The Raptors have reinvented themselves without Kawhi Leonard and, thanks to Nick Nurse’s creativity, the results have been just as impressive.
Looking back now, it feels like Nick Nurse’s Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup last year was the backdoor pilot for this season’s Toronto Raptors. That team, with most of their NBA invitees staying home, featured Cory Joseph and Khem Birch alongside EuroLeague lifers like Kevin Pangos and Melvin Ejim. Nurse wasn’t working with much; lacking go-to shot creators like Jamal Murray or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he espoused more egalitarian principles like ball movement, player movement and 3-point shooting.
It’s something like a coaching heat check to go about the reigning NBA champions like they were Team Canada, but here we are. Nurse still has credible top-20 players in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, but having to answer for Kawhi Leonard’s departure, he imprinted the Raptors with a collectivist ethos that breaks from the superstar-centric ball common around the league right now. Everyone makes the right pass to the right place at the right time, and doing so feels like a source of pride. Unlike last year, when the Raptors adhered to Kawhi’s pound-the-ball tempo, you can get a sense of what a Nick Nurse team is supposed to look like. Against obvious odds, this particular Nick Nurse team has been about as good without Kawhi as the last one was with him, at least in the regular season. There might not be anyone else sniffing Nurse in the Coach of the Year race this year.
This year’s Raptors is what a Nick Nurse team looks like
The unselfish approach works in part because the Raptors’ best players are basketball snobs themselves, and good coaching is mostly just being adaptive to the character of your player personnel anyway. Some of these Raptors would turn their noses up at the thought of chasing individual numbers, and the ball absolutely flies up the court. Lowry, who took on a heavy playmaking focus as Kawhi’s running mate, has tilted his game back a bit towards big-onions shot-making, but he’s a little things player at his core. He wants to pass early, screen, re-space and facilitate team offense with or without the ball in his hands. He wants to draw charges in the All-Star Game.
When the Raptors need a bucket, Siakam hunts isolation mismatches with a mean streak, and in his orbit is a team of high-IQ players that can make the quick reads necessary to find open shooters against help. Late-career Marc Gasol basically identifies as this type of player, and even Serge Ibaka is making the right decisions after a next-to-nothing history of passing the ball. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell are all having career years as drive-and-kick cogs, and the discoveries of Terence Davis and Chris Boucher have been a delight in line with the Raptors’ history of unearthing young gems.
Winning this way takes full buy-in from the team, and the Raptors have been one of the NBA’s best teams by manifesting individual skill, intelligence and effort into a hivemind entity down for any and all bizarro schemes. Honestly, Nurse has used more types of defense this season than I knew existed. What the hell is a triangle-and-two? It can’t be said enough: Teams don’t really play like this. The only exception I can think of is Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat, which have Jimmy Butler in the Lowry role. Most of the best teams are defined by having a player like Kawhi and the luxury of putting the ball in his hands, over and over. The Raptors have brought an alternative into being, and it’s been good for 30-point comebacks and 15-game winning streaks.
Teams like these are basically all fun, but there’s a tension inherent to their construction. Just how long can the ride go on for? If you accept the truism that there are only about five to ten players in the NBA that drive championship-level winning — half of whom are doubled up on the same team right now — then the Raptors don’t qualify. They sit pretty within that second tier of teams, but they’re looking in on Giannis Antetokounmpo, on LeBron James and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Historically, and this isn’t really a fulfilling answer, even the most cohesive team ball loses to superstars. In a seven-game playoff series, schemes are picked apart and countered, and pure talent is the battering ram that powers through the chess match. The playoffs reduce you from the shots you want to the shots you make, and the Raptors don’t win last year without Kawhi going god mode from midrange in one-on-ones and against double-teams.
Fatalism isn’t the point, though — bringing fatalism into basketball sort of ruins the point. Nurse’s predecessor in Toronto, Dwane Casey, liked to talk about the long game, about establishing a program with year-to-year winning consistency. Every year, his teams ran head-first into a wall named Playoff LeBron, but every year, they were good for their 50-something wins. As an alternative to, say, a Sam Hinkie-style deconstruction, the Raptors were pretty good for half a decade and stayed good until the chance to go all-in with a superstar presented itself. They already make the best argument for just trying to win your games.
Going into the season, the challenge was to mount a respectable title defense without Kawhi. Saving face feels like an afterthought now — this team has been straight-up exciting. Kawhi walked, and the Raptors have smashed the standings just the same. It takes a certain self-delusion (being a fan, mostly) to think that they have much of a chance going against Giannis in the playoffs, but that’s the power of improvising a winner like this team: You get to talk yourself into things. If Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez miss their threes like last year, then what happens, right? Irrational confidence comes from seasons like this, and I hope Nick Nurse never loses his imagination.