Three seasons after hiring Doc Rivers, the Sixers are searching again for a head coach.
To begin our series on Sixers coaching candidates, we’ll look at the case for and against hiring Nick Nurse to replace Rivers:
The case for Nurse
A natural place to start is Nurse’s first season as Raptors head coach. With assistance from an impossibly dramatic Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the second round against the Sixers, Nurse’s team won Toronto’s first NBA title.
The next season, Nurse led the Raptors to a 53-19 regular season and won Coach of the Year.
After spending five years as a Toronto assistant and accumulating ample head coaching reps in lower leagues, Nurse was evidently more equipped to gain respect and thrive under pressure than the average first-time NBA head coach.
“I just think that I relied on hard work,” Nurse said on The Old Man and the Three podcast with JJ Redick and Tommy Alter in January of 2022. “Twenty years of head coaching experience put me in a lot of situations. I’d seen a lot of basketball and had to deal with it, not just sit back and say, ‘Hey, maybe try this, Coach.’ I was dealing with it on the front lines at a pretty high level — EuroLeague and things like that. And when you go up there to put up that game plan and tell them how to guard the personnel, it’s got to be solid.
“And if you do that … NBA guys are also on the other side of that; they really want you to coach ‘em. They really want you to put them in positions where they can have a good game. They want you to help ‘em. They want to succeed. And if you can show that you’re able to do that, then the thing turns pretty quickly, I think.”
Nurse’s willingness to implement unusual, aggressive schemes that force opponents to adjust has shined in the playoffs. He’ll blitz ball screens constantly, play a box-and-one, or do anything else he feels might give his team an advantage.
“Why are people afraid to try something different? Because of the scrutiny they’re going to receive if it doesn’t work,” Nurse told Sportsnet’s Evan Rosser in 2018. “That stops people from trying things different a lot. The game’s evolving quickly, man, and somebody’s gotta be trying some new stuff. It might as well be us.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Nurse has previously worked under Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. He coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers for two seasons while Morey was the Rockets’ general manager and won the 2012-13 D League championship.
An optimistic slant on Nurse is that his combination of player development and playoff experiences could work well in Philadelphia. Though the Sixers currently have no picks in this year’s NBA draft and are not a youthful team, unlocking marginal avenues for players like Tyrese Maxey and De’Anthony Melton to improve might be impactful. For example, perhaps Nurse could help Maxey become a slightly peskier defender and create more transition opportunities for the speedy 22-year-old.
All the time Nurse has spent devising game plans against Joel Embiid could be an asset, too. As Morey acknowledged at his press conference Wednesday, the Sixers need Embiid to be better against playoff defenses determined to stop him.
Nurse’s Raptors teams focused on creating turnovers, playing in the open floor, and generally winning the possession game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Toronto this season ranked first in offensive turnover percentage, first in defensive turnover percentage, and third in offensive rebounding rate. For a team with greater top-end talent, small upgrades in those areas could be meaningful.
The case against Nurse
While Nurse came to Toronto with strong player development credentials, the Raptors have not been especially impressive on that front lately.
One apparent reason is that Nurse has been inclined to seriously lean on key players like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. VanVleet had a lingering knee injury during the 2021-22 season and missed Games 5 and 6 of the Raptors’ first-round series loss to the Sixers with a hip flexor strain.
“When you’ve got a super competitive guy who’s playing great, and he wants to play, to rest him … just to say, ‘sorry, it’s your rest time, we don’t care what’s happening on the floor right now, it’s your rest time,’ it’s hard to do,” Nurse told reporters before this season, per The Canadian Press’ Lori Ewing.
There’s nothing wrong with competitiveness, but caution about Embiid’s health is clearly appropriate for the Sixers. And if James Harden ends up returning, it wouldn’t be prudent for the Sixers’ next head coach to play a point guard in his mid-30s heavy minutes every single game.
Nurse was a sharpshooter in college at Northern Iowa — his 46.8 career three-point percentage is still No. 1 in program history — and he’s even published shooting guides and in-depth instructional videos. Nurse joined the board of directors for Noah Basketball two years ago and the Raptors installed the company’s shot-tracking technology in their practice facility. (The Sixers have Noah Basketball tools at their facility as well.)
Nurse’s passion about shooting is not a weakness whatsoever. It’s a massively important part of the sport, and we imagine Nurse would be fully on board with investing time and resources into shooting development for young players. Still, outside shooting was a problem this year for the Raptors, who finished 28th in the NBA with a 33.5 three-point percentage. Overall, Toronto was a bottom-six team the past two seasons in points per half-court play, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Much of the Raptors’ shooting troubles can be chalked up to the roster Nurse inherited, and the Sixers don’t need a team-wide transformation after hitting a league-best 38.7 percent of their threes this season. At a minimum, though, adding Nurse wouldn’t guarantee players like Jaden Springer make big shooting leaps.
More significantly, it’s fair to have questions about Nurse’s leadership style.
After Raptors vice chairman and president Masai Ujiri fired Nurse, TSN’s Josh Lewenberg reported the following:
“Nurse would often call players out publicly without addressing his concerns with the player privately first, or in some cases at all. After a bad loss to Memphis in late December, Nurse held closed-door individual meetings with players and members of his staff that were described to TSN as ‘intense’ and ‘confrontational.’
“According to sources, after an altercation early in the New Year, Nurse sent an assistant coach home and told him not to accompany the team on an upcoming road trip, without the prior knowledge or permission of Ujiri. The assistant missed one game and Ujiri later smoothed things over but the relationship between the coaches was described as ‘tense’ for the duration of the season.”
Morey said Wednesday that tactics “tend to get overvalued” in assessing coaches.
Though brutal honesty can sometimes be effective, the Sixers will want to be confident in their next coach’s ability to handle difficult moments on and off the court.