Where The Game Is Going

by Vivek Jacob

Gone is the clean-shaven face and business suit look from his first-ever presser as head coach of the Raptors. Nick Nurse rocks a goatee and coach’s uniform nowadays, but while plenty has changed around him, little else has changed about him.

Nurse has gone from Toronto to Tampa and back again, his coaching staff has undergone significant changes, as has his roster, which has turned over from champion to fresh-faced in just a couple seasons and ready to write a new chapter in this franchise’s history. He still expects his team to play hard, expects that he and his staff will put his players in position to succeed, and together, they expect to win.

When team president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster, and the rest of the front office conducted their head coaching search that concluded with the hiring of Nurse, they wanted someone who would always look to be one step ahead. Nurse’s words back in 2018 reflected that sentiment.

“I think the game in general is changing so fast right before our eyes,” Nurse said back then. “It’s changed so much in the last five years, it’s changed so much in the last three years. The leadership that I’m bringing and the coaching staff that we’ll eventually hire is: We’ve got to be innovative. We’ve got to be thinking of what’s coming next before it comes next, if you wanna stay ahead of the game.”

The league-wide change Nurse referred to is mostly reflected in three-point shooting. If it was still marinating back when Nurse first joined the Raptors as an assistant, consider it fully cooked with everyone seated at the table now. Entering the 2013-14 season, teams combined to average about 44 three-point attempts a game. Entering this season, that’s ticked just over 70.

How much further can it go? The Raptors aren’t thinking on just those terms. While there’s certainly too much value in the power of three for it to be ignored, that’s where the league already is. Toronto wants to be where the game is going. This newly rebuilt roster boasts 11 of 17 players (including two-way deals) who are at least 6-foot-8 -- rubber-stamped by this year’s lottery selection of long, strong, and versatile Scottie Barnes.

In theory, they will work to increase the likelihood of shrinking passing lanes and creating turnovers, racing to every spot on the floor to contest, snagging rebounds and pushing the ball up the floor before you can spell splash. The Houston Rockets had their version of small ball but that was still centred on slower, deliberate, halfcourt play led by the brilliance of James Harden while the skill on display from The Hamptons Five created by the Golden State Warriors was a once in a lifetime event. Toronto, just at the beginning of this journey, is looking to be fast and furious with plenty of sequels to come.

Shooting from beyond the arc may be the sonic boom that everyone hears, but the value of transition on both ends has made its own boisterous ascent. Points-per-possession (PPP) has become a crucial measure in understanding the value of different play types, and if quality fastbreak opportunities as well as shots earlier in the clock are the low hanging fruit, the Raptors are going to have as many hands on deck to pick them as possible.

“It's kind of fun to experiment with when you’ve got the guys that can do it,” Nurse said. “I think the players are having fun with it. I like it when I see Precious snap a rebound and come out of there with it. I'm like, ‘Alright, well, this is gonna be cool! What's gonna happen?’ And then he lays it in at the other end and I’m like, ‘See, that was cool!’ It's interesting. We'll see, we'll see how long we keep riding this.”

During practice drills, Nurse has made a point of avoiding repeatedly having the same player in the same role for the same drill. He wants all his versatile options to know every role on the floor so that there are no surprises in a game when they are forced into unfamiliar territory. During training camp, instead of, say, introducing 15 new sets or starts to the offence, Nurse would start them off with five and provide equal opportunity for each of the five players to experience what’s required at each position. That way, he has 25 different looks to go to instead of 15.

When you think of fast breaks by players blessed with the rare gift of both rebounding and heading off to the races, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and the reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s exhilarating plays come to mind. Beyond their unique, unparalleled gifts, their advantage lay in one basic premise: Those precious seconds saved from the designated big man controlling the board and then finding a suitable candidate to dribble the ball up court is the difference between attacking a set defence or a scrambled one.

Sure, the Raptors may not currently have that singular talent who can stand alongside those all-timers, but perhaps the whole can be just as breathtaking as the sum when five try to execute that basic premise in unison.

Dalano Banton, the Rexdale local selected 46th overall by Toronto in this year’s draft, has made an early impression with his intimidating length and ability to lead a break, adding to Nurse’s chaos-ball options. If creating early clock offence is going to be pivotal for a team that may face some issues in the half-court, preventing the opposition from getting its fair share back is going to matter, too. Getting low in a defensive stance with arms out every possession is a Nurse requirement, and Banton already sees the unique advantages this elongated roster construct presents.

“I definitely feel like it’s different, just coming in and learning new concepts on the defensive end and being in different spots,” Banton said. “I just feel like having guys who are a lot bigger and a lot of size on the court, it discourages people from making passes just by having our hands out like this (stretches his arms out to show his 6-foot-10 wingspan). Guys that are 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9, and versatile I feel like it could go a long way for us on the defensive end, as well as offensively. Going out and trying to be in the right spots as a unit every time on the defensive end, showing our hands, showing our length is gonna be great for us for sure.”

Constantly applying ball pressure, turning fastball passes into loopy ones, buying time to either create a deflection or give the rotating defender a better chance to recover are all going to be part of the Raptors’ defensive modus operandi. There will be no sense of tradition in who could be defending the perimeter or in prime position to close out the possession with a board. They will be deliberate in their randomness on the other end -- at least early in the clock -- taking on interchangeable roles depending on who leads them forward each possession. They hope to always be in position because of their positionless-ness.

“I’m just worried about my playing time going down, I don’t know, they went out and got all these 6-foot-9 guys, it don’t make sense to have me at point guard no more,” 6-foot-1 Fred VanVleet joked when asked his views of the remade roster. “I know Nick’s basketball brain is always working and he’s never satisfied. He’s not afraid to push the borders of what is normal, especially in basketball which is such a copycat league, we kinda just recycle the same ideas over and over. I’m sure he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.”

When Ujiri first came to Toronto, he inherited a coach and a roster. He could have looked to rework it immediately but made incremental moves until it was time to swing big. Hiring Nurse was a legacy move, one that divided opinion until it yielded an NBA title. Now begins a new era, with Ujiri, Webster, Nurse and co. in lockstep with a roster and a vision that is unequivocally theirs.

What this style and brand of play will yield in terms of results remains to be seen, but the basic premise is evident: to be where the game is going, not where it’s already at. This is a plan to not just take the Raptors forward, but the NBA itself.

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