Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was honored as the NBA’s Coach of the Year for 2019-20 on Saturday.
He’s the second Raptors coach in three years to earn the award, following Dwane Casey in 2017-18.
The candidates for this year’s individual awards were judged on their performance prior to the NBA suspending the season on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anything that happened after the league’s restart in Orlando, Florida, didn’t factor into the equation.
As a result, Nurse was the strongest candidate in the Coach of the Year field.
Any shot the Raptors had at repeating as NBA champions seemingly went out the window when Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers and Danny Green signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. ESPN.com’s preseason power rankings listed Toronto 12th overall and the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors were second in the Eastern Conference at 46-18, 6.5 games back of the Milwaukee Bucks, when play halted in the spring.
They were tied with the Clippers for third in net rating (6.4) through 64 games, per NBA.com. Despite losing Leonard, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, their 104.9 defensive rating was second behind only the Bucks (101.6).
Nurse showed he’s willing to experiment on defense when he adopted a box-and-one approach for the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
That has continued into 2019-20.
“At the end of the day, our coach is very innovative, and he tries things and he’s creative and we’re a team that buys into what he decides to do,” Kyle Lowry said in December, per Sportsnet’s Steven Loung. “I think everything is worth a shot, worth a try.”
Toronto’s offense hasn’t quite equaled its stifling defense, which was to be expected considering Leonard averaged nearly 27 points per game in 2018-19. Pascal Siakam has flourished under Nurse’s watch to become a genuine go-to No. 1 scoring option.
Siakam was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2019, and his game has taken another step forward this season. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists through his first 53 games, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game.
The Raptors will still be viewed by many as an underdog in the playoffs because that’s when Leonard’s absence is likely to loom largest.
Regardless of how the postseason unfolds, it doesn’t change how good of a job Nurse has done leading up to his point.