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Inside the Turbulent Tenure of Indiana Pacers Coach Nate Bjorkgren

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IMay 6, 2021

Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren directs his team behind Indiana Pacers forward Doug McDermott (20) during the second half of a basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Monday, May 3, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

While injuries and challenges due to health and safety protocols have surely plagued the Indiana Pacers this season, NBA personnel have long been crediting the team's stumble to ninth in the Eastern Conference to a crumbling team chemistry at the hands of first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren

As ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported on Tuesday evening, it appears Bjorkgren's tenure in Indiana will likely come to an end after just one season. His struggles as a head coach could even put longtime Pacers executives Kevin Pritchard and Chad Buchanan in jeopardy as well, multiple league sources told Bleacher Report.

"He's just very different," said one league executive who has worked previously with Bjorkgren. "He's not a d--k; he's just completely out of his element as a leader." 

"He didn't come in relationship-building in an easy way from day one," said one Pacers voice.   

Bjorkgren's communication style has been categorized as aggressive and abrasive with players and members of the Pacers staff, from his front-of-the-bench assistants down to trainers and equipment personnel. That behavior was cited as the cause for one assistant coach's resignation.

"Typically younger coaches bring a more positive, spirited, encouraging behavior, not an antagonistic approach," said an assistant general manager.  

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"Communication's an enormous part of this," Bjorkgren said Wednesday, before Indiana's 104-93 loss to Sacramento. "The management of personalities is bigger than the X's and O's part. That's where I gotta keep growing and gotta keep learning and gotta get better." 

Nate McMillan's success in Atlanta, after Indiana curiously fired him back in August just two weeks following a contract-extension agreement, has further muddied these waters. Multiple league sources with knowledge of the situation described McMillan's additional year as something more of a parting gift than an earnest extension. 

By the Orlando bubble when Miami swept Indiana in the first round of the playoffs, Pacers players had grown fatigued by McMillan's tough-minded approach, sources said. His slower-paced scheme, which diverged from modern trends of playing style—Indiana finished 30th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game last season—was also a source of consternation within the organization.  

In turn, Pacers management set out to find a high-energy, new-age coach. Indiana initially cast a wide net, meeting with north of 20 candidates, sources said, including various profiles ranging from Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to former head coach Dave Joerger. And while Mike D'Antoni was long considered the favorite to fill Indiana's opening, the Pacers grew to specifically covet a "Nick Nurse-type," sources said. 

Pritchard is said to hold a longstanding relationship with Nurse, the inventive play caller who piloted Toronto to the 2019 championship in just his first year at the helm of the Raptors. Both men played overseas and later coached in the American minor leagues such as the ABA and USBL during the early 2000s. Nurse's analytics-minded offensive acumen, honed in the G League, plus his outside-the-box defensive tactics, such as mixing various zone looks to keep opponents off kilter, particularly intrigued Pritchard, sources said.  

From there, it became clear to many involved in the coaching search that Indiana's opening was being whittled down to two options. There was Bjorkgren, Nurse's right hand in Toronto, and then-New Orleans assistant Chris Finch, who battled Nurse during their early coaching careers in England, preceded Nurse as the head coach of Rio Grande Valley from 2009-11, and later joined the Raptors staff as an assistant before being named Minnesota's head coach in February. 

By all accounts, Bjorkgren won over Indiana brass with an overwhelmingly positive energy during the interview process. Tune into any Bjorkgren press conference, and you'll glimpse the prowess he exhibits when speaking tactically about basketball.

"He is very meticulous in his presentation," said one Pacers source. 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

While Bjorkgren rose through the G League head coaching ranks, pit stopping at Santa Cruz, Iowa and Bakersfield, he developed a reputation for improving his team's records and players' individual performances. The Pacers grew confident that Bjorkgren could help reinvent Indiana from the fourth seed in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs to a bona fide contender—just as Nurse did north of the border. Domantas Sabonis is indeed averaging career highs in points and assists amid his second straight All-Star season.

