Prior to the Toronto Raptors‘ title-winning 2018-19 season, first-year NBA head coach Nick Nurse traveled to northern Montana for what would become a three-day stay with legendary former coach Phil Jackson.
“I get there, we go have a cup of coffee and he says ‘Hop in my truck’ and we drive around the lake for a couple hours,” Nurse told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. “I’m just kind of sitting there with the windows down going, ‘Wow.’”
Raptors vice president of player health and performance Alex McKechnie brokered the meeting after previously working for the Los Angeles Lakers during Jackson’s tenure with the club in the 2000s.
In his 20s, Nurse studied VHS tapes of Jackson’s vaunted 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, dissecting the team’s famous triangle offense and applying what he learned to the squads he coached in the far-flung British Basketball League.
The tenets of Jackson’s Triangle, such as spacing and movement away from the ball, can still be found in the philosophy Nurse uses today for the reigning champions – though the 52-year-old says the Raptors’ offense more closely resembles a different shape.
“You’ve heard a lot of those guys in ‘The Last Dance’ talk about it, I think that, again, five guys being integral parts of the offense like we like to run it now – ours is less of a triangle and more of a big, spaced-out square – but it got better over the year and then they’re in a situation where now there’s more opportunities for them,” Nurse said.
To that point, five Raptors players were averaging 16-plus points per game when the season came to a halt in mid-March: Pascal Siakam (23.6), Kyle Lowry (19.7), Fred VanVleet (17.6), Norman Powell (16.4), and Serge Ibaka (16.0).
There’s plenty of work ahead of Nurse if he hopes to catch up with his coaching idol’s career championship tally. Jackson boasts 11 coaching titles – six with the Bulls and five with the Lakers – to go along with two championships he won as a player with the New York Knicks in the 1970s.