The big reveal
Ujiri had no interest in the tried and tested, he wanted something different
Masai Ujiri had options, obviously.
There was the tried and true former head coaches out there if he wanted them. But recycled just doesn’t seem to be Ujiri’s way.
There were the European coaches, the flavour of the season if you are going by what Phoenix did bringing in Igor Kokoskov and if Ujiri wanted to follow that trend he had Ettore Messina, the longtime best of the European league with now five years under his belt in the NBA under only the best coach in the NBA today in Gregg Popovich.
But Ujiri didn’t go for the name, or the flavour of the month or for the sexy pick when it came to filling the shoes of Dwane Casey, a man who guided this team to an improvement over the previous season all seven years he was here.
Ujiri went with the guy he feels is right to fill those large shoes and in Ujiri’s mind that was a guy who has been here for five years and helped the Raptors go from NBA afterthought to respected NBA landing spot.
The hiring of Nick Nurse isn’t going to wow even the in-tune NBA fan who very likely hasn’t heard of Nurse.
Ujiri could have gone another way and likely would have had an easier sell than he does right now with Nurse to a public that is looking for this team to take the next step. Again, that didn’t factor into the equation for Ujiri who was making his first hire as a head coach and laughed it actually gave him the opportunity to hire a “leadership consultant coach, knowing the right questions to ask and how to bring the best out of these people and what you want.”
All Ujiri wanted was the right guy going forward and Nurse was his choice, simple as that.
“In the NBA, we’re a copy cat league,” Ujiri said. “That’s what we are. We copy everything that everybody else is doing. I’d love not to be that and go different ways, whether they are new, whatever they are. Sometimes they might fail, but what’s the next best thing.”
Nurse has been a head coach far longer than he has served as an assistant, but at the NBA level he has never been a head coach.
That changed when Ujiri decided Nurse was the man he was looking to lead his team.
“Trying new stuff and being innovative is just who Nick is” Ujiri said. “You could tell he’s a tactician. He really thinks the game.”
Ujiri, as it almost always is the case with him, was open, but only to a point on this day.
He was more than happy to discuss his new hire, but as soon as the conversation turned to what kind of team he would be handing him once free agency and the draft were out of the way, Ujiri got very general.
“The roster is an interesting topic for everybody,” Ujiri said. “Do we think it’s a perfect roster? No. We have work to do and we believe that. But as we all know, things just don’t happen overnight in the NBA. It’s not the easiest thing to do. It takes a partner to do these things if you want to make trades. We are open, we’re going to be open going into the draft.
We’ll see when it comes.”
Ujiri was asked if he made this hire with the present in mind or the future. It’s no secret the roster turnover, if it doesn’t come this year is likely going to start in a big way after next season when the core of the team are all going into the final year of their contracts and therefore easier pieces to move.
If the likes of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka finish out their contracts in Toronto the overhaul will happen in two seasons.
Either way, it’s coming and Ujiri has confidence Nurse can handle both the present roster and whatever the future brings.
“He’s a basketball coach,” Ujiri said. “He’s a creative guy and I think whatever situations you put him in, he’ll be fine. That was a little part of our test too (for him during the interview). That has to be one of the things you ask about.”
Clearly Nurse passed that portion of the test nicely.
But more than anything Ujiri sounds like he went looking for something away from the norm in coaching circles and he’s confident he got it in Nurse.
He spoke about being enamoured by Nurse as far back as the British Basketball League when Ujiri was a player at Derby and Nurse was a player coach at Birmingham.
Ujiri noticed Nurse’s team’s were different even then.
Throughout the interview process Nurse proved to Ujiri that he remains different from the rest. That willingness to be unique, even unconventional to get the most out of whatever roster he is given to work with was enough to convince Ujiri that Nurse was the guy he wanted.
“It came down to the wire, but Nick is our head coach,” Ujiri said. “Messina was very good, but Nick is our coach.”
New Raptors coach Nick Nurse (left) and president Masai Ujiri have the tough job of improving on a 59-win team.