Nick Nurse tries to clear the air as Raptors future remains murky

The uncertain future of Nick Nurse, along with many of the team's top players, looms large as the Raptors enter a potentially franchise-altering offseason.

The future of the Toronto Raptors is unclear.

The team enters the offseason with more questions than answers after an early exit from their first ever NBA Play-In Tournament, where they were eliminated by DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night.

The Raptors have three significant potential free agents in Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, and Gary Trent Jr., as well as two extension-eligible stars in Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby. They also have a head coach going into the final year of his contract that has already spoken publicly about taking some time off to evaluate his options this summer.

The Raptors have their work cut out for them in what could be an offseason of significant change. Here are the biggest takeaways from Thursday’s locker room clean-out day and what to look forward to this offseason:

Nick Nurse’s uncertain future

Nurse spoke to reporters about his future for the first time since soft launching his exit from Toronto during a pre-game interview ahead of a clash with the Philadelphia 76ers on March 31st, when he made some curious comments about taking some time off to evaluate his future despite there being a year left on his contract.

“When you ask me what my job is here, my job is to make the best decisions for this organization,” Nurse said on Thursday. “I’ve always believed that from day one. I still believe that 10 years later. When you sit back and look at it, all decisions have to be made for what’s best for the organization. I think we got a front office, a president in Masai [Ujiri] who passionately wants to win.

“We’ve got a head coach who passionately wants to win. That’s why we’ve always been on the same page and have a great level of communication. Our goal is to win here. And that takes some evaluation on all fronts.”

Rumours of a potential breakup between the Raptors and Nick Nurse have been picking up steam over the past few weeks. (Getty)
Rumours of a potential breakup between the Raptors and Nick Nurse have been picking up steam over the past few weeks. (Getty) (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Nurse was then asked about his name coming up in reports associating him with the Houston Rockets head coaching search. Nurse previously coached the Rockets G League affiliate prior to becoming a Raptors assistant coach in 2013, and they currently have a head coaching vacancy after allowing Stephen Silas to walk this offseason.

“From my standpoint, the speculation of whether I was going to be back or not that started, I have no idea where that comes from. Or what I was supposed to do about that,” Nurse said, adding that the reason he spoke up about his future on March 31st was because he thought he “needed to try to get the team or any of the players focused back on the job at hand and try to not have to answer that question every game. It started coming one after another after another and I was trying to put it to bed so we could focus on the season.”

Nurse then went back and forth with reporters in regards to whether or not that question had in fact been asked prior to that game in Philadelphia, and if his approach to open up about his future backfired, about which he simply said “no.”

Nurse went on to say that “I love it here and we have built a really strong culture… We got to all evaluate how we can get that culture back where we need it and get back to being a playoff team and then getting to a level of winning it all. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we get up and go to work for, for the last 10 years, both [Ujiri] and I for 10 years.”

Free agents to be

Nurse is not the only member of the core group that might not be a Toronto Raptor next season. In fact, given that five of their six most important players (with the exception of Scottie Barnes) are either upcoming free agents or one year away from free agency and therefore extension eligible this summer, the odds are against the Raptors running it back with the same group next season.

While VanVleet and Trent Jr. both have player options next season worth $22 and $18 million, respectively, it is likely that both of them walk into unrestricted free agency this summer hoping to earn big pay raises.

“Nope. No I do not,” VanVleet said about if he has decided what he is going to do with his player option. “I don’t think it’s the right timing… I don’t think there’s much rush to jump into a decision one way or another. We’re very dramatic around here so sorry to ruin that for you. It’ll take some time.”

However, when VanVleet was asked if the disappointing season will affect what he chooses to do this summer in potential free agency, VanVleet said: “No, I don’t think so. I think the relationship is in a good place. I think that we’ve built something special here.”

“My whole NBA life is here,” VanVleet added. “So I think that holds some value and some weight. I think the relationship with management and coaching is all in a great place, and that hasn’t changed. I don’t necessarily want to go through another season like this, I think that we can certainly be better than we were this year.”

Meanwhile, Poeltl expressed his interest in staying in Toronto in order to figure things out as a group, saying “I don't think my patience is an issue there, like I want to make it work.” Poeltl admitted that anything can happen in the summer, but “I think looking back at the months that I had here, I enjoyed my time and I feel like I know we're kind of leaving with this bad taste in my mouth. And I personally feel like I want to do better than that.”

Trent Jr., on the other hand, was noncommittal about his future with the Raptors, saying he would do what's best for himself and his family this summer.

Extension-eligible wings

Speaking of money, Anunoby and Siakam will both be eligible for significant contract extensions before the start of the 2023-24 season, and the Raptors will have to determine who they want to pay what this summer, as it is untenable to pay everybody their value without going into the luxury tax — something ownership has been very hesitant to do.