But while the Pacers conducted a lengthy search, Bjorkgren seems to have emerged as the team's ultimate hire based primarily on his relationships with people in the front office, including Buchanan, the general manager. 

Bjorkgren and Buchanan are considered to be close friends dating back to their college days. Both men, like Nurse, hail from Iowa originally; both played for Division III teams in Iowa—Bjorkgren at Buena Vista and Buchanan at Simpson, where Bjorkgren's uncle is now the head coach.

Nurse was heavily consulted throughout the interview process, sources said, but Indiana brass never contacted Phoenix executives for insight on Bjorkgren's time as a Suns assistant from 2015-17.  

Nor did they consult with last year's Orlando bubble breakout player T.J. Warren—who played under Bjorkgren in Phoenix—according to sources. There is a belief among several members of the Pacers organization that Warren requested a trade upon learning of Bjorkgren's hire and has no interest in playing for Bjorkgren.

Warren's season-ending surgery after suffering a foot injury in late December has provided a natural buffer between him and Bjorkgren, as Warren rehabilitates on schedule in North Carolina. A source with knowledge of Warren's thinking told Bleacher Report that he is looking forward to rejoining the Pacers for the 2021-22 season. 

Sources tell B/R that Pacers starter T.J. Warren was not consulted on the Nate Bjorkgren hire, despite playing under Bjorkgren in Phoenix, and requested a trade when Bjorkgren's hiring became public.
Sources tell B/R that Pacers starter T.J. Warren was not consulted on the Nate Bjorkgren hire, despite playing under Bjorkgren in Phoenix, and requested a trade when Bjorkgren's hiring became public.Ashley Landis/Associated Press/Associated Press

"They didn't do their background on who [Bjorkgren] was or how he treated people," said one person close to the coaching search. "They just talked hoops with him." 

It seems that missing intel foreshadowed the very interpersonal issues that have since risen in Indiana. 

"When he was hired I was surprised, because he's not the easiest to work with just on anything," said one of Bjorkgren's former G League players. "He's kind of stubborn, won't listen, even though it might be good conversation. He's a micromanager and he's not for everyone." 

When a G League practice schedule ran a bit behind or a ball rack was out of place, Bjorkgren could erupt at players and staffers without a moment's notice. "The frustration level at little things going wrong didn't match up with the issues," said another former G League colleague. 

"He was really hard on his staff," added another NBA source who overlapped with Bjorkgren in the G League. "He expected a lot from them without giving a lot of ownership or trust back." 

In Phoenix, when Bjorkgren was elevated to an assistant under Earl Watson, he operated in an often clandestine fashion, sources told B/R, and sought ways for himself to channel daily communication from players and other coaches to Watson.  

"He would get in early and kind of orchestrate the path for himself," said a Western Conference assistant general manager. 

That behavior seems to have continued in Toronto. One league source compared the dynamic to Bjorkgren acting like a politician's chief of staff, at points preventing other coaches and Toronto's players from holding conversations with Nurse that did not go through Bjorkgren first.

"He would do things like police the communication about the team schedule on a road trip and when other people got a hold of it, so he was in control," said the person with knowledge of the situation. 

"It's one thing if the head coach designates his lead assistant as a person to delegate communication, as a means to organize your business. It's another when that person seems to be doing it without the head coach's direction," said the aforementioned assistant general manager.  

The positive energy Bjorkgren brought to his interview process did seem to translate into Indiana's early training camp. Players initially responded well to Bjorkgren getting after them on defense and hounding guys for greater intensity, sources said. While some head coaches sit back during preseason practices and observe, Bjorkgren was front and center.

"He was directing it, yelling in a positive 'rah-rah' clapping way. He wasn't afraid to jump in a drill if he needed to," said another Indiana staffer. "Everyone was saying he was the most utmost positive person. It was infectious."

With the team's 6-2 start, all seemed to be going well. After a thrilling 108-107 win over Boston moved Indiana to 3-0 on the young season, Sabonis told reporters that Bjorkgren was "a genius. He knows the game, and trusts us." Added Malcolm Brogdon: "We've got a coach that motivates us, great with the X's and O's, stays calm. We feed off of him."

