After one season, the Nate Bjorkgren era is over for the Pacers.
Indiana decided to fire their coach less than 12 months after hiring him. The Pacers disappointed in the 2020-21 season, going just 34-38 and losing in the play-in tournament after posting a 45-28 record the previous year under Nate McMillan.
One of the biggest issues for the Pacers was their complete regression in defense under Bjorkgren. This season, the team allowed 115.3 points per game, which placed second in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the league as a whole.
The year before under McMillan, they placed third in the East (and third in the league) with 107.5 points against per game. And that solid defensive play has been a big part of their success.
That said, while the Pacers’ lagging performance certainly played a role in Bjorkgren leaving, behind-the-scenes issues were the main reason Bjorkgren left.
Why the Pacers fired Nate Bjorkgren
The major issue with Bjorkgren during his time in Indiana was his inability to connect with players and staff. His relations with members of the organization became strained and this led to his departure.
Additionally, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that part of the decision was based on the Pacers being ready to win now with the roster they have.
The Pacers have a roster that should be a strong Eastern Conference Playoff team with Sabonis, Brogdon, LeVert, Turner and Warren – and couldn’t move forward with a young coach struggling to manage changing rooms and staff. If the Pacers headed for rebuilding, maybe Bjorkgren would stay. https://t.co/blXqxbzLiE
-Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 9, 2021
It certainly played a role in Bjorkgren’s departure, but his hiring was suspect from the start.
As stated in a Launderer report story, the hire of Bjorkgren surprised many players who played for him, as well as executives in the NBA.
“When he got hired I was surprised because he isn’t the easiest to work with just about anything,” one of Bjorkgren’s former G League players said, according to Bleacher Report. “He’s a bit stubborn, he doesn’t listen, although it can be a good conversation. He’s a micromanager and he’s not for everyone.”
“They didn’t do their history on who [Bjorkgren] was or how he treated people, ”said a person close to Coach Research, per BR. “They just chatted with him.
This explains why TJ Warren, who played under Bjorkgren when he was assistant to the Suns, allegedly requested a trade after Indiana hired him. Warren ultimately didn’t budge as he missed most of the season with a foot injury, but his already strained relationship with Bjorkgren was a red flag early in the manager’s tenure.
While the Pacers seemed happy with Bjorkgren after starting the season 6-2, things quickly fell apart afterwards. In the story of the Bleacher Report, Bjorkgren was detailed as controlling. He allegedly yelled at longtime staff, coaches and players, and had “a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing.”
“He’s just a lot different,” said a league executive who previously worked with Bjorkgren, according to BR. “He’s not ad-k; he’s just completely out of his element as a leader.”
If that wasn’t enough, his defensive system wasn’t working, but he didn’t make the necessary adjustments to resolve the issues.
“Nate is trying to coach a team he doesn’t have,” a Pacers staff member said, per BR. “He’s trying to adapt the system to the players, not the other way around.”
All of these issues came together and led to Bjorkgren being ousted after just one season. Now, the Pacers will be looking for a new coach and may regret in retrospect their decision to part ways with McMillan, who leads the Hawks to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It seems Indiana already has an interest in a candidate. As reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo, the Pacers should take a look at former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts as their search begins.