PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid and the 76ers battled in yet another playoff game with the Raptors, this time in 2022, when the All-Star center barked at Toronto coach Nick Nurse — in a quite PG-13 fashion — to stop whining about foul calls.
Embiid’s beef with Nurse didn’t end in the playoffs. After the two-time NBA scoring champion was held — held, in quotes — to 28 points in a 2022 regular-season game, Embiid charged the Raptors “don’t care about winning” as long as a player of his stature was held below his scoring average.
Hey, what could go wrong this season? The 76ers didn’t even play the Raptors in the playoffs.
Yet, when Brooklyn frustrated Embiid in a first-round series, the league MVP complained the Nets “kind of took the Nick Nurse route of begging for free throws and calling out the referees.”
OK, the introductions might be awkward. Or at least good for a laugh. But the 76ers are now counting on Embiid and Nurse to work together in a productive relationship as the new pair chases the franchise’s first championship since 1983.
With the fate of 10-time All-Star James Harden in the balance, the 76ers remained all-in with their championship pursuit on Monday, selecting Nurse as their new coach to try and end more than two decades of playoff failure.
The 76ers hired the 55-year-old Nurse following his exit last month from Toronto Raptors, a person with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team had not announced the move.
Nurse led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship after they beat Embiid and the 76ers in Game 7 of the the Eastern Conference semifinals. The 76ers not only haven’t a title in 40 years, they haven’t advanced past the second round since 2001.
The 76ers held a 3-2 semifinals series lead against Boston before dropping Game 6 at home and were crushed in Game 7 on the road.
The 76ers still have to decide if they will try to bring back Harden — who is expected to decline the $35.6 million option on his contract and become a free agent — but making a move for a championship-winning coach like Nurse shows the franchise is still all in as it goes in for a championship with Embiid still in his prime.
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 seemingly made his first play for the 76ers’ job in March when the Raptors were in town for a regular-season visit. Nurse said his relationship with president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster was at a crossroads and time would be needed to decide on his future.
“It’s been 10 years for me now, which is a pretty good run,” Nurse said. “I don’t know, over those 10 years, we’ve got to be up there with number of wins for anybody in the league. I don’t know what it is, but we’ve had a lot of good seasons.”
Nurse was right: Only Golden State (.661) had a better winning percentage than Toronto (.613) in that span.
Nurse played at Northern Iowa, then started his coaching career there as an assistant. He wound up becoming a head coach at Grand View University when he was just 23. He coached in Belgium and Britain — winning a pair of British Basketball League titles as a coach in Birmingham in 1996 and London in 2000 — then got a couple of titles in what is now called the G League.
The second G League crown with Houston’s team got Nurse noticed, with the Raptors calling because they wanted to talk to him about offense. They ended up hiring him as an assistant, and he’d been with Toronto ever since.
The Raptors finished 41-41 this season before losing at home to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in round of the postseason.
Sixers president Daryl Morey continues to build the team around his old Houston Rockets connections. Besides Harden — and PJ Tucker and Danuel House, among others — Nurse coached Houston’s G League-affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers for two seasons while Morey was in charge. Nurse won the G-League title in 2013 before moving on to a successful NBA career.
Nurse led the Raptors to the title in his debut season. And despite Kawhi Leonard’s departure, the Raptors were playing well before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season in March 2020. Toronto wasn’t the same in the bubble and lost to Boston in seven games in the second round of the playoffs, though Nurse did win the NBA Coach of the Year.