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Pacers must decide on Nate Bjorkgren's future after rocky season ends in another route by the Wizards
Injuries sidetracked their season, but the change in coaching staff didn't pan out. Now what?
Nate Bjorkgren didn’t want to discuss his future with the team and whether he expects to remain head coach, but that’s the first issue at hand for the Pacers.
“My focus is on the players right now,” he said late Thursday. “And I’m not thinking about myself, I’m really not. I want to do what’s best for these guys.”
He was brought in to be a new voice, a fresh perspective and someone who leans into player relationships in the offensive-driven NBA. But it hasn’t been successful.
The task wasn’t easy and it was no ordinary season. A short turnaround, limited training camps, limited fans, COVID-19 testing dictating practice times, and injuries — which severely impacted this team going back to the first week when T.J. Warren suffered a season-ending injury that required surgery.
Still, the Pacers had a chance to earn their way into the playoffs but once again, they had no answers to solve the Wizards. We saw this story before.
In four meetings this season, the Wizards did what they want, attacked the rim and scored with ease. Like when they scored 16 straight points early in the second quarter when Bjorkgren started the period with five reserves. Their lead grew to 30 in the third via a 17-4 run and then to 38 points in the fourth.
The Pacers blew away the Hornets by 27 points on Tuesday and two night later, they were the ones outclassed … by 27 points. For the second consecutive time at Capitol One Arena, the game got out of hand and the Pacers yielded over 100 points before the conclusion of the third quarter.
The Wizards won 142-115 to secure the 8 seed and the right to face the 76ers in Round 1. The Pacers, whose season has concluded, allowed 561 total points in four meetings — an average of 140 per game.
“They played very well against us,” Bjorkgren said. “We had a hard time with them this year for different reasons.”
It’s been a tough last year for the franchise and its fans — swept in the bubble, losing players to injuries, the passing of icon Slick Leonard, only winning 13 of 36 home games, and now missing out on the playoffs.
The Pacers had their worst home record since before many fans were born, stretching back to 1989. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2014, when they made back-to-back appearances in the conference finals.
That feels like a decade ago. Since then, they haven’t been a factor in the postseason.
In 2015, they also missed out on the playoff by one game, mostly due to the leg injury suffered by Paul George with Team USA. Injuries cost the Pacers north of 250 games lost, and once again kept them from reaching the postseason as they had in 25 of the last 31 years.
“Just the fact that we were able to put ourselves in this position, I was honestly proud of us,” said Doug McDermott, one of a few players to have career seasons. “We could have hung it up a while ago and we just kept fighting. Everyone still believed in each other, still believed in the coaches.”
They’ll now pick in the lottery (likely 13th) for the first time since 2015, when they drafted Myles Turner 11th overall. They’re on the treadmill of mediocrity, of which they must move off of and advance forward.
This team showed glimpses. There were offensive improvements: Up to sixth in points per game, second in assists and fast break points. The defense took a giant leap backwards, a combination of scheme, personnel and becoming too dependent on Turner’s rim protection.
You can go back to training camp for some of that; everything was an abbreviated experience this season and that caught up with them, as did this “grueling roller coaster of a season,” as Turner said.
It was taxing for all involved — from frequent league memos with updated protocols, to daily COVID-19 testing, mask wearing and the inability to establish a permanent rhythm or flow. Instead, flexibility was critical.
“The one thing I can say is COVID’s a beast,” said Malcolm Brogdon. “The impact it had on us .. but also the stuff going on in the world. Putting all of this in perspective, we didn’t make the playoffs, but there’s stuff going on all around the world that atrocity are way more important than what’s going on right now.”
Pacers guard Caris LeVert missed the two play-in games because he entered the NBA’s health and safety protocol. Outside of that, the Pacers did so well in their handling of the coronavirus, better than any other team.
The quick turnaround from last season to this was not appreciated by the players. They weren’t planning to start in December and had their routine, their ramp up to a new season rushed. The condensed schedule was more difficult than they could have imagined with more back-to-backs and infrequent practices. That’s an issue for an entire new coaching staff. There were no holdovers.
Assistant Bill Bayno resigned a month into the season and another member of the traveling party was dismissed. There was no team bonding, no meals on the road, playing cards on the plane or paintballing as a group.
The word that defines this season isn’t injuries, it’s isolation. And nobody felt that more than Bjorkgren.
It’s much different moving one seat over. You become the decision maker, the mastermind, the team spokesman and ego manager. It’s a tough to balance on top of drawing up plays, making changes to the rotation and communicating with officials.
Domantas Sabonis was great all year and finished with the best month of his career despite a significant workload. Asked about Bjorkgren and whether he wanted to play for him again next year, Sabonis didn’t answer directly.
“It was a tough season,” he replied. “Injuries, like I said before, and everything. We just want to get better. In practice we come in here and work together, we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to play and go out there and play together. And coach was doing everything he can to put us in that position to succeed.”
Brogdon, who failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, also said a lot without saying much. Maybe they see the writing on the wall and don’t want to unnecessarily burn a bridge.
“Honestly, I think everybody has an opinion,” he said. “All these outsiders that don’t know what’s going on in the locker room have opinions and they’re telling other people what’s going on in the locker room. As far as the locker room goes, we keep our stuff inside.
“The players enjoyed playing for Nate this year. We tried our best, regardless of everything that happened. We were this close to making the playoffs through all the noise and the distractions, so I tip my hat to coach and to my teammates.”
Two days earlier, before their play-in game against the Hornets, he sidestepped an opportunity to make his opinion known.
Soon it will become decision time for the front office. They landed back in Indy before 2 a.m. ET on Friday and will then have a few days of exit interviews. That will allow for players to share with the front office their concerns with Bjorkgren and the way the team was run.
Speaking of which, the front office is not without fault. They fired Nate McMillan before the most unusual season, hired Bjorkgren, let assistant Dan Burke go and didn’t surround him with a staff to succeed.
Bjorkgren said he had fun at times, but you could sense the magnitude of the job and all that it entails wore on him, just like the season did for anyone associated with the league.
“I pour my heart into every single game and this organization, and especially the players,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking of most right now, the players on this team. Man, I’d do anything for them. It wasn’t the kind of year and results that we wanted, but it’ll get better.”
By losing, this team was put out of its misery. If you thought Thursday’s 27-point loss on national TV was bad, it would have been cruel for this injury-plagued group to play four games against Joel Embiid and the 76ers.
Bjorkgren hasn’t coached in front of a sellout crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, he hasn’t coached without a mask. He was hired on Oct. 20, yet because of health and safety protocols, he hasn’t once been able to meet fans, or with media and team broadcasters.
Exactly seven months later, the season is over.
Don’t be surprised if a decision isn’t made right away. After the toll of this season, and really the last 10 months, a shutdown for staff members to get away is being prioritized.
Before the draft (July 29), pondering roster changes, trying to bring back McDermott and T.J. McConnell (August 2) and free agency, team officials must decide whether this year was so cruel and so strange that they want to give Bjorkgren another try. Better yet, whether they can risk it.
When a false report came out during the 2014 playoffs that Frank Vogel was “coaching for his job,” the team publicly denied it. Kevin Pritchard tweeted “Larry Bird just told me his sources say Frank Vogel's job is safe.”
When a report two years ago said they were exploring trading Aaron Holiday, he replied “That would be completely false!”
No, he can’t respond to everything. But this month, after Woj’s initial story and then more reporting — nothing. And that says all you need to know.