What should Lakers fans expect from Nick Nurse or Mark Jackson?
In the time since we did our last scouting report on potential Lakers coaches, the team has actually fired Frank Vogel, and in his stead, two more names have moved to the forefront of the rumor cycle: Former Golden State Warriors head coach and current ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, and current Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
With Nurse still coaching the playoffs — and Jackson broadcasting them — as the Lakers continue their search, I couldn’t think of any better people to turn to for a scouting report on both coaches than two of our team site managers who have watched them up close: Brady Klopfer, who writes about the Warriors for Golden State of Mind, and Josh Kern, who covers the Raptors for Raptors HQ.
Just like the last time around, I polled each of them with three questions via email on the two head coaches. Here’s what they had to say.
What are his best qualities as a head coach?
Brady Klopfer: Jackson has a proven track record of helping bad, lottery-bound teams crawl out from their hole of putridity and finally make the playoffs. I’ve been told the Lakers could use that. He’s also good at not broadcasting games for ESPN when he’s coaching, so getting him on the sideline is a win for fans of all NBA teams. Take one for the team, Lakers.
Jackson is an old-school coach, for better and definitely for worse (more on that in a moment). He’s hard on players, holds them accountable, and demands effort. The result is that he was able to help a Warriors team that was comfortable with losing become uncomfortable with it. The idea of instilling a “winning mindset” is probably overblown, but Jackson is good at it, albeit with an expiration date. The Warriors picked up winning habits during his tenure, competed harder, and held themselves a little differently.
He’s a good defensive coach. He’s not a great one, and anyone who tells you otherwise is putting more stock in the coaching of Jackson than the talent of Draymond Green, the best defender of this era. But he is a good defensive coach, in no small part because of the aforementioned ability to get players to work hard.
In many regards, he’s also a players’ coach. While he’s hard on them, he’ll also defend a lot of them publicly. While many players strongly dislike him (again, more on that in a minute), he’s had his fair share of love from former players. Steph Curry was publicly critical of the Warriors when they fired Jackson, and Green often credits Jackson for the role the coach played in his development.
Josh Kern: Nick Nurse’s greatest strength is his defensive scheme. Which, when he took over the Raptors, came as a bit of a surprise. Initially we all thought of Nurse as an offensive coach; in Dwane Casey’s last year as Raptors head coach, the team transformed its offense from one heavily predicated on isolation midrange scoring from DeMar DeRozan and transition scoring led by Kyle Lowry, to a more egalitarian approach that spread the ball around and saw the Raptors shoot more threes and layups — and that transformation was credited to Nurse.
But once the 2018-19 season began, it was clear that defense was really Nurse’s strong suit. Nurse employs a complicated scheme that sees the defense collapse into the paint to prevent any inside scoring or easy buckets, and quickly rotate and close out on shooters to prevent good looks from deep. The “wall off the paint” approach provided huge dividends in the 2019 playoffs, as the team slowed down both Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo (about as much as anyone ever slows those two down, anyway) and prevented Philadelphia and Milwaukee’s secondary scorers from inflicting too much damage.
Now, it wasn’t a stretch to think that Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green made that championship defense tick — but the Raptors were somehow even better defensively in 2019-20, after those two left, going from fifth in defensive rating in 2018-19 to second in 2019-20. Nurse deservedly got the credit for that, winning the 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year award.
Nurse isn’t afraid to make adjustments, either. We all remember the “janky” box-and-one the Raptors employed against Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals; Nurse has proven adept at often taking away an opposing team’s best player. He also isn’t afraid to try a zone or a full-court press (like the one that led to a 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in December 2019), and he loves throwing multiple different defenders at opposing players over the course of a game to keep them on their toes.
And this season, to counter Toronto’s lack of size and depth, Nurse changed up the scheme to focus more on securing extra possessions through offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers (particularly by jumping passing lanes).
Simply put, Nurse almost always has something up his sleeve. Or to put it another way:
Do you guys need to create turnovers and run to win, or is there a plan B?
“Yeah, come on, it’s Nicky Nurse, baby.” – VanVleet
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) April 14, 2022
What are some of his weaknesses?
Klopfer: How much time have we got? Because if someone were broadcasting me talking about Jackson’s weaknesses, they’d probably say, “Mama, there goes that man!”
The old-school mentality that Jackson has is troubling. He’ll give opportunities to players who have earned their stripes over players who are just plain better (ask your local Warriors fan how much they enjoyed Jarrett Jack getting his number repeatedly called in the clutch while Curry watched helplessly). He’ll ride players incredibly hard (something I’m sure LeBron, AD, and Russ would just love), and many of his former players kind of refuse to acknowledge his existence.
Even if you’re a fan of old-school coaches, Jackson goes way too far. Gregg Popovich is an old-school coach; Mark Jackson is a confused, blathering villain from a TV show that desperately needs new writers. There are plenty of examples of this, but the most notable is when Festus Ezeli was injured, and Jackson told other players that Ezeli was cheering when they missed shots, because he wanted to look good. This led to Ezeli’s teammates confronting him, him crying, and the truth coming out: he’d done no such thing.
As a player, Jackson was a pound the ball into the floor for 20 seconds, then pass for an assist type of player – fine, considering the offensive environment of his playing days. But he’s kept the same mentality as a coach, eschewing ball movement for traditional point guard play. He was reluctant to play Curry — perhaps the best off-ball scorer in NBA history — off-ball, asking him to hold the rock and dish out passes instead. During Jackson’s three-year tenure, Curry attempted 10.3 threes per 100 possessions … a number that has gone up to 15.3 in the years since Jackson was fired.
