The first major question of a critical 76ers offseason has been answered, as Nick Nurse reached an agreement to become the team’s next head coach on Monday.
Nurse, the former Toronto Raptors coach who won the 2019 NBA championship, takes over a talented Sixers team anchored by reigning league MVP Joel Embiid that disappointed again in the playoffs and has several roster decisions to make this summer.
Although we are months away from getting a glimpse of Nurse’s on-court influence, here are some immediate questions that follow his upcoming hiring:
How will Nurse fill out his Sixers staff?
A head-coaching change has a significant trickle-down effect, impacting assistants, player development coaches, and support staffers.
Coaches and organizations have varying approaches on whether to bring in a completely fresh group or maintain some continuity with people who also were on the previous staff. For instance, Sam Cassell, who has great relationships with current Sixers like Tyrese Maxey and James Harden and has interviewed for head-coaching jobs, would be worth considering retaining.
That’s perhaps especially true, considering that Adrian Griffin, Nurse’s top assistant in Toronto, reportedly reached an agreement over the weekend to become the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach. Nurse also had two other former NBA head coaches on his most recent Toronto staff in Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren, though neither of their tenures ended particularly well in Phoenix and Indiana, respectively. Watson, however, previously coached Sixers veteran P.J. Tucker as he carved out his NBA niche with the Suns.
Nurse’s other assistants and player-development coaches in 2022-23 were:
— Trevor Gleeson, a former title-winning head coach in Australia’s National Basketball League.
— Jim Sann and Rico Hines, whom Yahoo! Sports reported earlier this month are expected to return to the Raptors next season.
— Nathaniel Mitchell, a Toronto native who previously was an assistant with the Charlotte Hornets and the Raptors’ G League affiliate. He will be the head coach of Canada’s U23 men’s national team at GLOBL JAM in July in Toronto.
— Jon Goodwillie, another Toronto native who rose up through the Raptors’ coaching staff after starting out as a video coordinator.
— John Corbacio, who also was the Raptors’ head video coordinator.
— Michael Prenger, the shooting coach who was a teammate of Nurse’s at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll, Iowa.
Whoever becomes the Raptors’ next head coach could aim to retain members of the former staff, while Griffin also could attempt to hire former colleagues in Milwaukee. And whether former Sixers coach Doc Rivers gets the Phoenix Suns job and brings some of his Sixers staffers with him also could impact who stays in Philly. Dan Burke and Dave Joerger were instrumental in building the Sixers’ defensive and offensive systems, respectively.
How can Nurse further develop Maxey?
Much of the focus understandably has been on how the new Sixers coach would schematically (and motivationally) build around Embiid, who has impressively expanded his game each season but still has not had a deep playoff run. Focus also has been on the influence the hire could have on Harden’s decision to return to the Sixers or reunite with the Houston Rockets after declining his player option and entering free agency.
Yet Maxey’s continued development — presumably after signing a max (or near-max) contract extension this summer — is a massive key for sustained success during and after Embiid’s prime.
Nurse has experience with maximizing a smaller guard, turning the undrafted Fred VanVleet into an All-Star in 2022. VanVleet and Maxey have different strengths, as the former is a more natural point guard (he averaged a career-high 7.2 assists this past season) and a much better defender (1.8 steals per game this season). Yet Maxey has already proven to be a dynamite long-range shooter — ranking fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage (.434) on 6.2 attempts per game during the regular season — and electric scorer while getting downhill and in transition, where Nurse’s recent offenses thrived.
Maxey also is at his best defensively when he is harassing ballhandlers. It will be interesting to see how Nurse’s creativity on that end of the floor could help Maxey improve.
How will Nurse’s hiring impact roster-building?
The Sixers already had several looming roster decisions, which now will be influenced by Nurse’s philosophy and coaching style.
President of basketball operations Daryl Morey said during his end-of-season news conference that the Sixers are interested in bringing back some of their own free agents. Jalen McDaniels, whom the Sixers added at the trade deadline, is the type of rangy, switchable wing that Nurse had in spades in Toronto. Paul Reed, a restricted free agent who said during the playoffs that he would like to return to the Sixers, feels like a fit as a long, active big man. Georges Niang’s shooting is likely to jibe with Nurse’s focus on that skill, although the Raptors ranked near the bottom of the NBA in three-point attempts (21st, 32 per game) and percentage (28th, .335) last season.
Nurse’s hiring also could further signal that it’s finally time for 2021 first-round draft pick Jaden Springer, another tenacious defender with an in-progress offensive game, to get a real look at the NBA level. Athletic wing Danuel House Jr. and reserve center Montrezl Harrell, meanwhile, have player options in their contracts for next season.
And how does standout forward Tobias Harris, whose hefty contract is expiring and thus more tradeable, fit in with Nurse’s plans?
Worth noting: Assuming VanVleet declines his player option for next season, he will be a coveted free agent and intriguing target if Harden does not return. VanVleet demonstrated his approval in the Sixers hiring Nurse by quote-tweeting the news with emojis of the praying hands and flexed biceps Monday night.