TORONTO (AP) — Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri didn’t see a lot to like this season as his team struggled to a .500 finish and a disappointing play-in defeat.
So Ujiri kicked off an offseason of change “on all fronts” on Friday by firing Nick Nurse, who led Toronto to its first and only NBA title four years ago.
“To watch us play this year was not us,” Ujiri said Friday at his end-of-season news conference. “I did not enjoy watching this team play. I think that spoke loud and clear to everything that went on this year. It bothered all of us."It bothered coach, too. But sometimes we have to make change and we have to move forward.”
Nurse went 227-163 in his five seasons as coach in Toronto, where his .582 winning percentage ranks as the best of any coach in Raptors history. He also spent five years as an assistant to former Raptors coach Dwane Casey before taking over the top job.
Nurse had mused about his future before a March 31 game at Philadelphia, saying he planned to take some time to decide what he wanted next.
“Just see how the relationship with the organization is and everything,” Nurse said. “It’s been 10 years for me, which is a pretty good run. Over those 10 years, we’ve got to be up there in number of wins with anybody in the league.”
Nurse was right: Only Golden State (.661) has a better winning percentage than Toronto (.613) in that span.
Ujiri said Friday that he thought it was “a mistake” for Nurse to make those comments with Toronto still battling for play-in seeding, but that it didn’t factor into the decision to fire him.
Nurse led the Raptors to the title in his debut season. And despite Kawhi Leonard’s departure, the Raptors were playing well before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season in March 2020. Toronto wasn’t the same in the bubble and lost to Boston in seven games in the second round of the playoffs, though Nurse did win the NBA Coach of the Year.
The Raptors then missed the playoffs in 2021, a year where they were forced to call Tampa, Florida, home because of border restrictions related to the pandemic and the challenge of getting teams in and out of Canada for games.
What Ujiri later infamously dubbed ’The Tampa Tank” led to the Raptors landing the fourth pick in the draft. They used it to select forward Scottie Barnes. He won last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year award and Toronto posted a 48-34 record to earn the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, losing to Philadelphia in six games in the first round.
And this season, the Raptors finished 41-41, good for ninth in the East. In Nurse’s final game in charge, Toronto couldn’t hold a 19-point lead in the third quarter and lost 109-105 in a home play-in game against Chicago.
“I think that game summed up what has gone on in this organization,” Ujiri said. “The feel, the spirit of who we really are, it’s been very disappointing for us. We want to gain momentum back as a team. Togetherness, culture, all the things we’ve stood for here, I think we lacked this year.”
The Raptors hope to have a new coach in place by the NBA draft in June, but Ujiri also said: “I think changes are going to be made on all fronts."
Former Boston coach Ime Udoka is among the candidates Toronto is expected to consider. Udoka, who has been close with Ujiri for years, led the Celtics to the NBA Finals last season, then was suspended for this season after the disclosure of an inappropriate relationship with a female Celtics employee.
“Style of play is going to be really key to how this new head coach defines what he wants to do here,” Ujiri said.
It’s also likely that Nurse will be considered for NBA openings, given that he’s won everywhere he has been.
Nurse played at Northern Iowa, then started his coaching career there as an assistant. He wound up becoming a head coach at Grand View University when he was just 23. He coached in Belgium and Britain — winning a pair of British Basketball League titles as a coach in Birmingham in 1996 and London in 2000 — then got a couple titles in what is now called the G League.
The second G League crown got Nurse noticed. He guided Rio Grande Valley to a title in 2013 and that’s when the Raptors called and wanted to talk to him about offense. They ended up hiring him as an assistant, and he’d been with Toronto ever since.
Nurse is also the head coach of the Canadian men’s national team. No matter where he lands next, he’s expected to continue in that role until after the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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Ian Harrison, The Associated Press