CAMDEN, NJ — When the Philadelphia 76ers set out to find their next head coach after firing Doc Rivers, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey laid out some traits he is looking for in the ideal candidate. In Nick Nurse, he found his man. The Sixers made him their top choice for the job and convinced him to take the job over the Phoenix Suns' opening.
Morey and Sixers owner Josh Harris introduced Nurse, who led the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 championship, as the 26th head coach in franchise history on the same day as Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals. The championship series serves as a reminder of the work that needs to be done in order to turn Joel Embiid and the Sixers into a champion.
Nurse having an NBA title under his belt — as well as G League championships in 2011 and 2013 with different teams — was one of the five factors laid out by Morey that shows why Philly desired him. He's the only coach to steer both a G League and NBA team to the ultimate prize.
“Obviously, championship pedigree on multiple levels is a big, big factor,” Morey said. “His creativity. Like I mentioned before, the fact that [he is] a partner in how to create results together, I think is a big factor. I think he sort of checks every box: relationships with players, working with star players, tactics, someone that people in the league want to play for. It's a pretty long list and we thought he's a pretty special candidate.”
That list of traits runs in line with what Morey said two weeks ago about his ideal coach for the Sixers. Morey spoke highly of Rivers but he was hired roughly a month before Morey took the Sixers' job. The partnership between Nurse and Morey should be more in sync, especially because Nurse coached the Houston Rockets' G League team when Morey was their general manager.
Before they first joined forces, Nurse was the head coach of the Iowa Energy. They won the 2011 championship over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Nurse was that season's Coach of the Year award recipient. Five months later, Nurse was hired by the Vipers, working a few levels beneath Morey but pulling in the same direction nonetheless. Both the Rockets and Vipers were on a quest to maximize their offensive efficiency.
“I was interested in going to work with Daryl once we started talking,” Nurse said. “I mean, there was a lot of kind of analytical things, innovative ideas, etc. And that kind of really triggered me. I thought I thought it'd be a chance for me to grow as a coach.”
Nurse cited that desired growth as a coach upon his arrival to the Rockets organization. He said that the setting adopted the mindset of a laboratory where he was expected to experiment on the hardwood. He said that Morey encouraged innovation and creativity, which indeed helped him improve his coaching.
Going to different tactics helped the Raptors not only win it all but remain a highly competitive team the next year after losing superstar Kawhi Leonard. Nurse won the NBA's Coach of the Year award in the 2019-20 season, showing that he can also build a strong defensive unit. The Raptors had the league's second-best defense.
Reflecting on Nurse's arrival to the Vipers, Morey said that the Sixers were similarly looking for a coach with ingenuity. The work Nurse did for the Vipers impressed the Raptors, who brought him on as an assistant coach in 2013. He served as the de facto offensive coordinator under Dwane Casey the season prior to becoming Toronto's head coach, fine-tuning his ability to work with different players and install different schemes based on what each team, game and possession calls for.
“Coaching is just trying things and when they work, we keep them in our toolbox,” Nurse said, “and when they don't work, we crumble them up and get rid of them right away.”
That willingness to try new things made Nurse a successful coach and ideal candidate for vacancies during the 2023 offseason coach cycle. Before getting much of a chance to dissect Philly's roster as it stands, he has ideas for the developments of Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. He understands that the urgency for the Sixers to advance past the second round is profound. But he's also not one to dwell on the past.
“That combination of staying healthy, the ball bouncing your way, figuring out the long grind that it is to go from the start of the playoffs to winning a title — all those things, very difficult,” Nurse said of winning in the playoffs. “You gotta be able to do all that stuff.
“And as far as the rest of it, I look at it like this: I don't really vibrate on the frequency of the past,” Nurse continued. “Like, to me when we get a chance to start to dig into this thing a little bit, it's going to be only focused on what we're trying to do going forward. That doesn't matter. Next season, whatever's happened for the last how many whatever years, doesn't matter.”
The Sixers' past frequencies have scrambled the hopes that an Embiid-led team can achieve greatness. Morey and Philly's leadership hope Nurse's tactical flexibility will put them on a path to that greater level of success.