But Jackson’s most damning trait as a coach is probably his reluctance to be anything other than the biggest dog in the yard. When Jackson was fired, Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob criticized — among many other things — his former coach’s unwillingness to use his checkbook to hire the best assistants. This wasn’t necessarily due to Jackson being committed to the assistants he had, either. He had a broken relationship with Michael Malone, whom Jackson was rumored to believe was after his job. He fired Brian Scalabrine without cause in front of other players and coaches before being forced to reassign him to the D-League. And, in a truly indefensible move, Jackson asked the Warriors to ban advisor Jerry West from attending practices.
Kern: This feels like that job interview question where you take a strength, but also make it a weakness — I work too hard, or I care too much, etc. — but Nurse’s defensive schemes can be a weakness because they are hard to master. And if they’re not executed crisply and consistently, the breakdowns can quickly lead to opponents going on big runs. This is especially true because the end result of the breakdowns is usually a poor rotation or closeout, meaning an opposing shooter gets a wide-open three-pointer.
Furthermore, any Raptor that struggles with the scheme usually ends up in Nurse’s doghouse, and their stay is usually a long one. It’s really, really hard for players to earn Nurse’s trust, and even harder to earn it back. Players like Malachi Flynn or Stanley Johnson would be given opportunities, then quickly yanked and benched for weeks or months for one or two missed assignments. That’s tough, especially for a young player like Flynn, and surely messes with their confidence.
It also leads to an over-reliance on a few core players. All five of the Raptors’ starters were in the top-20 in minutes per game this season, and Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby dealt with minor/nagging injuries down the stretch.
Finally, there’s halfcourt offense — possibly Nurse’s biggest weakness. I say “possibly” because of course personnel have a lot to do with this, but during Nurse’s tenure, the Raptors have consistently been in the bottom half of the league in halfcourt offense. This season in particular has been marred by extended offensive droughts that either allow opponents to get back into games, or stall any Raptors comebacks when they trail.
As a result of the poor halfcourt play, Nurse’s teams are also typically at the top of the league in isolation plays (second in the league in isolation possession this season, behind only Brooklyn), which isn’t a bad thing if you have the personnel (say, like, Kevin Durant). Thankfully Pascal Siakam returned to form this year, mitigating any major concerns here — but ball movement and player off-ball movement aren’t really staples of Nick Nurse’s playbook.
Anything else you think we should know about him as a coach?
Klopfer: Oh is there ever.
While Jackson’s coaching transgressions are notable, his off-court transgressions might be even more eye-popping. Incidents such as the ones with Ezeli and West are bad, and there are many more where they came from (he also banned beloved Warrior broadcaster Jim Barnett from practice). But the bigger issues are the ones that don’t really involve basketball at all.
When the idea of signing center Jason Collins, an openly gay man was broached, Jackson reportedly responded with, “not in my locker room.” His public statements after Collins came out were even worse: “As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family, and am certainly praying for them at this time.”
Andrew Bogut has criticized Jackson for turning the Warriors locker room into “a church recruitment group,” and there were rumors that Golden State was upset with Jackson’s frequent absences as he trekked to LA to be a minister. He was known for pitting the players against the front office, and, as Warriors owner Joe Lacob once put it while describing the reason for Jackson’s dismissal, “you can’t have 200 people in an organization not like you.”
So yeah. I’d say the answer to the question “anything else you think we should know about him as a coach?” is an emphatic “yes.” And to paraphrase Jackson, I’d say that if the Lakers were to hire him, that would not be a grown-man move.
Kern: While I don’t want to see Nurse head to the Lakers — or anywhere else! — I’ll admit I’m super curious to see how he would fare in another situation, another organization. Especially one as, ahem, chaotic as the Lakers.
Because Nick’s had it pretty good here. The Raptors were good when Nurse took over; they were in a position of stability and had transformed their culture already, from a mediocre-at-best afterthought to a winning organization.
As part of that, they built a player development culture that uses the G League and Summer League and a coaching system with Patrick Motumbo, Jim Sann, Jamaal Magloire and Jon Goodwillie to turn players from projects to prospects to, well, All-Stars. If you think about where players like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were when they joined the team, and how the team has developed players like them, and Norman Powell and Chris Boucher, having that patience to stick with players as they grow… well, “patience” and “player development” aren’t really things that go with LeBron James-led teams.
All of that development (and the trade for Leonard) of course has been led by Masai Ujiri, one of the best and most powerful basketball executives in the league. Rob Pelinka… well, he’s no Masai Ujiri (Editor’s Note: This checks out).
So that’s what I think about. I know Nick Nurse is a good basketball coach. But I’m super curious how he’d fare in an organization without all of those things — without the strong GM, without the development system, without the patience.
He’d probably be fine — after all, the Raptors have really only ever had one “win-now” season, their lone campaign with Kawhi Leonard, where they also made a big win-now midseason trade for Marc Gasol — and they actually won!
Maybe we’ll see one day if Nurse can do it with another franchise. But — speaking as a Raptors fan — hopefully that’s not anytime soon.
These are the types of insights you can only get on a coach from someone who watches them (or used to) on nightly basis, so big thanks to Brady and Josh for helping us get to know the pluses and minuses of two possible future Lakers coaches a bit better.
You can follow Brady on Twitter at @BradyKlopferNBA, and Josh at @joshuakern.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.