PHILADELPHIA — I’m a big fan of polymaths, and also of people who are passionate about one thing. That’s a bit of a contradiction, but not as big as it seems. Look at the Sixers’ new head coach. His basketball background is as broad as the cornfields in his native Iowa. There’s also a maniacal quality to it: the biography of a man who, from a very young age, harbored an obsession with coaching in its purest form.
Nick Nurse’s career has been one part basketball junkie, one part coaching junkie, one part renaissance man. He was a player-coach in Europe, then a 23-year-old head coach at an evangelical Lutheran college in Iowa. He then spent a decade coaching in the basketball hotbed of Great Britain, before moving back stateside and establishing himself as something of a developmental league guru. After three different G-League stops that netted him a title and a Coach of the Year award, Nurse moved to the NBA bench, where he became an assistant on the staff of the head coach he would ultimately replace. Then, suddenly, at 50 years old, he was an NBA champion with a near-universal stamp of approval as one of the league’s brightest minds.
Now, he’s here.
Most of what we need to know about Nurse’s vision for the Sixers will have to wait until the team officially introduces him as the latest chief administrator of the Post-Process Construction Authority. One thing we can say right now is that he is a different voice. Different doesn’t always mean better. Often, it ends up sounding like the previous voices once the realities of a situation impart their sway.
But the Sixers are at a much different point than they were when Brett Brown departed and Doc Rivers arrived. Joel Embiid is 29 years old and fast approaching the physiological stage where even durable bodies begin to decline. He has been paired with two different coaches, four different players on max contracts, and two others making at least $20 million per year. He has made six All-Star teams, won one MVP award, and advanced to three Game 7s in the conference semifinals. Yet here he is, finishing his May the same way he did as a rookie.
The one thing you can say about the Sixers with Embiid is that they have not developed. Of the top 10 players in the Sixers’ playoff rotation, only Embiid had been with the team for five full years. Only Tobias Harris has been with him for longer than three. Individually, Maxey and Paul Reed are a couple of success stories. As a team, though, the Sixers have never come close to the continuous, collective development of teams like the Nuggets, Celtics, and Heat.
The Sixers best hope for the foreseeable future is that they grow into a basketball team instead of an MVP center surrounded by an annual batch of whatever players they can find. That will require a coach who has the ability to both identify and cultivate individual skills and also recognize how to get the most out of those skills in game situations. From a confidence standpoint. From a comfort standpoint. From a strategic standpoint, both macro and micro.
Until we get our chance to hear from Nurse himself, I’d like to direct your attention to something that the 55-year-old said on a podcast appearance when he was still gainfully employed by the Raptors. Naturally, given how the world is, the podcast in question was hosted by J.J. Redick, who three years prior had been a member of the Sixers team that Nurse’s Raptors defeated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis, and one year later would land an interview to replace Nurse as the Raptors’ next coach.
Anyway, Redick the podcast host asked Nurse a question that the coach had likely been asked plenty of times before.
What makes a good NBA head coach?
At first, Nurse’s answer sounded kind of vanilla.
“For me, I always try to say a couple things,” he said. “One is, you’ve got to instill that you’re playing to win the game. I know that sounds really simple, but that is A, how we’re judged, that’s why they keep score.”
But then things got interesting, particularly if you consider the roster that he will inherit as Doc Rivers’ successor.
“Right under [winning],” Nurse continued, “Number 1-A is, can we increase each player’s value in the marketplace? I’m not afraid to say that to players: How are we getting you to another place and a better contract and a longer contract, 13th man to ninth man, ninth man to sixth man — what is it that we can do?
“We spend a lot of time trying to get them better. Well, what’s getting them better? We have to develop them. We have to work with them. We’ve got to do the shooting; we’re not afraid to tinker with their shot when they get here. We’re not afraid to put in the time and this and that, but we’re also not afraid to coach winning. The film sessions, one-on-one, are about, these are winning basketball plays. That’s it, for me. That’s what makes a good coach. There’s a zillion other things. Can you sub good? Can you timeout good? Can you draw up plays good? You’ve got to bail them out sometimes. Can you get on them a little bit when they need it? And can you put your arm around them when they need it too?”
First observation: Nurse’s philosophy jibes with what Sixers president Daryl Morey said in his end-of-season press conference when he opined that X’s-and-O’s coaching tactics were overvalued by a lot of people. In-game strategy isn’t irrelevant, it’s just one of those zillions of other things that makes a good coach. NBA games aren’t Hickory versus South Bend Central where little Jimmy Harden looks to the bench every time down the court to see what play coach wants to run. They are are a perpetual stream of 24-second increments in which the players rely mostly on themselves and each other to get the ball in the hoop. For an NBA head coach, the vast majority of the heavy lifting occurs away from the bench and the whiteboard.
Basketball IQ, strategic acumen — they can make plenty of difference. But in order for that to happen, they need to be coupled with a certain level of trust and respect. A coach needs to know what he is talking about. But that only helps him if his players accept it.
Second observation: At first glance, Nurse’s mindset isn’t one that you would typically associate with a team like the Sixers. He’s clearly a development guy at heart. It’s why Morey hired him to coach the Rio Grande Valley Vipers with the Rockets a decade ago. It’s why he ended up on Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto. It’s why he was a perfect fit for the post-Kawhi years in Toronto, when he cobbled together a string of playoff appearances with guys like Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and company.
The Sixers? The last time we saw them, they had one of the most veteran starting fives in the NBA, one that featured three max-level contract players, two of them former MVPs, plus 37-year-old P.J. Tucker. Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tobias Harris — these are guys who have entrenched identities.
Harden may not be back. Harris may not be, either. P.J. Tucker is a guy who would fit with plenty of other teams. Whatever happens, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Nurse’s voice, personality and background alter the trajectory of these Sixers.
Nurse’s first team in Toronto was a veteran-laden group. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Marc Gasol — those guys were who they were long before the new head coach arrived.
That group played an impressive brand of basketball, even as Nurse knew enough to let Leonard do his thing. But where he really established himself as a marquee coach was in the subsequent years, molding a bunch of young, athletic players into a nameless, faceless team.
I’m interested to see how the dynamic plays out. Embiid isn’t your typical MVP. He’s still developing. Maxey is a guy who has plenty of further steps he can take. Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels are both pending free agents who would have fit in nicely with Nurse’s later-years Raptors.
But development goes much deeper than the refinement of individual skill. More important than recognizing where a player needs improvement is recognizing what he does well and how that can help the team. From there, it’s a coach’s job to put the player in situations where he is most likely to thrive. Match skills to situation. Build confidence through comfort. That’s the game.
In the short-term Sixers need a coach who can integrate Embiid into a cohesive offense. They need a coach who helps Maxey defensively and finds his optimal role on offense.
In the long-term they need a coach who can create sustainable growth.