Basketball’s no utopia. When the action’s good, when the wins are steady, when the chemistry of a team’s been so rigorously tested it feels formulaic, it can feel like the most peaceful thing in the world. A land of honeyed hardwood and feathery touches. Ah, but it never lasts.
Basic misfiring or simple dysfunction, there isn’t a team this season that hasn’t gone through it. The Bucks, with their perfect attendance work ethic, have faced rotational strain with injuries. The juggernaut Celtics have had some growing pains for their superstars in leadership and role dynamics. The Nuggets had that weird, late-season blip of an existential crisis. These are the tolls an 82-game season will take.
There’s a comfort to a team that struggles and instead of crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, rolls up their proverbial sleeves and hunkers down to fix the problem. A team where even in the midst of a franchise-buoying, record-breaking season, poised to make all those lean years of memorizing what the crags of rock bottom felt like worth it, still have a head coach that pushes and says plainly and directly when it’s not good enough — like the Kings and Mike Brown. The message isn’t that almost perfect isn’t good enough, it’s that there’s always a lesson. To tune out the bad when things are going great is to limit stocking up on what could become future fixes and a robust box of tools.
After a season of oscillating between bottoming out and struggling, where everything has looked effortful and everyone has appeared miserable, it’s not any clearer the kind of tools the Toronto Raptors have provisioned themselves with. Nor is it evident that head coach Nick Nurse, knows where to start. Like a plumber showing up to a telephone pole on fire, Nurse’s most well-known move of squatting courtside and squinting at a game in action feels, unfortunately, very apt to the way Toronto’s once basketball paradise has shifted to purgatory for its players and fanbase.
To the front office’s credit, one big problem — the lack of a functional and reliable center — has been fixed. But that was a weakness that went all the way back to the Raptors letting both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol walk in the same summer. It was a problem that, like many the team is currently facing, was left to fester. A lack of shooting (not spot-up, just reliable), no backup point guard, no bench depth, wavering accountability from your core, these are the deficits that have dogged the Raptors from opening night to now, halfway through their final week of regular season games.
Nurse has had crafty and sharp games of making do with what’s there, he’s also been guilty of coaching like he’s got no idea who’s on the floor. The front office has mirrored that. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have preached patience, doubling then quadrupling down on wanting to build something on their own steam and more or less entirely with who they have. The idea that if you build it, a star will come, and even if they wind up borrowing one again like it was with Kawhi Leonard for a single season, it’ll be worth it.
Being patient versus knowingly turning a blind eye to what’s ailing you is the difference between letting a common cold run its course and hobbling around on a broken leg.
Toronto’s bizarre stasis was jolted last week, when Nurse said in a pregame following the team’s loss to the Sixers that he planned to take time away to reflect when the Raptors season was over. It didn’t really sound all that ominous at first. The gist was that 10 years — the tenure that Nurse has been an assistant and head coach of the Raptors combined — is a long time to be anywhere, do anything. Still, it would’ve been hard to take a statement like that at face value given all the rumors that have started swirling about whether or not Ujiri and Webster will extend Nurse’s contract, set to expire next season. Rumors that already felt substantiated if you’d spent any amount of time watching the team play this season, and seen the palpable frustration from players, Nurse, and in a roundabout way, the front office by standing pat other than trading for Jakob Poeltl at the deadline.
The jolt was as good a signal as any Nurse could’ve given and, taken out of the team’s current bummer context, is the kind of comment it makes sense for someone approaching the end of their contract to give. NBA athletes, coaches, even GMs have played this game alongside the actual one for years. In a normal job you’d go to the person you report to directly and ask for a raise, a promotion, recognition; in the NBA, in addition to those conversations, you go on TV. The disappointing wrinkle has been in how Nurse has handled things since.
Toronto is a notoriously quiet organization. Nurse, amicable enough with media, rarely ranges into the personal. Those two things combined made it completely warranted for the team’s beat reporters to follow up with Nurse on his comments. When they did, though, postgame in Charlotte a few nights later, Nurse lashed out.
“I’m not – ”, Nurse starts to stutter, “I don’t want to answer that question every game, because I got it about three games in a row. So let's move on and talk about tonight and this team and this season please, thank you.”
Contrary to what he said, it was the only time he’d been asked about the comments he made around taking time away. Comments that he made unprompted. In light of that, his animosity bordered on petulant, and fell back into the same comfortable territory of willful avoidance the entire franchise has been staking out all season.
It’s disheartening to the fanbase, an awkward non-starter for reporters trying to do their jobs, and doesn’t signal to any player on the team that the play-in and whatever comes after it, be it offseason or a first-round series, requires a different kind of buy-in then the regressive one they’ve had all season. It was an opportunity for clarity, rousing frankness, a better tool than just a hammer, and it was wasted. Toronto’s chances at salvaging whatever it is the franchise is trying to patiently build might have gone with it.