Nick Nurse proving NBA coaching matters with Philadelphia 76ers… so far

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Philadelphia Nurse
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse calls out from the bench in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

There’s a tired cliché in the NBA that coaching doesn’t really matter. The most important part of coaching in the world’s premier basketball league is simply managing egos, as keeping a team’s superstars happy will result in a cohesive and effective team, regardless of the actual Xs and Os on the court. Unless it’s Gregg Popovich or Erik Spoelstra on the sidelines, coaching has zero impact on the production of a team either way, negatively or positively.

Philadelphia 76ers fans know better, though, or at least they should by now. Because after just a quarter of a season with Nick Nurse calling the plays, the team is evidently different from the one under former Head Coach Doc Rivers’s vision.

Since the turn of the millennium, only 13 different head coaches have lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy after leading their team to a Finals victory. Since 2000, Phil Jackson has won the title five times, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have done it four times each, and Erik Spoelstra has reached the pinnacle twice. Nine other coaches have won it once: Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel, Nick Nurse, Tyronn Lue, Rick Carlise, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown, and Stan Van Gundy.

It’s not so much that coaching doesn’t matter. It’s that coaching is absolutely imperative, and there are only a handful of basketball minds capable of inspiring the absolute best out of their teams. The Philadelphia 76ers have now gone from one championship head coach to another, so what makes Nick Nurse any different from Doc Rivers?

How Nick Nurse has transformed the Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers coach Nick Nurse watches during the first half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Sixers have started off hot this season, having tallied an 18-7 record through 25 games for a win rate of 72 percent. This early dominance has the team playing with confidence, and the fans’ belief in this franchise has seemingly been rejuvenated with Nick Nurse at the helm. But Doc Rivers’s team in 2021-2022 actually started out with the exact same mark through their first 25 contests, as well. So what’s different about this Philadelphia team under Nurse? Something certainly feels different, at least.

Those who believe this version of Philly under Nurse looks different than the Rivers-era Sixers would be hard-pressed to find quantifiable evidence with statistics. This year’s squad certainly feels like they’re more connected and unified on offense, meaning that their assists and passing numbers should be up, right? Wrong.

This season, the Sixers are averaging 285.3 passes per game, leading to 26.2 assists a night. In 2021-2022, Philadelphia passed the ball 299.5 times and tallied 23.7 assists per outing. Last season, those numbers were 285.2 and 25.2 respectively. Those differences are essentially negligible and could be chalked up to a small sample size for this year.

But, when digging into the numbers a bit deeper, there are some figures that support the eye test ruling that this team is much different on offense.

This season, the Sixers are traveling 18.47 miles on offense as a team. That’s 0.85 more than 2021-2022 and 1.03 more than last season, meaning Philly has been more committed to moving off of the ball and getting the supporting cast involved. That 0.85 differential might not feel significant, but it makes the difference between the number one ranked team in distance traveled on offense and the ninth-ranked team.

The change in offensive strategy is also apparent in how the Sixers are using their possessions. Last season, with Rivers’ system centered almost entirely around the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll, 47.1 percent of Philadelphia’s possessions ended in a spot-up shot or an attempt by either the pick-and-roll ball-handler or the pick-and-roll roll-man. Only 40.7 percent of their possessions this season have ended in the same manner. Nurse has intentionally diversified the offense, as the 76ers have increased their usage of transition, post-up, hand-off, and cut plays compared to last year.

Another big difference is that this team has been playing with an edge. In the Joel Embiid era, it’s been commonplace for the Sixers to play down to the level of their opponents, causing their matchups against the bottom-feeders in the league to be unnecessarily dramatic down the stretch. That hasn’t been the case with this year’s Philadelphia team.

The 76ers were given a relatively easy slate through the first quarter of the league year, having notched the 27th-most difficult schedule in the NBA, according to Power Rankings Guru. In seasons past, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Philly go wire to wire against some of their cannon-fodder opponents, like the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, or even take “scheduled losses” against these basement dwellers. Under Nurse, though, the Sixers haven’t just been winning these games; they’ve been dominating their favorable matchups.

