The Bjorkgren experiment did not last long in Indiana.
The Indiana Pacers made the decision on Wednesday to fire head coach Nate Bjorkgren after just one season at the helm of the franchise, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi. Bjorkgren had one guaranteed season left on what was originally a three-year deal, sources told ESPN.
This season Bjorkgren, who had previously worked as an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors under Nick Nurse, winning a championship with them in 2019, led the Pacers to a 34-48 record and a spot in the inaugural play-in tournament. After laying the wood on the young Charlotte Hornets, they were routed themselves in the eighth-place game against the Washington Wizards.
The loss meant that it would be the first time since 2015 that the Pacers would not be a part of the playoff tournament proper. While their five straight playoff appearances had all ended in first round exits, missing the postseason altogether isn’t ideal when you’re talking about a team laden with veterans that have win-now attitudes.
That was one of the reasons that Indiana ownership decided to part ways with Bjorkgren: there was a palpable disconnect between Bjorkgren and the veteran locker room that was seen as too far gone at this point, sources told ESPN.
Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard seemed to be putting the onus of what is seen as a failed campaign by most in the organization on himself.
He had brought in over 20 candidates to interview for the vacancy last offseason, and could go back to some of those interviewees this time around. Head coaching experience—of which Bjorkgren had zero—is expected to be a big part of the process this time around, sources told ESPN.
“This was my decision. This was a really tough decision, one that had a lot of thought behind it. I brought in my management team, something we didn’t do lightly,” Pritchard said. “There are certain things [traits] that are non-negotiables for me going forward. I hope I’ve learned from this in terms of selecting the right coach.”
From those quotes, it would seem that Pritchard is pretty disappointed in himself and his team for whiffing on their head coaching selection last year. Expect a very different process from the team this time around as they look to put together a team that can win a playoff series for the first time since Paul George led the team to the Conference Finals back in 2014, where they lost to the Miami Heat and the Big Three.
According to sources, Bjorkgren’s inability to find the right wavelength on which to communicate with his players and his coaching staff played a large role in the lack of success this season as well as the 45-year-old’s early departure from his perch.
The team likes Bjorkgren’s ability as a coach and may have kept him if they had decided to go into a rebuild, but with a strong core including Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, and Malcolm Brogdon, the team is looking to contend right now in an Eastern Conference that is as wide open as it’s been in some time.
Bjorkgren’s unlikability around the team stemmed from many things, not least of which were his unnecessarily strict and borderline discriminatory rules for what players could wear. According to J.Michael of the Indy Star, two league sources with knowledge of the situation said that Bjorkgren wanted guys to wear only team-issued sweats on the plane, and he also banned the wearing of headwear, such as do-rags.
That last bit may make it difficult for Bjorkgren to find another head coaching gig anytime soon, as players are becoming less and less inclined to listen to guys with a plantation mentality that manifests itself in ‘no do-rag’ restrictions and other such petty rules. Bjorkgren is, however, expected to join Nurse’s coaching staff for the Canadian national team.
The native of Storm Lake, Iowa, coached in the D-League (now called the G-League) for several years before making the jump to the pros as an assistant for the Phoenix Suns—who are taking on the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series as +161 NBA odds underdogs, which could turn out to be a lovely NBA pick—for a couple of years before arriving on Nurse’s squad in Toronto in 2018.
The Pacers now join the ranks of the head coach-less heading into the offseason this summer. Alongside them are the Boston Celtics, who essentially fired head coach Brad Stevens and rehired him as president of basketball ops, the Orlando Magic, and the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Atlanta Hawks are technically in that group, but with how he has performed, interim top dog Nate MacMillan is fully expected to receive a new contract offer at the end of the campaign. And rightly so. I bet Pritchard and company are regretting firing MacMillan after last season considering how he has turned the Hawks around since taking over in March