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PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 16: A closeup shot of Head Coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers during Round 1 Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2022 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Time to Work

Precious Achiuwa joining the Toronto Raptors made few happier than Masai Ujiri. The Vice Chairman and President of the team first came to know about his fellow Nigerian when Achiuwa was an eighth grader attending Ujiri’s Giants of Africa basketball camp and has been tracking his progress ever since. Ujiri’s first words to Achiuwa after the trade was complete?

“Finally… you are mine now.”

Ujiri doesn’t play favourites, though, and his hyper competitive drive wants to see the Raptors do well every time out. So, early in the season when Achiuwa was struggling to come to terms with his increased role, Ujiri grew impatient. He saw the on-court mistakes and implored head coach Nick Nurse to explain why Achiuwa was being given the freedom he was because Ujiri simply couldn’t understand it.

“I was like, ‘Why is he doing that? Why is he doing this?’” Ujiri recalled. “He explained it to me… it’s the patience of getting them to make mistakes sometimes.”

That patience has since been rewarded as Achiuwa’s exponential growth rate has been one of the best under the radar stories of the Raptors’ season. It also gives insight into the freedom Nurse has to run the team as he best sees fit. There is a level of synergy between Ujiri and Nurse that allows their partnership to flourish.

When Ujiri elevated Nurse’s status with the Toronto Raptors from assistant to head coach, he did so with the belief the Iowa native had the type of creativity that could not only consistently adapt to the times but be a leader in having other teams follow suit. What also came with the package is a wealth of knowledge about getting the best out of his players because of the variety of experience he accumulated since having first become a head coach at the age of 23. If you’re going to try and think outside the box, you have to give yourself the time needed to take in the unfamiliar surroundings and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Nurse is now four seasons into this job and, after having his box-and-ones and triangle-and-twos spread like wildfire, his task this season was to make Vision 6’9” in vogue. On paper, all signs pointed to this team struggling to put up points in the half court and struggling against size. Nurse’s job, though, is to find solutions. With all those expected misses, the flip side was to find a way to dominate the offensive glass and put back as many of those misses as possible. Prevention is better than cure, too, and the Raptors had a lower percentage of their possessions be played in the half court than any other team in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

Defensively, instead of having one big rim protector who can intimidate, the Raptors looked to deny shots near the basket by having multiple bodies regularly in position to force kick-outs before racing back out to the perimeter and scrambling from there. When they could deny dribble penetration courtesy switching from one lanky wing to another or turn the ball over through tremendous ball pressure, even better.

Win the possession battle, win the game.

By season’s end, what started as an experiment is now clearly a path forward. 34-17 to finish the season is a 54-win pace. During that time, the Raptors went 23-10 against teams with a record of .500 or better, so, this was not a case of just taking advantage of beatable teams. After Dec. 31, they had the sixth best defence primarily because they led the league in forcing turnovers, ande despite one of the worst effective field goal percentages, hung around league average in offensive efficiency courtesy the second-best offensive rebound rate, being fifth-best in taking care of the ball, and getting out in transition more often than anyone not named the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s not quite making lemonade out of lemons when considering the talent level of the core but the passion and commitment the organization has for winning from top to bottom constantly has them seeking solutions and new ways to improve. How do you build on that? That’s what both Nurse and Ujiri addressed in their respective end of season media availabilities so here are the main takeaways:

INTERNAL IMPROVEMENT

It wouldn’t be true to the Raptors’ identity if the team didn’t prioritize internal growth and development. Even with the leap made mid-season, Nurse pointed to there being plenty of room for this team to find the next level.

OG Anunoby played just 48 games and Fred VanVleet was a shadow of himself after the all-star break. Gary Trent Jr. was challenged with playing defence at a higher level last summer and he’ll be asked to take it up another notch this time around. Precious Achiuwa has a leap from role player to starter in him while Pascal Siakam could well go from fringe All-NBA to superstar with his first full off-season since 2019 on the cards.

Then, there is of course Scottie Barnes, who wouldn’t surprise many if he went from Rookie of the Year to all-star. He was the team’s second-best player after the all-star break with 17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 53.3 percent from the field. Ujiri sees room for all of them to grow.

“Pascal needs to make a jump, Fred needs to make a jump, there is plenty (to do),” Ujiri said. “OG needs to play more games. He needs to make a jump. Precious, Boucher, all these guys need to make a jump. Scottie? Who used to say it best? Coach Casey. You told on yourself, that is what he used to say. You tell on yourself, they are coming at you and that’s where you want to be. That’s why I love that they had that six-game [playoff] experience…

“This is what this summer is for. We have had that discussion with all of them at length. We are going to continue those conversations. What did Pascal say? He said he’s going to get better. He’s going to work on his three-point shot to get better. You saw he worked on his mid-range game, got better. All of them have something at stake to grow as a player in this league. These guys are prideful guys and they love the game.”

