'This was my decision': Kevin Pritchard, Pacers fire Nate Bjorkgren after eight months as head coach
The team will be paying two head coaches for the second consecutive season. Bjorkgren is out for multiple reasons, primarily his inability to connect with others.
Nate Bjorkgren will not be returning for a second season as Pacers head coach. Team president Kevin Pritchard had several conversations with him Wednesday morning and then finalized the decision to part ways.
“We look at our goals of what we're trying to accomplish, and then we line them up with the timelines, and for right now, we felt like that this was the best decision going forward,” Pritchard said on a Zoom call with local reporters hours after informing Bjorkgren that he was out.
Bjorkgren, who turns 46 years old on June 20, was hired on Oct. 20, 2020 after an exhaustive search. But his much-anticipated opportunity was short-lived. They went 34-38 over the 72-game season and missed out on the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Pritchard gave it significant thought and had many conversations, but ultimately decided to pull the plug on this experiment — as expected — 20 days after their season ended in a blowout loss to the Wizards.
“I think Nate beat himself up today as much as any coach I've ever seen,” Pritchard said, “He took it pretty hard. I have too much respect to sort of open up those wounds. I think he knows what he needs to improve on and I think he will.”
Bjorkgren was his first coaching hire as Pacers president, a role he was promoted to four years ago when Larry Bird stepped down. When he conducted the search eight months ago, after moving on from Nate McMillan, the two boxes he wanted to check most was a leader and a really good communicator. He also sought out a coach with a more modern approach in coaching and in their handling of players.
The front office’s search took almost two months, interviewed about 15 candidates and stunned most around the league when they hired Bjorkgren, who wasn’t even the top assistant in Toronto, as a first-time NBA head coach.
Pritchard is close friends with coach Nick Nurse, who guided the Raptors to a championship with Kawhi Leonard in 2019. He became enamored with Nurse’s style and The Raptors Way. Like Bjorkgren, general manager Chad Buchanan is a native of Iowa and their relationship goes back more than 25 years.
Bjorkgren enthusiasm and positivity immediately wowed them. He was nonstop, had a forward-thinking approach and an answer to every basketball question. When the front office asked him how he’d handle a number of different situations on the court, he quickly walked them through it on the whiteboard.
In hindsight, it was perhaps too prepared and too robotic. There has to be the ability to read the room, understand the situation and know your personnel. But he had been preparing for this opportunity for years, going back to his days in the D League working for Nurse.
The Pacers talked with members of the Raptors, they checked in with T.J. Warren, who played in Phoenix when Bjorkgren was an assistant and they were intrigued by his that modern approach that they were wanting and his ability to incorporate analytics, something McMillan wasn’t a big fan of.
“When we hired Nate, we wanted to take a risk,” Pritchard said. “We wanted to try something new. We wanted to open up the possibilities and we didn't want to sort of go down that same path.
“I know people sort of speculated (hiring Nate) was made off the cuff. I would guess on each candidate — we probably had 15 or 18 candidates — we probably had 50 pages of notes and so we did an exhaustive (search). I mean it was almost too much, to be honest with you. So I think as we go into that, we'll tap into that database.”
Almost every coach in franchise history has gotten at least three seasons. Bjorkgren — who signed a three-year deal with the first two years guaranteed — got a shortened stint, 72 games plus two play-in games. His try as Pacers head coach was the shortest and spanned just 233 days.
Larry Staverman (1968-69): 87 games
Dick Versace (1989-1991): 160 games
Jack Ramsay (1987-89): 171 games
Being a head coach in today’s NBA is less about coaching and more about managing and overseeing. It’s being the face of the organization, massaging egos, keeping the locker room in check, overseeing player development, navigating turbulence that comes each season and keeping calm waters.
It’s connecting with players — both who they are as men and as players. It’s understanding what makes them tick, knowing when to push their buttons and hold them accountable and when to back off and entrust others to handle it
It’s working in collaboration with a staff, not being the man with help. It’s entrusting them to assist on the court, in the huddles and with guys on individual work.
