Nick Nurse is slated to be the next head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. After coaching against them for years with the Toronto Raptors (including twice in the playoffs), Nurse is teaming up with Joel Embiid and aiming to get the Sixers over the hump.
Nurse pitched the Sixers a plan to win with Embiid, choosing to coach Philly over the Phoenix Suns and pulling his name from consideration from the Milwaukee Bucks. Philly has some work to do, but the fact that Nurse chose them when he could have gone to other contenders is a good sign.
While Nurse is far from the perfect coach, he has qualities and a resumé that should inspire optimism. Here are three reasons why Nick Nurse is the right head coach for the Sixers.
3. Track record of success
The 2019 championship is the most significant accomplishment that shows Nurse is a winner. Chalking up that run to Kawhi Leonard's brilliance is understandable, given how good he was during those playoffs but Nurse's impact cannot be overlooked. From walling up the paint against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals to going to the box-and-one defense against Stephen Curry and playing the Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet duo more in the Finals, Nurse implemented the right strategies along the way.
After losing Leonard (and another starter in, Danny Green) in 2019 free agency, Nurse kept the Raptors highly competitive. Their winning percentage in the regular season improved as he helped turn them into a defensive juggernaut that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. His efforts led to him winning the Coach of the Year award. The Raptors team that the Sixers beat in the 2022 playoffs were also overachievers.
That defense was predicated heavily on swarming around the perimeter to contest shots, which could be very helpful for a Sixers team deficient of strong on-ball stoppers. Nurse's teams have historically been great at creating live-ball turnovers, which could spur improvement in transition for Philly. Plus, having an elite rim protector like Embiid could allow Nurse to push other buttons.
Nurse's final year with the Raptors was disappointing on many accounts. But a fresh start with the Sixers could be what he needs to prove once again that he is one of the better coaches the NBA has to offer.
2. Offensive philosophy that should unlock Sixers
While the Raptors' half-court offenses of the last few seasons were pretty bad, that can partly be attributed to their personnel, namely the lack of perimeter shooters. Nurse is not blameless for their struggles, but Embiid gives him the chance to craft something better and more potent. He hasn't ever worked with a scorer of this caliber (though, again, Leonard was pretty darn good). James Harden would give him a special playmaker, and should he depart for the Houston Rockets, Nurse will still have another scoring dynamo in Tyrese Maxey.
The Sixers have to get more motion in their offense. The lack of ball movement and off-ball actions left them without another gear to tap into against a great defensive team. Nurse's offenses are less iso-centric and more read-and-react, which could benefit Philly considerably so long as they put the right personnel in place around Embiid. For his part, Embiid will also have to be willing to iso less and do more playmaking and advantage-creating for his teammates.
While Nick Nurse's Raptors became more known for defense, he came up through the coaching ranks as more of an offensive mind. Working with the G League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers (the Houston Rockets' affiliate), he installed high-efficiency shots into his offense as a testing lab for the big-league club.
The Raptors devolved into a mid-range-heavy team the last few years but were near the top of the league in the frequency of shots at the rim and from three in Nurse's first few years. Their frequency of corner threes has also been relatively high (hello, P.J. Tucker). With better pieces to work with, there is a reason to believe that Nurse can build an offense that can withstand the might of playoff defenses.
1. Blend of tactics and character
Some coaches are known more for being tactically intelligent, making the proper adjustments and crafting the most optimal game plans. Others are known for connecting well with their players or otherwise getting the most out of them. Nick Nurse has a well-deserved reputation in the former and a reputation in the latter that…is more complicated.
Nurse has never been afraid to go to different tactics from game to game. But one other thing he has rarely been afraid to do is calling out players publicly, which always has the potential to disunite a locker room. He admitted that the team had a disconnect that they couldn't overcome, dooming their 2022-23 season. Being brutally honest is a tricky tightrope to balance on but it is one that Philly seemingly desires to figure out.
Throughout last season, coaches and players alike discussed the importance of P.J. Tucker's vocal leadership. During the playoffs, the Sixers had a film session where they got down to brass tacks and said what had to be said. Nurse should fit right in, as Philly can't afford to cover up the unpleasant truth that their window of opportunity is in jeopardy. But he will also have to earn the players' trust.
If there's any part of Nurse's philosophy that seems to not make him a good fit with the Sixers, it's his rotations. In each of the last three seasons, the Raptors starters played more minutes per game than any other team's starters. VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have been near the top of the leaderboard among players in that category. Embiid's injury history leads to obvious concerns, but it should be noted that Leonard was able to effectively load-manage under Nurse. One would think he would make the same considerations for Embiid and Harden, should he stay.
Daryl Morey said that the primary factors for candidates in the Sixers' search were accountability, leadership, tactics and the ability to maintain relationships with star players. Nurse seems to, for the most part, check all the boxes. Championship pedigree can be a cliche, but it can also have big impacts on teams that lack it. The Sixers really lack it — and Nurse is equipped to lead the change.
Last year, he said his coaching philosophy is predicated on winning above all else, developing and empowering his players and having the X's and O's in place to put them in the right spots. Actions speak louder than words, but if Nick Nurse truly practices what he preaches while learning from his mistakes in Toronto, he could be a great coach for the Sixers.