VANVLEET INJURY RISK MANAGEMENT

VanVleet finished tied with his running mate Siakam for the league lead in minutes per game at 37.9 this season and finished third in that category a season ago. He huffed and puffed until his body could take no more, missing the Raptors’ final two games of the post-season due to a left hip flexor strain to accompany his already sore knee. Toronto can ill-afford to continue going all-in on the demands of his six-foot, 200-pound frame.

“He’s a competitive guy, he likes to play,” Nurse said. “We played him a lot of minutes this year, for sure. Trimming that here and there would probably be advisable, for sure, as we did with Kyle (Lowry). It’s always easier said than done. Usually it was always easier to manage it in the first half so that first halves don’t end up at 21 or 22 [minutes] because when you get to there it gets hard to keep it down to 35 or 36 [minutes], which is where we want to be rather than the upper 30s the way it ends up.”

When Ujiri was asked about VanVleet’s minutes needing managing, he offered a straightforward, “Correct.”

Nurse pointed to Siakam and Barnes’s ability to run the offence as possible ways of reducing the load on VanVleet’s shoulders and the X-Factor in all this is what Malachi Flynn could possibly bring to the table next season. He has now made a noteworthy impression in the latter end of each of his first two seasons and while Nurse credits the progress made in being able to run an NBA offence as well as his active hands on the defensive end, it’s the shotmaking and hustle that will prove the biggest factor in seriously cracking the rotation.

“I keep saying he’s got to get a little dirtier,” Nurse said on the subject of hustle. “Take more charges, come up with more loose balls, dive on the floor more even if it’s just for inspiration, he doesn’t have a great shot to get the ball, but he’s throwing his body around to provide a spark with that kind of stuff. Lastly, he’s going to have to make shots. He’s going to have to be a shot maker like he comes off in a certain coverage and he’s open, he’s going to have to be able to knock them down.

“If it goes to other guys and he’s a spacer on the three, he’s going to have to be a great catch-and-shoot player. He’s got to do that for us because that is a role we could use. I think that is one area he has to get better [at].”

ROSTER NEEDS

As versatile as each individual of the core Vision 6’9” group is, the versatility of the roster as a whole could use some addressing. Ujiri said there’s no discrimination in terms of considering non-prototypical wing players and Nurse was clear in expressing that depth was lacking this year, especially in light of the way COVID and injuries hurt the roster and even got into specifics.

“The more quality players you have, the better chance you’re going to have to win,” Nurse frankly stated. “We could probably use some catch-and-shoot. I’m still after some more wing players, some more athletic wing players so we can continue to come at you in the style of play we want to come at you with.”

While Nurse didn’t explicitly express the need for a big man, he did note that a lob threat could help alleviate some pressure off not only VanVleet, but Trent Jr., and Anunoby when it comes to getting better corner three-point looks due to the pressure being applied on the rim on the weak side.

HERE TO STAY, HERE TO WIN

Just as growth and development is a 12-month-a-year process for the players of this organization, the same applies to the coaching staff. The first part of getting better for Nurse is digesting the Sixers series in full and letting all the strengths and weaknesses that emerged from it sink in.

After that, Nurse will be looking at the advanced metrics of what the team did well over the course of the entire season, what the team didn’t, understanding why those things happened, and how they can be improved or maintained. It’s impossible to be at the top of every single category, but recognizing — based on the roster available — what are the best strengths to target and what are the weaknesses that need to be minimized is all part of the process.

Nurse also has some small, more specific projects that are both team and individual focused, either to make him or his players better or both. For example, last off-season, it wasn’t just Trent Jr.’s defence that was addressed, but rather that he wasn’t much of a catch-and-shoot player and that alongside Siakam and VanVleet, those opportunities were going to present themselves and it could help make Trent Jr. better if he was ready to take advantage. There’s still room for those isolation opportunities, but identifying how a player can get better within the context of what makes the team better is always a focus. When the time comes, Nurse will fly out to wherever the players are working out to meet with them and review these next steps in their development. There will be some Team Canada responsibilities in late June to early July.

In short, there are no distractions. There were some rumours connecting Nurse with the Los Angeles Lakers but both he and Ujiri shot them down, clarifying that he is very much focused on the Raptors and that the only other team he thinks about is the Canada’s men’s senior team, which he also coaches.

“Masai and I have a great relationship, I think mostly because we want to win championships,” Nurse said. “It's about trying to figure out how to win it all. That's what I sense he's trying to do every day and that's what I'm trying to do every day. And that's really important, I think that that goes a long way in synergy for me. He has conversations with me about my coaching and I have conversations with him about the roster… We're going to make some moves to go forward. How can we coach better? How can we play or develop better and how can we get the roster better? How can we get better and get to where we want to go?

“It was a great season but a first round exit is not what we want to do.”