Four years ago, the Toronto Raptors made history by winning their first ever NBA championship in the ‘18-’19 campaign. Kawhi Leonard was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player for his dominant postseason, but their head coach Nick Nurse was just as crucial in their memorable run.
Nurse successfully employed creative tactics that usually only work at basketball’s youth levels, such as a box-and-one defense on the Golden State Warriors’ two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, and he continued to do so in the ensuing seasons.
However, Toronto was unable to sustain their success. Leonard immediately departed for the Los Angeles Clippers a few weeks after they won the title and the Raptors have struggled since then, failing to make the playoffs in two of the next four seasons. General manager Masai Ujiri ultimately fired Nurse last month following Toronto’s loss in the play-in tournament and kicked off a scramble among the rest of the league to secure the 55-year-old coach’s services.
Nurse has emerged as a finalist to become the head coach of three potential title contenders, underscoring how valuable his innovative playbook is in the eyes of the league’s front office executives. The Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Phoenix Suns–all of whom fired their head coaches for their underwhelming performances this postseason–have come out with their respective lists that all have Nurse’s name at the top.
These three teams are all built to win now and offer Nurse the potential to add another championship to his resume. On the surface, the Phoenix job seems to be the best fit for Nurse. He proved during his time coaching Leonard that he can build a winning offense around a talented wing scorer and will have two players of this archetype in Devin Booker and Kevin Durant if he does join the Suns.
It seems like Nurse is the preferred candidate for this job though as his main competitors all look like back-up plans, including recently fired Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers whose extensive catalog of postseason collapses continues to grow as each year passes.
The Milwaukee opening is a compelling one as well as it gives Nurse the opportunity to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo who is one of the most versatile players in NBA history. Antetokounmpo’s ability to do almost anything on the basketball court, particularly on the defensive end, gives Nurse a plethora of tactical possibilities to disrupt opponents.
Nurse’s spontaneity should give the Bucks a breath of fresh air as their previous head coach Mike Budenholzer, who led them to the NBA title in 2021, was often criticized for his lack of in-game adjustments. Having said that, one major caveat with Milwaukee is that their current set of players around Antetokounmpo is aging well into their thirties and they may need more than just the arrival of Nurse to bring this team back to the NBA Finals.
Like Phoenix, Nurse looks like the preferred candidate with the Bucks as their two other candidates, Nurse’s Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin and former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, pale in comparison.
Meanwhile, the Sixers opening, at the moment, appears to be the least likely landing spot for Nurse given the uncertainty surrounding James Harden’s upcoming free agency. The 33-year-old guard proved during Philadelphia’s second round finish that he can still play at an elite level and he has hinted that he may take his talents elsewhere this coming offseason.
The departure of Harden will be a major blow to the Sixers, albeit they will still have reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid onboard who will give Nurse countless options on both ends of the floor. Hiring Nurse appears to be less of a priority for Philadelphia though as their star-studded candidate shortlist includes Budenholzer, current assistant coach and retired NBA veteran Sam Cassell, renowned former head coach Mike D’Antoni, ex-Los Angeles Lakers head coach and 2020 NBA Champion Frank Vogel, and former Suns mentor Monty Williams who steered the team to the NBA Finals in 2021.
The race for Nurse’s services will be one of the highlights in these upcoming weeks and it will be interesting to see which team he eventually joins forces with. Nurse has come a long way from his tough journey to become the head coach at Toronto and this chase for the right to employ him is the latest recognition for all the work that he has put in to make it to this level.