TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors are as good as any organization in basketball at developing and empowering talent. It’s one of the biggest reasons for their sustained success over the past seven years.
For proof of that, you just had to look around the gym late in Wednesday’s comeback 125-121 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
In the spectators’ section, assistant-turned-head coach Nick Nurse looked on while sitting next to Bobby Webster – the general manager, who has worked his way up the team’s front office hierarchy.
On the court, five guys who played more minutes in the G League than with the NBA club this season pulled out the victory, while the starters cheered them on and celebrated from the sideline. That group included several homegrown products that have blossomed into NBA stars or rotation players, such as Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher.
Then, on the bench, there was Adrian Griffin.
With the Raptors already locked into the East’s second seed and their first-round matchup against Brooklyn set, Nurse decided to cede head coaching duties to Griffin, one of his lead assistants, for the penultimate regular season game in the NBA bubble.
The result didn’t matter much in regards to the standings, but it was a night – and a win – that Griffin won’t soon forget.
“You really can’t put it into words,” the 46-year-old basketball lifer said afterwards. “It really touches me. You know, these guys we go to war with them, we won a championship together, the highs and lows and they’re your family, they are your brothers out there.”
“First, I have to thank coach Nurse. He didn’t have to do this. Honestly, for one night I felt like Cinderella. I had the glass slippers on and it was great. Tomorrow it’s back to reality but it was an awesome feeling.”
It was a fairy-tale ending. With just over two minutes remaining and Toronto down by seven points, Griffin took a page out of his boss’ playbook and put on the full-court press.
Rookie Dewan Hernandez, who had only logged 11 NBA minutes coming in, drilled his first three-pointer as a pro and then drove to the rim and finished through contact. Matt Thomas hit a three and sparingly used forward Stanley Johnson forced a Philadelphia turnover on the next possession.
The Raptors’ bench was loving it – erupting after each bucket and exchanging some good-natured trash talk with Philly’s starters. For a game that shouldn’t have meant much to either team – the Sixers are locked into the sixth seed and will play Boston in Round 1 – there was an excitement to these final moments.
The game was tied with 18 seconds remaining, giving Griffin the chance to draw up a winning play.
Off the inbounds pass, Johnson split double coverage to get in the lane and find Hernandez, whose floater was blocked. The ball came back to Johnson, who flipped it in to give Griffin his first victory as an NBA head coach.
“He did an unbelievable job,” said Kyle Lowry, who only played 25 minutes, but scored 18 of his 19 points in the second quarter. “Hopefully coach Griffin will get a chance to be a head coach soon. We’ll miss him, but hopefully he gets his opportunity to be a head coach. We gave him a bit of a water shower. We forgot to get him the basketball but he’ll have plenty more wins to come and he’ll get that basketball.”
“We were really excited for him,” said Powell, who started in place of the resting Anunoby and scored 17 points. “We wanted to go out there and play hard and help him get his win as a head coach. I thought we did that throughout the game. When things weren’t going as well, when we didn’t get the call or shots weren’t going in, a few defensive breakdowns, he really voiced his opinion on what we needed to do to get better. He had a strong voice in the huddle and I think the guys really rallied around that, especially at the end of the game, playing hard, playing their hearts out for AG. That shows what type of person he is and what type of players we have on this team.”
Griffin has paid his dues in the league over the past two decades. After a nine-year playing career, he’s been an assistant coach with five teams – Milwaukee, Chicago, Orlando, Oklahoma City, and now Toronto – in 11 seasons. Griffin was working for the Bulls when he first met Nurse, who was coaching Chicago’s D-League affiliate at the time.
When Nurse got the Raptors’ head coaching job in June of 2018, Griffin was one of his first hires.
Nurse has always spoken highly of his assistants and often says that they’ll be head coaches in the league one day. Griffin has already been in consideration. He’s interviewed for six head-coaching jobs, including the Grizzlies gig – which went to Taylor Jenkins – last summer.
While there isn’t much to glean from Griffin’s head coaching debut – he’s still running Nurse’s system after all – this was more about giving a valued member of the staff a well-deserved opportunity, getting him some reps, and sending a message to any team that may have a vacancy in the near future: he’s ready.
“Just like when athletes and basketball players are training in the summer, there’s nothing comparing to game [action],” Griffin said before the game. “You can work out all you want, but until you get in those games and you get up and down the court, there’s a difference. And I think it’s the same way. It’s really equivalent to an assistant coach moving over to that chair. You do all the training that you can and practice but it’s good to get those game reps.”
It’s something the Raptors have done well under team president Masai Ujiri – empowering their own, giving them every chance to succeed, and rewarding them when they do. That’s how you build a winning culture.
Sure, it means you’re going to lose some good players and personnel to other teams along the way – consider how many coaches and execs have been poached from the San Antonio Spurs machine over the years. However, when you’re developing talent throughout your organization – from top to bottom – the machine keeps running.
“I think coach [Nurse] is an awesome human being,” Griffin said. “He understands that a coach like me needs some reps at being a head coach. He knows my ambitions and he wants to see me grow as an individual on and off the court. Definitely just an awesome gesture by coach. He approached me with it and it just kinda shows what kind of character that coach Nurse has. We have a first-class organization for a reason. You start from the top with Masai and Bobby and coach Nurse. There’s a reason why we’ve had success over the years.”
“It’s important,” Lowry said. “I mean we’ve been continuously getting better every season that I’ve been here, and that’s from top to bottom. When you’re on the same page from top to bottom it makes life a lot easier. It makes everything a lot smoother. We’ve got guys like Bobby, who started at one position and he’s now here, Masai started somewhere, coach started somewhere, I started somewhere, Norm, Freddie. It just shows the growth of the organization. Our culture is all about winning and uplifting the next person.”