"You don't hear the same language anymore," said one Pacers figure. "Read into that what you will." 

Sabonis since felt compelled to approach Bjorkgren on one occasion, where he encouraged the coach to be kinder to Indiana's staff. Further, Bjorkgren's aggressive switching style on defense has forced Sabonis to cover far more room on the perimeter than he'd like, sources said. Sabonis now ranks first in the league in total distance traveled on defense per game, according to NBA.com. 

The creativity Pacers management once coveted has left Indiana players in curious predicaments such as trapping on the wing from a 2-3 zone, and has pushed ill-equipped personnel such as Doug McDermott and Justin Holiday to regularly switch onto bigger opponents with size and speed advantages.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

"Nate is trying to coach a team that he doesn't have," said one Pacers staffer. "He's trying to fit the system to the players and not the other way around." 

Shortly after Christmas, word began to circulate that Bjorkgren was indeed prone to screaming at longtime Indiana staffers just as he'd done in the G League. His niceness and "infectious" positivity seen during his interview process and training camp began to come across to several Indiana staffers as insincere.

"That's how he is in general," added one Indiana staffer. "He's got like a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing." 

Multiple Pacers personnel contacted by B/R noted Bjorkgren's introductory, all-staff Zoom meeting as a prime example. After Pritchard and Buchanan opened the session, Bjorkgren began to introduce himself. Staffers separated by the pandemic were expecting Bjorkgren to speak more at length about his vision, philosophy and plans for the roster, but the coach provided very little tangible information. "He used buzzwords like 'disruption' and 'change,'" said the Pacers source. 

Bjorkgren didn't offer any background on himself or his family. After talking for not longer than 90 seconds, Bjorkgren concluded his spiel and the call ended. 

"He was pretty bubbly, to the point where it didn't seem genuine," said another Indiana voice. "It was strange." Indiana personnel then learned more about Bjorkgren's plans and thought process while watching his engaging press conference with the media. 

The short fuse Bjorkgren showcased in the G League began to emerge shortly thereafter. Before one team flight, sources said, the head coach became irate that the Pacers charter was behind its scheduled departure time.

"Coach," one staffer was at last able to reason with Bjorkgren, "we're de-icing." 

When players customarily warm up on a basket before practice, shooting around with their assigned assistant or player-development coach, Bjorkgren often migrates over and asks what they are working on, sources said. He is prone to call out an assistant during specific drills.

"He doesn't mind embarrassing his coaches," said one league executive.

Greg Foster, a veteran assistant coach heralded for his ability to develop big men, is said to have grown particularly agitated by Bjorkgren's belittling. Foster, of course, was the Pacers coach seen barking toward Goga Bitadze Wednesday evening, needing to be restrained by Myles Turner. On Thursday, ESPN reported Foster would be suspended a game. 

Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

Longtime Pacers assistant coach Billy Bayno resigned in February. "That's pretty much unheard of," noted one team scout. And while Bayno's decision was announced to be a result of personal and health reasons, league sources said he departed Indiana because he was personally no longer able to work under Bjorkgren. 

At this juncture, Indiana is still slated to appear in the NBA's first-annual play-in tournament and the resolution of this situation remains undetermined. While Pritchard has been with the organization since 2011, and Indiana owner Herb Simon is considered loyal to his chief executive, the outcome of Indiana's coaching search could ultimately cost much more than Bjorkgren's reputation as a potential head coach. 

"You wonder how this will affect management going forward," said one scout. 

Should a change ultimately occur on the bench, Mike D'Antoni is once again considered the leader in the clubhouse to fill Indiana's opening, sources said. But could a few games and the play-in tournament be enough to prevent any turnover?

"It's been a tough year. There's a lot of challenges out there being a coach and being a head coach in this league," Bjorkgren said Wednesday. "I don't make excuses. I'm a young coach and I'm learning and I'm growing and I'm trying to be better."

     

This article has been updated to reflect a denial of TJ Warren's trade request of the Pacers. Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.

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