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Letting assistant Dan Burke go was the Pacers' worst offseason move
He guided the team to a top eight defense in six of the last eight years and was "like the rock of the organization," Myles Turner said.
When you consider the Pacers’ defensive woes this season, the absence of Dan Burke immediately comes to mind.
When you consider the challenges faced inside the current locker room, you know Dan Burke would have improved the situation.
And when you consider how Nate Bjorkgren was getting his first chance to be an NBA head coach, you can’t help but wonder how Dan Burke would have eased the transition.
As I reported in October, Burke’s fate was sealed when Kevin Pritchard pivoted away from Nate McMillan and launched a coaching search in late August. Bjorkgren brought a fresh perspective, an analytic-driven mind who loved X’s and O’s, and he came from Nick Nurse’s coaching tree.
Remember last time there was a Pacers coaching change, in 2016? Then president Larry Bird made it known to everyone that his first order of business was retaining Burke. “It’s important for me that he would be my first free agent,” Bird said, and then made it happen.
This time was different. No such words were uttered by Pritchard, the team’s president of basketball operations since 2017 when Bird stepped down.
It was an end of an era. And it’s proven to be costly.
Burke’s time in Indianapolis stretched from Reggie Miller to the Finals team, The Brawl, Danny Granger, Paul George and Victor Oladipo. He had been through it all, his experience and knowledge was valued — at least by most. Sources inside the organization were stunned at the time considering Burke’s value.
“I think DB is like the rock of the organization,” Myles Turner told me for a profile in 2018. “A lot of guys lean on him.”
The Pacers’ roster is essentially the same as last year, with 12 players back. Victor Oladipo is out, but he only played in 19 games last season. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert and Oshae Brissett are in. The team wanted more offense and overcorrected, as teams tend to do, and they’re paying for it.
Some of their defensive numbers with four games left in the 2020-21 season:
Defensive rating: 111.6, 14th. (Last year: 107.5, 6th)
Points allowed: 115.2 per game, 25th. (Last year: 107.5, 3rd)
Opponents’ paint points: 53.6 per game, 30th. (Last year: 14th)
Opponents’ second-chance points: 15.4 per game, 30th. (Last year: 18th)
Opponents’ fast break points: 13.4 per game, 24th. (Last year: 19th)
They’re also last in defensive rebound percentage. This organization, which starts two centers, hasn’t been good at rebounding, but they’ve never been this bad.
All key metrics are down. They are below average and haven’t had a reliable defense to lean on as they traditionally do. Overall for this season, they’ve been outscored by eight points or 0.1 points per game. Seventeen teams are a net positive.
Injuries are a key factor, with 224 games (and counting) lost due to injuries starting with T.J. Warren suffering a season-ending foot injury after four games.
(By the way, when the Pacers acquired Warren in a trade, his mentor David West’s first text inside the Pacers went to … Dan Burke.)
Turner easily leads the league in blocks per game (3.4), but has missed the last dozen games with turf toe and is out indefinitely. Domantas Sabonis is the only starter from opening night not out with an injury, and that includes Oladipo — now a member of the Miami Heat.
Turner is the glue that holds the Pacers’ defense together. Bjorkgren is having them guard tighter on the perimeter and funnel players to the rim, where Turner is waiting. No team allows for more field goals made and attempted inside of six and 10 feet than the Pacers, according to Second Spectrum data.
They’re 9-12 without Turner this season.
Sabonis, meanwhile, is first among all players in distance traveled defensively at 1.26 miles per game, and sixth in minutes per game (36).
“There’s a number of layers of our defense that can stop the ball before it gets there,” Bjorkgren said Monday before winning in Cleveland. “Our size and stuff has been affected. With Myles, he’s the best rim protector in this league and obviously Domas and Goga (Bitadze) are very good as well. There’s been some of that turnover and some different rosters and different lineups out there. We try to mix it up on defense, we try to protect that paint, we try to guard the arc.”
Doc Rivers didn’t have a previous relationship from Burke, but admired his work from afar. “I didn’t like him because he gave us problems every time we played in Indiana,” Rivers joked earlier this season before playing the Pacers. “It was time for him to change places and I was the one who benefited the most, in my opinion.”
Burke, Rivers, and even Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau all came from the same coaching tree, learning under Dick Harter when they were on Pat Riley’s staff together with the Knicks from 1992-94.
Harter passed away in 2012.
“I don’t think (he) probably gets enough credit for the impact that he had on defenses all through the league,” Rivers said of Harter, a Pacers assistant three different times: 1986-88, 1997-2000 and 2007-2010.
In Burke’s first time facing the Pacers this season, the 76ers (without Joel Embiid) were down 16 in the fourth quarter. Even though they hadn't practiced zone, he suggested it to Rivers and they ended up stealing the road win. They beat the Pacers again in March, 130-114.
“His defenses have always been good,” Rivers said. “I love the simplicity, the toughness and doing it the same way, doing it the right way. And then being able to change because you’re doing it the right way.”