Bjorkgren failed in those areas.
There were many shortcomings on the court as well. Like their dreadful home record (13-26), embarrassing letdowns in fourth quarters, lack of opportunity (as promised) for young guys and many defensive concerns.
But beyond that, what it came down to was what Pritchard referred to as human management and emotional intelligence. He never connected, falling short in the department Pritchard sought out most last August.
Pritchard stationed himself in the corner by the bench at home games. But did you notice as the season continued, Pritchard moved even closer to team huddles? There were some games in the final month of the season where he was a step away from the court. His leash on Bjorkgren was getting shorter and he wanted to see for himself what was going on.
“After every game I really looked at a couple things and in my mind, I asked myself did we play hard, did we play smart, did we play together? There were times that we didn't and sometimes we did,” He said. “That's sort of that consistency, that Pacer ethos is all about.”
That ethos went out the door when several other longstanding employees were not welcomed back. It started with defensive coordinator Dan Burke and continued with others who help set the culture years ago.
It didn’t help that Bjorkgren struggled to surround himself with experienced coaches to offset his weaknesses. Other coaches didn’t want to work for him and it was a failure on the front office not to surround him with more support. They can’t do that again.
“Having a group of assistant coaches that have experience and success is critically important to have a great organization,” Pritchard said. “From one to four on the bench is super important.
“I hope I've learned from this, I hope our staff has learned from this in terms of selecting the right coach because, as I sit here, this is a shared responsibility. It's not just Nate gets let go, but it's my fault, it's our organization's fault.”
Bjorkgren didn’t get a typical debut — a condensed season, practice scheduled around testing, postponed games, no team bonding and he never coached without a mask — but there was simply too much to overcome. Many on the team lost faith in their coach, who thought he could win them over by working hard and scheming harder. When they needed simple and reliable, he only confused them more.
And seriously, what good does having 6-foot-11 center Domantas Sabonis defend 30 feet from the basket and travel more distance defensively per game than any other player in the league?
Also, not once during a game did he visibly turn to an assistant for help or to handle the moment. He had his eye on his iPad more during timeouts than he did gathering insight from his staff.
Pritchard offered an honest assessment on this roster several times, saying they’re good but not quite there yet. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a full rebuild from Herb Simon, who is 86 and the longest-tenured owner in the NBA. That’s not in his DNA.
“As we move forward for the next three years, we have a good roster I think,” said Pritchard. “I think we've got a team that can compete, maybe not at the top three right now — I think three or four, but we're in that next group — and if healthy, I think we can compete with any of those teams. Once you get into that area, assume health assume the team comes together, I think we're tough out.”
Simon wants to win and go for it every year, and he’d like to see this franchise that he’s owned since 1983 (for $10.5 million) finally win its first NBA championship. That’s a driving force, along with the bottom line. They’re competing for attention and the Colts and IU basketball take precedence in this market. If they wanted to tear this thing down, this past season was the season to do. Attendance was limited, injuries constantly held back this team back.
This franchise hasn’t drafted inside the top 10 since 1989. They’ve succeeded in the trade market, but free agency has been a struggle and they haven’t hit on any recent draft picks.
The top six players are all under contract for next season and they have the rights to four of the five starters, excluding T.J. Warren, through the 2022-23 season. That was by design several years ago. But now it may be time to flip the script and not be content with winning 45 games.
“I think we're in a mode of let's try to be as competitive as we can right now,” said Pritchard, who admittedly is frustrated by the odds stacked against smaller markets. “We're studying teams right now. It takes one good draft or one good trade or one good hire and teams can really boost up and so that will be our goal.”
Pritchard finally ripped the bandaid and can now allow for things to heal. He made clear “this was my decision” and so his job is absolutely on the line with this next hire. He has to get it right, so this time he’s seeking a proven head coach who can manage a locker room.
And so now eight months after Bjorkgren was hired, another coaching search is underway.
Watch his entire press conference in the embedded player below:
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