Nick Nurse’s Journey to the NBA Conference Finals

Nick Nurse has found success coaching every possible level of basketball and has helped lead the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.


Amazing stories of success exist all across the world of sports. Whether it’s a rookie making a splash for your favorite team, a player is writing his comeback story from overcoming adversity or seeing a team regain relevancy in their particular sport. This specific success comes north of the border, with Nick Nurse overseeing the Toronto Raptors into the Eastern Conference Finals.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t recognize Nurse, unless you’ve paid attention to the Raptors the past few seasons. It’s his first year as an NBA head coach, having served as Assistant to Dwayne Casey, who was fired at the conclusion of the 2018 season.

D-League -> NBA

Nurse joined the Raptors in 2013, having been promoted from coaching in the G-League beginning in 2007. He has a well-known history with the state of Iowa, having contributed collegiately and also coaching at the G-League level for the Iowa Energy (now known as Iowa Wolves). The Energy were established in 2007, when the D-League (now known as G-League) expanded with three other teams.

Found at SportsNet

It was Nurse who got the nod as the Energy’s first head coach. Des Moines welcomed Nurse and the Energy with open arms, setting a new league attendance record of 8,842 for their inaugural home game. They would finish third in the league and proceeded to win titles the next two seasons under Nurse.

Found at

His journey remained in Iowa, leaving the Energy to become an Assistant Coach for the Iowa State Cyclones. His stint there didn’t last long after then head coach Greg McDermott left to take over the Creighton Blue Jays coaching position. Nurse returned back to the Energy and won a third title and was named Coach of the Year.

Gaining even more attention, Nurse departed Iowa and headed for Texas to coach the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, associated with the Houston Rockets. They missed the playoffs his first season but then did a 180, making the playoffs and winning his fourth title in the D-League.

With consistent success on the Developmental stage, Nurse had a short list of suitors hoping to get him some experience at the NBA level. Toronto pulled the trigger first, naming him their assistant to Casey leading up the the 2013-14 season. Whether or not he had an immediate impact, the Raptors wound go on to make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Initial struggles had the Raptors losing in the first rounds of the 2013-2015 seasons with a record of 3-8 in the playoffs.

Raptors continue push, denied Conference Championship

The following season, Toronto put together another successful season and made it into the second round of the playoffs, the furthest they’d made it in franchise history. King James’ Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated the Raptors in six games to secure a spot in the NBA Finals. They took a small step back the next two seasons, losing in the second round each time.

The Cavaliers eliminated the Raptors for three straight years in the playoffs, most recently in 2017-18. Found at

Casey helped lead the Raptors to their best regular season in franchise history, winning 59 games in 2017-18. Casey was named Coach of the Year but their second-round elimination led to him being ousted, and Nurse took on the vacancy.

This season, Nurse could qualify to also be named Coach of the Year with his Raptors winning 58 games during the regular season. They’ve already gotten through two rounds and are set to face the Milwaukee Bucks for a chance to win that elusive Conference Championship and get to the Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Granted, it hasn’t just been Nurse that’s brought about all the change. Their blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard in July of 2018 has paid off in full, filling in the missing piece they’ve needed for years.

Nurse has found success throughout his coaching career, no matter what level he’s at. He’s a rare coaching specimen that never really played basketball, at least not for a Division 1 school, and didn’t have the talent to make it professionally as a player. After graduating for the University of Northern Iowa, Nurse stayed near home, coaching NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Grandview University in Des Moines, Iowa.

He briefly served as assistant coach at South Dakota before going international, coaching several teams in Europe for over a decade. He decided to return to the state’s and thus began his D-League coaching career.

Nurse is currently in the midst of a three-year contract with the Raptors, signing his extension June of 2018.

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