thought that’s where we were still going. But when coach Chandlee had a message for me i guess that kind of hit home that that’s what was going to happen.”
Nurse, who has the Raptors on the verge of the second round of the playoffs, was a runaway winner, receiving 90 first-place votes from a panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters. He finished with 470 points. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer was second after leading the Bucks to the best record in the suspended season, earning 147 points. Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan (134) was third.
The Coach of the Year Award continues a highly successful stint as an NBA head coach for Nurse, who led Toronto to its first league title last season. Toronto went 53-19 in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 regular season and posted a franchise-best .736 winning percentage.
He is 111-43 in two seasons behind the bench and 19-8 in the playoffs heading into Game 4 of Toronto’s first-round series with Brooklyn. Toronto is up 3-0 in the best-of-seven set and can complete its first ever series sweep on Sunday.
But the road to the NBA’s coaching ranks has been far from straightforward for Nurse, who started out as an assistant with Northern Iowa in the 1989-90 season. The 53-year-old followed that with coaching stops in England, Belgium and the second-tier NBA D-League (now G League). He was an assistant with the Raptors for five seasons before taking over from Dwane Casey following the 2017-18 season.
He won D-League titles with Iowa (2011) and Rio Grande (2013), making him the only head coach to win a title in the NBA and its developmental circuit.
“I was just trying to figure out if my ideas were right,” Nurse said of his winding journey to the NBA. “I just wanted to figure out how I could get better. Even when I was through it year after year for a long time in the D-League, I knew I was getting better. I could feel it.”
Toronto won the title last year with superstar Kawhi Leonard leading the way. Leonard left for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers in free agency shortly after Toronto’s title run, but under Nurse the Raptors haven’t missed a beat. The team won 15 straight games at one point this season and went 7-1 in the seeding games when the NBA resumed play following a months-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought we had a great chance for (Kawhi) to come back considering how the season went, but it wasn’t meant to be,” Nurse said. “You can’t blame anyone for wanting to go home, but we still have a job to do, and we look at it as opportunities for the other guys.”
Nurse has more than validated the Raptors’ decision to fire Casey in 2018, even though Casey had been Coach of the Year that season after guiding Toronto to a 59-23 record.
But the Raptors kept getting overrun by LeBron James and Cleveland in the playoffs. So team president Masai Ujiri decided to part ways with Casey, the franchise’s career leader in victories, and promote Nurse, who had been an assistant for five years.
“I think I knew what the job was when I got it,” Nurse said. “The number of wins in the regular season had become pretty much irrelevant. It was going to be a building process to see if we could advance in the post season, and from Day 1 that was the message.
“Now that’s not always easy to do because the pressure to win each and every night in this league is real. But we were trying to build a little bit, but we were always trying to focus on playing or best in the playoffs. Because, rightly or wrongly, that’s how our organization was being judged at the moment.”
Ujiri praised Nurse for being hardworking yet relaxed.
“Always setting the tone for our team _ attacking our next championship, rather than defending our last,” Ujiri said. “That is who Nick is, that is why we believe in him. His journey to this tremendous honour has been a long one. We are so happy to see him recognized this way.”
Nurse has already nearly caught Casey for the Raptors’ record for playoff wins by going 19-8 over the last two seasons. Casey was 21-30.
Nurse, who also coaches Canada’s national men’s team, has been praised for his ability to adjust on the fly and implement oddball defensive schemes that deliver results. His use of the box-and-one scheme, rarely seen at the professional level, helped contain Golden State sharpshooter Stephen Curry at last year’s NBA Finals.
Nurse credits Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster for letting him coach outside the box.
“Masai and Bobby as the leadership of the organization wanted me to go out on a limb and try to shake things up,” Nurse said. “So that helps you to be able to go ahead and do that.”
Sam Mitchell is the only other Raptors coach to win the award, doing so in 2007.
— With files from The Associated Press.