The 76ers rank second in defense — up from eighth last season — and Frank Vogel’s Lakers are first, even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis missing significant time.
When Bird was a rookie coach in 1997, he was smart enough to know what he didn’t know. So he hired Rick Carlisle to be his offensive coordinator and Harter to handle the defense. A veteran assistant is lacking on Bjorkgren’s staff, especially one with head-coaching experience. He’s having a difficult time connecting with players, surprising given that it was among the top priorities for their next head coach.
First-year Nets head coach Steve Nash hired Mike D’Antoni and Jacque Vaughn, the Hawks brought on McMillan to help Lloyd Pierce, and even Rivers added Dave Joerger (plus Burke).
“As a head coach, having that type of experience beside you is really good,” McMillan said of Burke. “He’s a guy that really focuses on our defense, but brings so much more to the staff. I love working with him.”
Kaleb Canales goes back with Pritchard and GM Chad Buchanan from their Portland days in the mid-2000s. He actually served as interim head coach in 2012 when McMillan was fired, and then went 8-15 to finish the season. Greg Foster has been an assistant coach in the league since 2014.
A challenge in building this staff was coaches did not want to work for Bjorkgren, league sources told Fieldhouse Files. At the minimum, the staff must be upgraded for next season.
Fans also haven’t been treated right, unable to hear from another voice on the staff all season. In previous years, assistants were made available and one would even join the local TV broadcast for an interview before the second half of each game.
But not this season, where everything is more difficult for everyone. Even if it’s a pre-game interview or discussion after practice, another perspective would help fans and media alike.
The same goes for the front office, which has been quiet other than discussing Caris LeVert’s cancer diagnosis. Accountability begins there.
There were some long overdue sparks last week when Foster unloaded on Bitadze, who told him to “sit the fuck down.” Both were wrong and Foster, who isn't going to be treated that way, was suspended for one game.
Imagine a player responding that way to Burke. He wouldn’t take it either.
“He expects excellence, greatness and perfection each and every day,” former Pacers captain Thad Young said of Burke. “He strives to be perfect. … He takes a lot of pride in what he does as a coach and he takes a lot of pride in having the guys go out there and being able to implement a system that can work for all of us on the defensive end.”
Key phrase: Implement a system that works for the players on the roster — and not the other way around.
Rivers highlighted Burke’s simplicity and toughness, both key attributes the current Pacers team is lacking. What has worked is throwing away the junk defenses, like zone and box-and-1, and recommitting to playing man defense over the last three games — all coming after more came to light about Bjorkgren’s job performance and clashing with both team and staff members.
That, in essence, is why Burke opposed playing a zone. Any time spent learning it was time they didn’t spent on their man-to-man defense. And it cluttered their minds with even more information.
Bjorkgren confirmed they had intentionally simplified things at both ends “… to play the game the right way because when we do that, when anybody does that, it’s a lot of fun to watch, it’s a lot of fun to be a part of,” he said. “… On defense, covering for the next man. If we get beat in one area, the next guy rotates over.”
Added Sabonis: “After everything that happened, everything that everyone saw, we just want to go out there and be aggressive. Play for each other.”
Since April 1, the Pacers are yielding the third-most points per game (120.4). That’s only better than two teams challenging for the top draft pick: Houston (122.8) and Oklahoma City (123.3).
During that same period of time, the 76ers are allowing an NBA-best 105.5 points per game. (Thibodeau’s Knicks are second.)
How the Pacers’ defense ranks in each of the last 10 season:
Burke was most responsible for all of that. Vogel handed him the keys to the defense and it continued with McMillan. He was the brains behind the operation and key in the growth many players took on the defensive end.
Most recently, that was Warren, Doug McDermott and Bojan Bogdanovic. He was the one who kept Lance Stephenson in check and could connect with him. Burke’s not a savior by any means, but he would have helped keep things from getting disorderly, troublesome and what we’ve watched for most of the season.
“He doesn’t care if you’re the best player on the team to the last man coming off the bench, he’s going to treat everybody the same,” Turner said.
Their 3T culture has been unrecognizable and it’s not surprising given that no one on the coaching staff is connected to the franchise or knows what it’s about. That may not matter with the Bulls, Knicks or another big market, but it means something to the small-market Pacers.
There was nobody more connected to the basketball side of the franchise for three decades than Burke, who was brought on board Larry Bird’s staff in 1997.
He worked for the previous six Pacers head coaches, though he was never associate head coach. He was voted the top assistant coach in the NBA by GMs in NBA.com’s annual survey — including before his final season in Indy. He’s all about basketball and getting the most out of players.
Burke was happy to help even below his pay grade, helping to hire the seasonal interns and hosting coaches from nearby programs to practice. Whatever he could do to help the team and the next generation.
The Pacers front office hired Bjorkgren and willingly let Burke walk — and now they’re paying the price.
As the teams meet for the final time in the regular season, Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the 76ers (47-21) are atop the Eastern Conference while the Pacers (32-36) are hanging on for the chance to reach the play-in tournament … and potentially play the 76ers in Round 1.