Pacers complete extensive search, hire Nate Bjorkgren as head coach
Bjorkgren was a walk-on, won a D League title and was one of Nick Nurse's top assistants.
From one Nate to another — the Pacers hired Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their next head coach on Tuesday.
"I am honored to take on the role as head coach of the Indiana Pacers," he said. "This is something I have prepared for during my career.”
It was a job opening the front office took their time in filling — all while losing one of their own to the Philadelphia 76ers.
As they wrapped up their search over the weekend, sources said the Pacers began notifying candidates. Finalists included two other top assistant coaches, Miami’s Dan Craig and New Orleans’ Chris Finch.
Over the last 55 days, since they opted to part ways with Nate McMillan after four seasons, more than 20 candidates, with a variety of experience, were interviewed. And starting with a large pool of candidates was the plan all along.
This was not only Kevin Pritchard’s first coaching hire since becoming president of basketball operations in 2017, but it was also the franchise’s first head-coaching hire from the outside since Jim O’Brien in 2007. In 2011, they promoted now championship-winning coach Frank Vogel, and Larry Bird turned to McMillan in 2016.
The overarching theme: what’s a realistic model they could replicate? The Pacers were enamored by the Raptors and Pritchard wanted to hire the next Nick Nurse rather than going with a coach who already had an opportunity.
Looking to replicate his success, Pritchard finalized the hiring one of Nurse’s top assistants (and longtime friend).
"This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time,” Pritchard said in a statement. “He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward."
That last sentence is noteworthy. Traditionally, the Pacers rarely keep head coaches more than four seasons. McMillan guided the team for four seasons, Vogel for five and a half, O’Brien for three and half, and Rick Carlisle for four. Vogel (Lakers) and Carlisle (Mavericks) then both went elsewhere and won championships.
Nurse said almost a month ago that Bjorkgren, his close friend and colleague, would be a finalist for the job.
When they launched a coaching search, the following were the top priorities for the front office.
Leader who connects with the players
Forward-thinking coaching style
Maximizing player strengths
Advancing in the playoffs
Pritchard said he was looking for a “really good partner that can grow into this position.” He wanted an innovative mind who was not stuck in his ways. He wanted a coach who would develop the roster knowing that players out of the rotation may be called upon in the playoffs due to injury, fouls or other circumstances.
The Pacers had almost 200 games lost due to injury alone this past season. Yet they managed to qualify for the playoffs for the 25th times in 31 years, including five in a row. But they haven't won a series since 2014.
Enter Bjorkgren. (That’s BEE-ork-Gren.)
He’s 45 years old, has coached at every level, and has had to earn it at every level. It’s a story Pritchard, whose coaching (and front office) career started in the old ABA, can appreciate.
Bjorkgren, from Storm Lake, Iowa, walked on at the University of South Dakota in 1994 where Nurse was an assistant coach. That was the start of their relationship. He later coached high school basketball in Arizona before Nurse brought him to the D League in 2007 with the Iowa Energy and they won the D League title together in 2011.
Pacers GM Chad Buchanan has strong connections to the Iowa area. He attended Simpson College in Indianola, then was an assistant for five seasons before joining Pritchard in the ABA with the Kansas City Kings.
Meanwhile, Mad Ants general manager Brian Levy was the assistant GM of the Bakersfield Jam when Bjorkgren was coach for one season (2014-15). And during that season, the Jam went 34–16, a 10-win improvement from the last season.
Bjorkgren then joined Jeff Hornacek’s staff with the Phoenix Suns for two seasons and coached T.J. Warren.
“Full circle,” Warren posted on Instagram. Welcome to Indy Nate!”
Bjorkgren has taken a different, winding road to the NBA. Walking on in college. Doing whatever it takes, including working a second job, to coach professional basketball. Scouting. Being a player-friendly coach whom players respect. You see, his story may remind you of Vogel’s.
In a profile of Bjorkgren, Nick Nurse told Eric Koreen of The Athletic that Bjorkgren was “a super-positive guy. He’s the guy sitting next to me when I’m sensing disaster going on in a game and he’s saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna come back.’ Constantly, ‘We’re gonna do it, we’re gonna come back.’”
Added Bjorkgren: “I think that’s number one in coaching, just having that feel.”
Having a feel for players, a feel for situations and in-game changes has been needed.
University of Indianapolis product (and former Raptors guard) Jordan Loyd on Bjorkgren: “Welcome to Indy! Super positive and passionate guy who loves and knows the game. Extremely happy for him. Indy you’ll love him.”
After four stops in the D League and two seasons in Phoenix, Bjorkgren joined the Raptors in 2018 as a scout, then became an assistant the following year. There he was again as Nurse’s right-hand man for their championship year.
When the Raptors beat the Warriors, they became the first team to win the NBA championship without a lottery pick on their roster. Normal Powell was taken 46th (2015), Pascal Siakam was drafted 27th (2016), Fred VanVleet went undrafted (2016), and IU’s OG Anunoby was off the board at 23 (2017).
The Pacers, meanwhile, have not had recent success with draft picks and they haven’t selected inside the top 10 since 1989.
Bjorkgren will be introduced as head coach on Wednesday — and then he should board the next flight to Miami to meet with Victor Oladipo. He should go in without any preconceived notions, introduce himself, hear from Oladipo himself and his desires, and discuss how he would be used.
“The Pacers are getting someone who is ready to lead an NBA team, who is always prepared and is super-positive, who knows what it takes to win a championship, at any level, and is willing to put in the work to get there,” Nurse said on Tuesday.
But first, he should enjoy this moment. Leading one team while Nurse guides another. It’s something they had always talked about — and through preparation, perseverance and a dedication to the game, Bjorkgren now has one of 30 coveted jobs leading an NBA franchise.
More on Bjorkgren, from the Raptors: