This off-season the Philadelphia 76ers were roasted by most media outlets as having had the worst summer in the NBA. The only player of interest they signed was Kelly Oubre (For the league minimum- how’s that look now?!) while suffering through a barrage of negative reports about James Harden and watching their two biggest rivals make seismic moves. But when it’s all said and done, the additions of Kristaps Porzingas and Jrue Holiday to the Celtics and Damian Lillard to the Bucks may not be the most significant in the league this year. That title might just go to Sixers head coach Nick Nurse.
Adding a new coach is a decidedly less sexy move than a splashy All-Star, but in terms of his effect on the team, Nurse may wind up impacting the East more than any big-name players. He won’t be knocking down center-court threes or making highlight passes on SportsCenter, but adding Nick Nurse is changing the Sixers in a way that moves the needle more than anyone in Boston or Milwaukee.
The Sixers were rumored to be involved in Harden, Lillard, and Holiday talks.
When none of those deals happened it became popular to look at the team as simply a one-star guard less than last year’s second-round failing team. A group that would plunge from 2nd or 3rd to a 6th or 7th place team that might fall out of playoff contention and be forced to trade Joel Embiid. But no one considered the possibilities that a change in coaching could have on both sides of the ball and in the locker room.
We are still very early in the Honeymoon phase of the season and every move that Nurse makes still looks cute and fascinating. They have not had any struggles to display their flaws and allow us to pick apart his decisions, but to this point, the 76ers look like the most different team in the NBA from last season, and in the most positive ways imaginable.
Gone are both Harden and his penchant for dribbling all the air out of the ball, and Glenn Rivers with his refusal to play young players or make in-game adjustments. Both guys did what they were supposed to do last season and the team was a contender all year, until all of the fears and concerns about their past playoff failings came predictably true and the team dissolved in games 6 and 7 against the Celtics. The team needed a respected coach with a Championship pedigree who would not only be competitive on the court but creative and fun to watch as well. No one fits that bill better than Nick Nurse.
As the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, Nurse earned a specific reputation.
He was a guy who was not afraid to take chances and throw his game plan out the window. He enjoys being a bit of a mad scientist and throwing things at the wall to see if it will stick, a refreshing contrast from the stodgy predictability under Rivers. The players have already eagerly discussed his ever-changing file of oddities that they will try here and there during the season to see what they might keep for a playoff curveball. Quite a change from the safe, somewhat boring approach under Rivers. If Rivers was Vanilla, Nurse is Moose Tracks, surprising you with a unique flavor in each bite.
Rivers ran a lot of two-man screens with Harden and Embiid, and their success was undeniable, but it often left the other three men on the court standing around as secondary options. Under Nurse, the offense is free-flowing and involves everyone at all times. Everyone moves, cuts, screens, dribbles, passes, and shoots. The result is more pressure on the defense and more open looks, to say nothing of the excitement from the players that comes with knowing that everyone on the court is constantly involved.
The Defense has seen just as much of a change this season. Rivers would throw in the occasional zone just to have a look at it, but he never really believed in it enough to use it at a crucial moment. Under Nurse, the Sixers will be constantly switching on screens and trying out new defenders, as well as utilizing a variety of different zones. In Toronto, Nurse famously threw a “box and one” zone at the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals to slow down Steph Curry, so the Sixers all understand that anything possible is on the table.
Off the court, players know if they show effort, Nurse will give them minutes.
He is constantly looking at different lineups and doesn’t care if you are a young buck or a veteran, as long as you are hustling and producing. It has created a bond among the players in the locker room, despite the open competition for minutes on the court. The vibe among the group is more relaxed, and despite wanting to be the best team in the East they enjoy playing the role of stalking horse, with all of the pressure on the Celtics and Bucks.
The Sixers are suddenly playing with house money. After the Harden trade, the team is stable and playing well, and after the dust has settled this team that was supposed to be “the same but just with one star less”, suddenly looks completely different in style, gameplay, and attitude. Pundits who believed they would fall to 7th now have them back as the 3rd best team in the East, with a puncher’s chance at perhaps more. The addition of Nick Nurse may translate to more wins than the additions of any players ever could have. It is still early, and a lot will change between now and June, but after the first few weeks of the season, the 76ers may have won the off-season after all.