Nurse still trying to find ways to get Raptors’ bench more involved

MIAMI — Nick Nurse already was an accomplished head coach before he arrived in the NBA as assistant with Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors for the 2013-14 season.

It’s just he’d toiled in the obscurity of the British Basketball League and later what was then the NBA Development League, now known as the G-League, doing the same work for little acclaim and a tiny fraction of the money.

But Nurse caught lightning in a bottle and helped solidify his credentials as an NBA head coaching candidate in 2017-18 on a Raptors team that won a franchise-record 59 games.

A big part of the team’s success that season was the work Nurse did cultivating what was likely the best bench unit in Raptors franchise history — known as the ‘bench mob.’

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You might remember them: Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and the ‘bench dad’ — veteran shooter CJ Miles. They would routinely change games and occasionally finish them.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Raptors in the second round leading to Casey’s eventual dismissal, one of the factors that helped Nurse his first NBA head coaching job was the work he’d done bringing along what was then a devastating second unit.

The Raptors would almost run two daily practices that season — the first a light walkthrough that included the veteran starters, then another high-tempo workout where Nurse would have the youngsters hone their games and an up-tempo, defensively aggressive style that proved to be the harbinger for how the Raptors have played under their current head coach in their post-championship years.

Granted, the Raptors of that season were a unique case — who knew that Toronto had an all-star guard (VanVleet), a two-time all-NBA selection (Siakam), one of the NBA’s most efficient two-way bigs (Poeltl, now with San Antonio) and a high-end second unit guard (Wright) lingering on their bench?

The Raptors didn’t, but they liked what the promise shown by the largely unheralded group and under Casey they were given a lot of runway to find an identity and build foundations for some impressive careers.

All of which is why it’s a little bit ironic that as Nurse has justifiably gained acclaim throughout what is now a five-year NBA head coaching run, the one area the Raptors have consistently struggled with in the years since he took over has been bench production.

Which is not to lay the problem at his feet. It’s not like Raptors management has stuffed the back end of the roster with guys forcing their way into the rotation. Svi Mykhailiuk and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had their moments, but it’s not like they’ve gone on to bigger and better things.

And playing his best players more has generally worked. It helped Toronto win a title in 2018-19 and lifted the Raptors from the draft lottery to the playoffs last year as Nurse rode his starters more than any coach in the league (VanVleet and Siakam tied for the NBA lead in minutes played per game, Scottie Barnes led all rookies (and the Raptors in total minutes) and Gary Trent Jr. was 14th, while OG Anunoby would have been fourth had he played enough games to qualify.

It was a successful year, given expectations, but it was not a great development year for a team that prides itself on growing from within.

This season was supposed to be different. The Raptors most significant moves in the off-season that were designed to shore up the depth of a team that was last in bench scoring. They re-upped Thaddeus Young, signed Otto Porter Jr. as a free agent and identified Juancho Hernangomez as a high IQ big who could stretch the floor. Meanwhile, youngsters Malachi Flynn, Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie were supposed to start forcing their way into consideration for regular minutes.

Nurse pledged as much during training camp in the same breath as pledging to limit the minutes of his starters to avoid the possibility of a late-season, injury-related swoon that befell VanVleet, for example. He envisioned a roster that was 12-14 players deep with competition for playing time from top to bottom.

But through three games — albeit all close games against quality opposition — the Raptors are once again leaning heavily on their starters. Four of the five are in the top 20 for minutes played and Barnes might have made it five had he not left in the first half of Toronto’s loss to Miami on Saturday with a sprained ankle.

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It’s understandable: the Raptors bench has been outscored 82-49 while playing about 13 minutes less per game than the opposition reserves.

But there’s a chicken-and-egg element to the whole thing, however. It’s hard to give minutes to reserves if they’re not producing, but it’s hard for reserves to produce without consistent minutes. Is there a ‘bench mob II’ waiting to be discovered on the Raptors roster?

Who knows, but so far there hasn’t been much chance to find out.

“The league is all about opportunity and rhythm,” VanVleet said when I asked him about how being part of the ‘bench mob’ helped him establish himself in his second season. “Especially for guys that are on limited minutes, limited rotation, limited opportunity, you just got to know when you are checking in and know the rotation and know the rhythm, know where the shots are coming from, [and] know what you are supposed to do when you are out there.

“[But] we have been in a tough spot the last couple of years trying to win and develop and do all those things at the same time. So, I think we will find it. I think once we get everyone back health, we will find that defined rotation and it will flow a little better than it has been.”

Nurse knows all of this and said as much before Saturday night’s loss to Miami:

“My first thought is I’ve got to give them more of a chance somehow … We’re taking a while to get to the bench guys in general. That’s the first thing. I’ll take that on me. I’ve got to give them a chance and figure it out.”

But, Nurse allowed, it’s easier said than done, especially with Chris Boucher and Porter Jr. having yet to make their season debuts due to hamstring injuries.

Boucher is questionable for Monday night’s game against the Heat — as is Barnes, with a sprained ankle — but Porter remains out.

Boucher and Porter are quality veterans who would give Nurse some more options to build a bench unit around, but Young and Hernangomez were supposed to be part of that mix too, and Nurse hasn’t found steady minutes for them, either.

In his mind, it’s the nature of the beast.

“I’m trying to win each game each night. That’s the one thing that we’re trying to do. It’s felt like the right thing to do so far by subbing the way we subbed,” he said Saturday. “… Like I’ve said 20 times leading into this, it’s a process to figure this rotation thing out a little bit.”

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