Already, this squad has notched six victories by 20 points or more. Last season, they had eight such wins all season. In 2021-2022? They only had five the whole year.

It seems that Nurse has taught his Sixers not to play with their food and to keep their foot on the necks of their opponents regardless of who’s under them. This attitude has been reflected in the performance of Philadelphia’s best player, reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Nurse has recognized that getting the most out of the 76ers will require getting the most out of Embiid, and he’s absolutely done so thus far.

Joel Embiid has thrived under Nick Nurse

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid argues with an official during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Joel Embiid is currently averaging career highs in points per game, field goals attempted, field goals made, free-throws made, free-throw percentage, offensive rebounds, assists, steals, and plus-minus. His haters will chalk this up to a small sample size or Philly’s Charmin-soft schedule so far, but their dissents can be easily refuted with the fact that the MVP has only played in 13 fourth quarters through 25 games.

Nurse has leaned on Embiid, and he’s responded with the most efficient campaign of his career. Despite his usage rate holding steady — he’s been between 37 and 38 percent in each of the least three seasons — his product has climbed exponentially in several important areas. The Sixers are scoring 123.8 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court, the highest mark of his career, and holding opponents to just 107.7 points, the lowest defensive rating with him on-court in the least three years. His 31.1 assist percentage this season is the highest of his career by nearly eight points.

Nurse hasn’t just been letting Embiid take over, though. If that were the case, his output should be similar to his numbers under Doc Rivers, as his usage rate has remained stagnant through the last three seasons. The nurse had made it a priority to not only lean on Embiid but also to put him into positions to succeed and maximize all of his opportunities.

This season, over 45 percent of Embiid’s field-goal attempts have come within 10 feet of the basket. That mark is over two percentage points higher than last season and up nearly seven percent from his 2021-2022 campaign. Nurse’s system, predicated on both ball and player movement, has increased Embiid’s production while lessening his offensive load overall.

Nearly 42 percent of his shots this season have come without a single dribble needed, whereas in 2021-2022, only 39 percent of his attempts were of the same ilk, and last season, only 37 percent didn’t require him to attack off of the bounce.

Joel Embiid touches breakdown2021-20222022-20232023-2024
Touches per game76.171.075.3
Average seconds per touch2.672.602.66
Average dribbles per touch1.411.181.28
Elbow touches (points per possession)4.8 (.754)8.8 (.750)5.0 (.862)
Post-up touches (points per possession)9.8 (.667)6.5 (.700)5.2 (.622)
Paint touches (points per possession)5.3 (1.092)4.8 (1.113)6.7 (1.273)
Stats via

This chart is further proof that Nurse has actively taken measures to maximize Embiid’s effectiveness while keeping his usage steady. Embiid has practically been more efficient across the board while increasing his easiest and most productive looks and decreasing his heavy workload.

The Sixers have been different and better… so far

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse reacts to a call during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Nick Nurse hasn’t been complacent. He’s been tinkering with his lineups and system in hopes of maximizing his roster, and the results have been beyond encouraging up to this point in the season.

But his success won’t be measured by the first 25 games of the year or even the entirety of the regular season. It doesn’t matter what the stats say at the end of this campaign. Regardless of how he uses his players or his possessions if the 76ers have another early flameout in the postseason, they’ll be viewed the same way they were under Doc Rivers: a talented team that failed to meet expectations.

Nurse has gotten the most out of Joel Embiid so far, but can he get the MVP to continue his dominance beyond the regular season — something that all of Embiid’s past coaches have failed to do?

Something does feel different about this season’s iteration of the Sixers under Nick Nurse, and that sentiment has been backed up by quotes from the players, but Nurse and his Philadelphia team will have to prove it in the playoffs, lest he wind up like Doc Rivers: a one-and-done champion who’s now viewed more as an overrated manager of egos than an actual tactician.