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Nick Nurse is the best coach in the NBA.

Don’t let his unusual absence from the Coach of the Year award discussion fool you, there’s simply nobody in the league who gets more out of his team than the Toronto Raptors’ frontman.

The Raptors aren’t supposed to be the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference this season. You don’t lose Kyle Lowry, insert a rookie into the starting lineup, and improve by 21 games and exceed your projected win total by 13 games. That’s not how the NBA is supposed to work. Nor is the way Toronto’s roster is set up with three reliable shooters, essentially no guard depth, nobody taller than 6-foot-9, and a bench full of forwards who all essentially play the same position. And yet, Nurse and his staff have somehow come up with a plan to find success in the most unusual way.

They’ve done it by throwing conventional NBA tradition out the window. The notion, for example, that you can’t crash the glass on offense and get back in transition defense has been completely debunked by Toronto this season. The Raptors have been one of the league’s most relentless offensive rebounding teams, grabbing 32.5% of their missed shots, the second-best mark in the league, and the league’s ninth-best transition defense, per Cleaning the Glass.

“(He’s a) mad scientist. That’s all I can say,” Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri said of Nurse back in February. “Every day he’s thinking. He lives, he sleeps, he drinks the game. Always thinking of all the things that, hopefully, can give us an edge to win.”

That’s why opposing players hate to play Toronto. Nurse keeps you up at night, as Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant put it in November. Players of that caliber know when they take on the Raptors, they’re going to face a handful of crazy defensive schemes whether it’s Nurse’s renowned box-and-one that he rolled out against Trae Young earlier in the month to any of his high-pressure pick-and-roll coverages or post-up stoppers.

“He always has some junkyard defense to throw my way and make things difficult,” said Bradley Beal after playing Toronto in early November.

“That’s what Nick Nurse does. That’s who he is,” Beal added in January. “Every time I play him, he’s making it tough, he’s trying to get the ball out of my hand.”

Defensively, this Raptors roster has been everything Nurse could have dreamed of from a versatility perspective. Its size allows everyone to switch across positions without allowing teams to find mismatches. How, for example, are you going to beat a lineup with Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher on the court together? That specific lineup held opponents to 38.8% shooting and was plus-eight in 25 minutes together this season.

Offensively, there’s no doubt the roster construction was problematic at times. Going with so many similar defense-first forwards forced Nurse to get creative. This wasn’t a team that could space the floor and win with a deadly pick-and-roll attack and three-point shot. Instead, Nurse found advantages elsewhere: the possessions battle.

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He demanded his team win on the glass, create turnovers, keep the ball safe, and get up more shots than opposing team regardless of results. It didn’t matter that Toronto was outshot 46.2% to 44.5% from the floor or 35.4% to 34.9 from behind the arc this season because the Raptors were going to outhustle teams and win in the margins. They averaged 93.6 shot attempts per 100 possessions this season, the highest in the league, and allowed just 86.5 shot attempts per 100 possessions, the third least in the league. Taken together, that 7.1 shot margin was the most in the league and allowed Toronto to win on the scoreboard more often than not.

“I think coach Nurse has done a tremendous job,” said Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin. “I’m not just saying that because I work for him, but every year in my eyes he should be up there with Coach of the Year, done a phenomenal job with our team and just bringing us together.

“He gets the most out of his teams and I think that’s the quality of a great coach. Management does a great job of giving us pieces, but the head coach has to maximize those pieces and I think coach Nurse does that better than anyone I’ve been around.”

But none of it would have worked without development. Players had to buy in and believe that they weren’t going to get benched for missing shots. There had to be mutual confidence in one another that the system was going to work, and, with time, the shots would fall.

When it clicked, it was a thing of beauty. Precious Achiuwa, for example, went from a non-shooter in Miami to a marksman in Toronto after the All-Star break, averaging 1.5 three-pointers made per game over the 25 games on 39% shooting behind the arc.

Even Malachi Flynn, who was out of the rotation for much of the season and whose father openly criticized Nurse’s coaching style early in the year, sang Nurse’s praises, describing him, like Ujiri, as a mad scientist.

“For us, he gives us a lot of freedom to play with,” Flynn said following the final game of the season. “Everybody has a lot of freedom to kind of do whatever, but there’s still a method to the madness if you want to say that.”

Nurse won’t win the Coach of the Year award for some reason I haven’t quite wrapped my head around. Maybe his team didn’t win enough games or didn’t have the narrative that Monty Williams and Taylor Jenkins’ seasons have had. They, of course, have taken their respective teams, the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, to the top of the NBA. But they haven’t had to deal with the obstacles Nurse has overcome whether it’s the unusual nature of his roster or the pandemic problems, playing half their regular-season home games with nearly no fan attendance.

For now, though, the Raptors won’t sweat it. In a copycat league, the Raptors are more than happy to fly a little under the radar and zig while the rest of the league zags. If they haven’t caught on to the Frankenstein monster the mad scientist has been building in his lab, that’s totally fine by them.

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