The Raptors firing Dwane Casey was one of the more surreal NBA moments in recent memory. Casey had just led Toronto to the #1 seed in the East and had just won a coach of the year award voted on by his peers.
Congrats Coach! https://t.co/KG68c3Icu7
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 17, 2018
Casey is also a finalist for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, too, but if he wins it, he’ll accept it as coach of the Detroit Pistons. And despite the awkward timing, the Raptors weren’t necessarily unjustified! Toronto was the #1 seed, yes, and they did win their opening round playoff series. But that wasn’t exactly in convincing fashion over the Wizards, and then the Cavs just absolutely stomped them.
The same Cavs that had just been outplayed over seven games by the Pacers, and who would be taken to seven games by the Celtics before being demolished by the Warriors in the NBA Finals. They went 4-6 in the playoffs with their best roster in a long time, and it seemed like maybe a fresh voice wasn’t necessarily the worst idea. Which makes the decision to promote assistant Nick Nurse to replace Casey seem, on the surface, odd:
The Toronto Raptors are hiring assistant Nick Nurse as the franchise's new head coach, league sources tell ESPN. Sides are working through details of contract now.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 12, 2018
If you wanted continuity, why would you not just keep Casey? And if the Raptors wanted a fresh voice, why would they turn to someone on their own bench? Those are legitimate questions, although it’s not unprecedented; the Pacers, for example, elevated Nate McMillan to replace Frank Vogel after Vogel was fired, and McMillan deserved coach of the year credit in 2018 as well.
It also makes sense once you learn that Nurse is credited with a lot of the work done to remake the Raptors offense this season:
Nurse, 50, spent over a decade coaching in Europe, primarily in the British Basketball League, where he won two championships and a coach of the year award. In the NBA G League – formerly the D-League – he also won a pair of titles, doing so with two different teams, and earned coach of the year honours.
Regarded as an innovative, forward-thinking basketball mind, Nurse joined the Raptors’ bench in 2013 and was tasked with overseeing the team’s offence. Alongside Dwane Casey and with guidance from the front office, Nurse had a hand in transforming Toronto’s offensive system last season.
So you can see what Toronto is thinking. They like Nurse a lot, and if he were an external candidate with the exact same credentials, they’d probably be strongly considering him as well. Through that lens, it’s not a real stretch to look at the relationships he has with the current roster and everyone in the organization as much more of a strength than a weakness, and the whole package becomes about making a slight change to a successful team instead of overhauling it completely.
And it’s also a sign that they really do blame Casey specifically, fairly or not, for how their playoff exits have happened, which we probably should have realized when they fired him. Whether this is going to help things at all remains to be seen.