Due to the new NBA CBA, Anunoby’s max extension now starts at 140 percent increase of his current deal, which would still be a team-friendly deal for a 25-year-old two-way star who is among the best three-point shooters and defenders in the league. Anunoby could also defer until free agency in 2024 (assuming he turns down his player option the following season) and try to earn a max deal then.

While the Raptors are yet to come to Anunoby with a contract extension offer, he said that “If they did, I'll definitely talk to them. I love Toronto. I love my teammates, love the staff. So yeah, definitely comfortable.”

Siakam, on the other hand, will be eligible for a supermax extension worth 35 percent of the salary cap (as opposed to 30 percent) if he makes one of the All-NBA teams this summer or, if he does not make a team and chooses to bet on himself and defer, next summer. For what it’s worth, Siakam said Toronto “feels like a part of me,” and that it’s about more than just money for him.

“It’s probably the most I’ve been somewhere outside of Cameroon and it feels like home,” Siakam said. “I’d definitely love to be in Toronto and it’s a part of who I am as a person. I feel like they’ve seen me grow and this feels like home.”

“I think it’s always winning,” Siakam added about what goes into a contract decision. “...I put so much into the work and everything, why am I gonna put so much and not have any reward for me, which I feel like is winning. It brings you joy, it brings you happiness, those years or those times when we have good seasons and we play good basketball and we’re winning, it’s probably the happiest I’ll be as a person, as a player.”

“I feel like it’s better than anything, really. You can go out there and make a lot of money but if there’s no joy in doing what you’re doing, what’s the point?”

A big offseason for Scottie Barnes

Toronto’s 21-year-old wonderboy had an up-and-down season considering he was the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, coming out of the gate slowly but making a real push since the start of 2023 when he played the best two-way basketball of his career.

A number of players were asked about Barnes and what he needs to work on this summer, and the implication was clear: if the Raptors are going to take a leap next year, they are going to need to lean on an improved Barnes.

“Just get in the lab. That’s it. That is the only thing I ever tell him,” VanVleet said about what his advice to Barnes would be. “Scottie is going to be as good as he wants to be, as good as he wants to be as a player. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do on the court, but just be a gym rat. Stay in the gym. That will speed up the process and he’s doing that. He is learning what his routine is going to be… He is a baller, man. The sky is the limit for him.”

Barnes, for his part, said he wants to focus on improving all of his skills this summer, but he specifically talked about improving his conditioning, saying, “I feel I probably need a different level of conditioning for the way I want to play. I feel I play very hard on the defensive end, and it will take a different conditioning level.” He said he would consider hiring a full time strength and conditioning coach or other staff to help him improve, “Somebody that can be around you all the time, so you can be able to be more focused on what you need to work on.”

“I don’t really feel the pressure, but I feel I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Barnes added.

“I don’t really look at socials and other people. I put my highest expectations on myself. I put a lot of thinking into what I really want to become, what I really want to be. That’s how I look at things, how I see myself as a player. I know how I want to get better. I just want to constantly try to develop in each and every way. Just want to constantly get better and make it to the top of the league. Be one of those better players in the league. It’s just going to take a different level of a mindset, of work.”

Other news and notes

While VanVleet would be surprised if Nurse was not the coach next season, he did have an eye-opening comment about the Raptors' stylistic identity, saying “I think we just got to find another identity, whatever that is. The chaos and the freedom worked when it worked and I think going forward just pick what we are going to do.” VanVleet added that “the devil is going to be in the details” and that the Raptors have to build better habits, but his comment about the chaotic scheme working only inconsistently was significant given that that is historically how Nurse likes his teams to play basketball.

VanVleet also had a great quote about the influx of sports betting affecting the NBA, saying “It used to be teenagers and eight-year-olds that were just heartbroken that we lost and couldn’t believe that we didn’t make any shots and now it’s people trying to turn $30 into $30,000, so you gotta be able to learn to live and adjust to it,” VanVleet said when asked about social media bullying affecting players’ mental health.

“We’re making millions of dollars to play basketball. I don’t know if you can be bullied in the DM. I’m just keeping it real… I’m not trying to be insensitive. I’m just saying, it is what it is.”

Surprisingly, Barnes admitted that DeMar DeRozan’s daughter and her well-timed screams got to the Raptors at the free throw line yesterday, when they shot 18 for 36 at the stripe in a do-or-die game.

Barnes was asked if it affected them, responding: “Oh for sure. It was quiet in the gym. She was yelling. Trying to figure out who it was. Just heard somebody screaming and I was like, ‘who was that?’ I was like, ‘OK.’ I don’t really know if it had an effect. We went 18-for-36, so it had to have an effect somewhat. She did a great job.”

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Chris Boucher, who has never represented Canada in international competition, and who was not a part of the 14-man summer core, said he would be interested in playing for Team Canada this summer if Canada Basketball invites him to training camp in August for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.