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'He is our coach as of now': Kevin Pritchard still evaluating coach Nate Bjorkgren after disappointing season
It is an important summer for the Pacers. The first domino to fall is whether or not Bjorkgren is retained after one season as head coach.
Kevin Pritchard spoke for almost 49 minutes on Monday, his first time discussing the team as a whole in six months, since Nov. 25 after free agency.
It’s been a season unlike any other, hurried and condensed after the previous one concluded on campus at Disney due to the pandemic. There was a lot of ground to cover.
Pritchard started by going over the uniqueness of the season and singled out three individuals who were integral in overseeing the daily COVID-19 protocols, which includes two daily tests (and up to three for players on game day): senior director of medical operations Josh Corbeil, assistant general manager Kelly Krauskopf and Zach Eagle, who essentially served as manager of testing.
Pritchard, who just completed his fourth season as president of basketball operations, then got around to the item atop his list and that’s making a decision on his head coach.
As reported here last Thursday, after their season ended in Washington DC, team officials planned to take their time and fully evaluate the season before determining whether they would bring back Nate Bjorkgren for a second season. They wanted to take a step back, gather more intel and and not rush to a conclusion.
“He is our coach as of now,” Pritchard said. It wasn’t exactly an endorsement. “And I’m going to have a fair discussion with him.
“Right now, no decisions has been made. … And to be honest with you, I’m being evaluated (by team owner Herb Simon). I’m being evaluated every day and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
When they sharply moved on from Nate McMillan last August, the announcement came 24 hours after they returned to Indianapolis.
Over the last three days, the front office completed its annual exit interviews with the players. They met with 16 of 17 players; Caris LeVert is still in the NBA’s health & safety protocols and preferred to have his in person rather than over Zoom. Pritchard appreciated that.
“I feel like I’m Zoomed out,” he said … on a Zoom call with local reporters. “I don’t like Zoom, I don’t ever want to do a Zoom again. I really believe that there’s a power in being together. As humans, we like human interaction and I really miss that.”
That, to an extent, is the Pacers’ problem. Nothing was typical this season, so how do they evaluate the job of Bjorkgren and his staff when factoring in a shortened training camp, significant injuries, limited practice time and no opportunities to become connected away the court?
The Pacers went 34-38, finished the season without four of their top six players and missed out on the playoffs by one game. It’s their first time missing the playoffs since the 2014-15 season when again, they finished one win short. That was the season perennial Paul George missed all but six games.
“We didn’t win as many games as we wanted,” he continued. “We wanted to be in the playoffs. Whether you think a play-in game is a playoff or not — I personally do because anytime you’re in a situation where you lose and you go home, that’s a playoff for me.”
The play-in tournament is an extension of the regular season and not part of the playoffs, but it was another chance to evaluate the team on a meaningful stage. They never solved the Wizards, losing all four meetings this season and giving up an average of 140 points.
“When we defended well, it gave us an opportunity to win. And we need to get back to that defensive identity,” Pritchard said. Keeping Dan Burke would have helped, but that’s another story…
The Pacers averaged six more points per game, finished second in the NBA in assists and fast break points. But their defensive rating dropped from sixth to 14th and no team allowed more second chance points and points in the paint.
LeVert was acquired and then overcame kidney cancer; Defensive safety net Myles Turner missed the final 16 games due to injury; T.J. Warren suffered a season-ending injury after four game, and Pritchard stressed many times how badly Warren, the team’s top scorer last season, was missed.
“We didn’t have our best scorer for basically the whole year,” he said. “You saw what T.J. Warren did in the bubble — that’s who he is. He carried us last year a ton in the regular season. He’s a fourth-quarter scorer and he’s a fourth-quarter defender.”
Bjorkgren didn’t coach a game without a mask, nor was he able to coach in front of a packed Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That contributed to their putrid 13-23 home record, ending a streak of 31 consecutive seasons with a winning mark at home.
If Bjorkgren is brought back — and that continues to be more unlikely — Pritchard stressed that he must be willing to learn and adjust as a head coach. A better complement of staff members would help, as would empowering them with more responsibilities. I only attended home games, but not once did I see an assistant coach lead or even speak up in a huddle.
“Individually, in that locker room, they got along very, very well,” Pritchard said. “When we got on the court, to be brutally honest, it wasn’t that way and there was a little bit of a disconnect in the team.
“In the exit meetings, no one said that they were unhappy. Yes, they said he does micromanage.”
That was one of the widespread criticisms of Bjorkgren — and he owned up to it back on May 5th after several reports surfaced following an embarrassing loss to the Wizards.
“A big part of head coaching is learning how to communicate, learning how to constantly connect with individuals and your team,” Bjorkgren said then. “And that’s something that I’m gonna continue to strive to get better at.”
Publicly, players backed Bjorkgren, who as the head coach has to manage egos and try to make everyone happy.
Aaron Holiday, who never had a steady spot in the rotation, described this season as “an experience.” Others gave generic answers, like Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis. T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott, both of whom are free agents, backed him. And Warren, who was with Bjorkgren in Phoenix, was frustrated by the negativity and false reporting in one specific story.
“Nate’s been nothing but a great guy, hard-working loving man,” Warren said on Saturday. “Very, very transparent with the team and everybody enjoyed playing for Nate.”
But there was no denying this group’s lack of connectedness. They’d look sharp one night, then be on opposite wavelengths the next. Frustration poured over, like the in-game argument between Goga Bitadze and assistant Greg Foster.
“There’s an art and science of coaching,” Pritchard said. “… I’ve got a young coach, whose got some super talent in X’s and O’s, but needs some improvement in human management.”
Pritchard adamantly denied that they didn’t gather enough background intel during the coaching search, estimating that they spoke to at least 15 individuals regarding Bjorkgren. Enough to be comfortable hiring this first-year coach.
“We knew that he’s very specific in the way he likes things,” Pritchard said. “We knew that. But you got to give a coach some flexibility to do what he likes to do. I’ve never been through a more exhaustive search.
“To go from a first assistant from a championship team to sitting in the head seat, you never exactly know how a guy is gonna react, but you hope. That 12 inches is huge. It’s just like going from GM to president. You can say that you’re gonna be prepared and everything, but it’s a total new stress, it’s a total new responsibility.”
There’s no hurry for Pritchard and his staff to make a decision because if they choose not to run it back, to admit it was a bad hire and look elsewhere, the focus of their search would include mostly assistants who are coaching in the playoffs.
However, they can figure out which coaches are obtainable through backchannels. They’re not in a place to take a gamble, to conduct another coaching search with 15-plus candidates again. If they make a change, which would require them to pay Bjorkgren for next season anyway, they’ve got to know who their next guy is first.
It is a desirable job — in a basketball-centric state, where you can be a part of something special in a low-pressure setting and have top-of-the-line facilities. Plus, there’s only 30 NBA head coaches. But there are pitfalls, like the inability to land an All-Star in free agency. That’s why the draft and trades are so important.
Keeping Bjorkgren or not will be the first domino to fall for the Pacers this offseason. Then, the Pacers must take a deep dive on the culture within, consider whether it’s worth bringing the core back for another run and go from there.
Even then, they’re still good health and at least once significant piece away from contending for a championship.
“We take a lot of pride in making the playoffs consistently,” Pritchard said. “We didn’t do that, so there’s got to be some reflection.”
Watch his entire press conference in the embedded player below: