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Should the Rockets target Nick Nurse this summer?

Could Nurse reunite with his original NBA franchise?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks
Could Nick Nurse be the next coach of the Rockets?
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Sports can be a dirty business.

There’s a lot of gossip. There’s a tendency to dehumanize people. The NBA’s players, coaches and general managers alike are pieces on a chessboard - only it’s living chess.

As writers, we’re players too. Of course, we’re pawns at best. Still, we’re a small voice in the chorus. Lately, we’re mostly in harmony about one thing:

It’s time for the Rockets to move on from Stephen Silas.

I’m willing to die on one hill: Silas doesn’t deserve this. I truly believe that. He was dealt a bad hand - etc, etc.

It doesn’t matter. It’s just time to move on. Inertia has taken the wheel. Silas’ goose is effectively cooked.

Could Nick Nurse be his replacement?

Is Nurse leaving Toronto?

Here’s some life advice. If you think someone is leaving you, and you ask them, and they tell you that they'd like to “take a few weeks to see where they’re at”...

You’ve been dumped.

Sure, Nurse could remain in Toronto. It’s not looking optimistic. Of course, this begs a question:

Why is Nurse leaving Toronto?

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. The Raptors, at this moment, have a different standard than the Rockets. These are the 2018-19 NBA Champions. Still, they've been on a gradual decline since then. The Raptors may simply be looking to get a new voice in the locker room.

A series of solid seasons shouldn’t suffice for this organization. The Raptors demand excellence. They haven’t gotten it from Nurse in three seasons.

The Rockets need competence. They also need a tonal shift. Silas’ soft touch doesn’t seem to be moving this group forward. Nurse has a notoriously stern hand.

Again - I sincerely don’t think any of this means that Stephen Silas is necessarily a bad NBA coach. I think Rafael Stone has been deliberately making choices to prioritize lottery odds. The Rockets have played third-stringers on their second string. They haven't had a real point guard on the roster. There hasn't been any rim protection.

Coaching can only go so far. Nobody can will a deliberately dysfunctional roster to wins. Still, next season is the clear pivot point in Stone’s plan. A new voice should help facilitate that pivot.

Does Nurse have the right voice?

Should the Rockets hire Nurse?

About that stern hand...

Nurse isn’t known to coddle. Anecdotally, I’m Canadian. I talk to a lot of Raptors fans. Most of my friends support the team.

Thank you for your sympathy.

Anyway, miss a defensive rotation? That’s a benchin’. Take an ill-advised shot? That’s a benchin’. Bad body language? That’s a paddlin’ - no, sorry, benchin’. It seems that Nurse is not shy about holding his players accountable.

There could be some concerns about culture shock here. Can this young core go from one of the most extreme coaches in the NBA to the opposite extreme?

How about this: the cream will rise to the top. If these young men can’t handle being coached, they can’t handle being NBA stars. Perhaps that’s a hardline, old-school approach. It may not apply in this brave new world.

Yesterday, Jalen Green changed his profile picture to an anime character. It upset people for some reason. I’m old and confused, man. Let’s just say this: if Stone thinks the Rockets’ young core can handle Nurse, that should be good enough for the fanbase.

It’s worth noting that this might be a unique opportunity in the first place. Nurse likely wouldn’t even consider the Rockets if he didn’t have ties to the organization - he coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to the (then) D-League Championship in 2012-13.

What has he been up to since?

Is Nurse the right coach for the Rockets?

Let’s look at Nurse’s best season, worst season and one season in between as the head coach of the Raptors.

His best year came in 2018-19. The Raptors’ 113.1 Offensive Rating that season ranked fifth in the league, as did their 107.1 Defensive Rating. The Raptors won the NBA championship that season.

Did they get lucky? Absolutely. That’s a common way to minimize Nurse’s accomplishment here.

To be sure, Curry got hurt. Durant got hurt. Thompson got hurt - even Boogie Cousins had to be sidelined. The Warriors completely fell apart.

OK. The Raptors still beat a Sixers team that featured Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler. They beat the Milwaukee Bucks. Nurse’s imprint was all over this team’s Finals run too.

The box-and-one. The Wall (no, not that wall). Nurse developed a reputation for deploying unorthodox defensive coverages throughout that playoff run, and each time, it seemed like the right decision.

If you haven’t noticed, the Rockets could use a revitalized defense.

Conversely, the Raptors simply had bad luck during Nurse’s worst season with the team. In 2020-21, just about every significant Raptor missed 10 or more games.

Let’s look at a more median season. Last year, the Raptors won 48 games. Their 110.5 Defensive Rating was 10th in the NBA.

That’s not bad. It also came without a traditional defensive big man. The Raptors experimented with Pascal Siakam at the five. They gave heavy minutes to the inexperienced, 6’8” Precious Achiuwa at the position. These are both good-to-great defenders, but neither is a rim protector.

Let’s get big picture. The Raptors won 50+ games in three consecutive seasons under Nurse’s stewardship. He may be one of the best coaches in the NBA, but most significantly for this franchise at this moment, he is a distinctly good coach. If he’s available and interested, the Rockets should hire him.

Even if it means checkmate for Stephen Silas.