Nick Nurse inherits a Philadelphia 76ers team in which Joel Embiid blossomed into an MVP, Tyrese Maxey developed into a rising star and James Harden flashed his old All-Star form in the playoffs.
Yet for all that talent, the Sixers are home watching the NBA Finals.
Nurse, officially named Philadelphia’s coach on Thursday weeks after he was fired by the Toronto Raptors, had loftier expectations for a franchise that instead suffered through a third straight second-round playoff exit.
“This team could be playing tonight,” Nurse said.
But they’re not, of course. The Denver Nuggets host the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Finals. Meanwhile, the Sixers introduced yet another new coach touting yet another new vision after yet another season without a championship.
With the Sixers on the postseason sidelines and weeks, after they fired Doc Rivers, they turned to Nurse to try to solve those second-round woes. Better yet, win them a title.
Just don’t expect Nurse to dwell much on the Sixers’ postseason malaise.
“I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past,” Nurse said.
The 55-year-old Nurse led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship after they beat Embiid and the Sixers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. There was just a hint of 2019 in Nurse’s explanation of why the Sixers fall short each year, with the team clearly craving “that combination of staying healthy, the ball bouncing your way.”
Embiid suffering some sort of injury in the postseason each year is almost as expected as the early exit. As for that ball bounce, it was Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce bucket in Game 7 -- the first winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA history — that sent the Sixers home in 2019.
The Sixers haven’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 2001.
“That doesn’t matter,” Nurse said.
Yeah, but it does in Philly. Why is the only time to look back -- such as the 76ers did this year with their 1983 championship celebration -- when there’s success?
The belief among fans, media and NBA insiders that the Sixers could win a title this season was blunted, in large part, by the string of second-round exits. Until the season comes when the Sixers get at least one round further, the doubts will remain.
“The reality is, that’s the truth,” Nurse said. “I’d imagine from Day 1, we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to try and attack that. We’re going to have to face it. And we’re going to have to rise above it.”
Nurse was emboldened that the Sixers will get there because of what he did in Toronto, taking a franchise that had one conference finals appearance since their 1995 inception to the title in 2019.
The Raptors missed the playoffs twice since the championship, one reason he was on the market last month.
Nurse went 227-163 in his five seasons as coach in Toronto, where his .582 winning percentage ranks as the best of any coach in Raptors history. He also spent five years as an assistant to former Raptors coach Dwane Casey before taking over the top job.
Nurse met with Embiid before accepting the job, making sure all was cool with the franchise player after a series of (usually playful) jabs they’ve thrown at each other throughout the years.
Some of the best colourful quips became social media fodder this week.
“It’s a little bit entertaining for me,” Nurse said. “I accidentally had my TV on yesterday and I saw a couple of them. They were pretty good.”
Team president Daryl Morey, who along with owner Josh Harris, flanked Nurse at the dais, said his new coach will work well with Embiid. Nurse earned a reputation as a creative defensive tactician, who often stymied Embiid by throwing double- and triple-teams at him. Embiid might have an easier time chasing a ring with Nurse than fighting against him.
“For a coach to succeed in this league, he has to have great relationships with his players, especially his top players,” Morey said.
That included Harden.
The 76ers still have to decide if they will try to bring back Harden — who is expected on June 29 to decline the $35.6 million option on his contract and become a free agent.
“James has a decision to make, and I’d be very happy if he came back,” Nurse said.
For Nurse, the pitch is easy.
“Winning is always the sell,” he said. “Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us because I think there’s a possibility of it.”
Toronto won in 2019 behind NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and a slew of stars and role players that bought into Nurse’s unique style of play.
Nurse believed he’d find the right one in Philly — and the 76ers are counting on it.
“How do we get ourselves to a championship,” Morey asked.
Allen Iverson and Larry Brown and Charles Barkley and Ben Simmons and Embiid and on and on it goes since 1983 have all asked themselves the same question in Philadelphia.
Can Nurse really be the one to figure it out?
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