Nate Bjorkgren Reportedly Fired as Pacers Head Coach After 1 Season

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2021

Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren () in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 15, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Nate Bjorkgren is out after one season as the Indiana Pacers head coach, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Wojnarowski provided additional details on the front office's decision:

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

Bjorkgren was informed today of decision to dismiss him, sources said. He met with management on Tuesday. Pacers are expected to pursue a more experienced, established head coach in this process. Bjorkgren lost locker room and much of organization in his one year as coach. https://t.co/FSwxnl66Ed

The Pacers finished the season 34-38 and lost in the play-in tournament. 

The 45-year-old took over for Nate McMillan last October, with McMillan's firing coming as a bit of a surprise after the Pacers were fourth in the Eastern Conference. The 2019-20 campaign ended on a low note, however, as the Miami Heat swept Indiana in the first round.

It was the franchise's fifth straight exit in the opening round—four of which came in McMillan's tenure—which likely explained the abrupt move. Bjorkgren's departure illustrates how change on its own doesn't guarantee improvement, though.

Wednesday's news comes after multiple reports cast doubt on his long-term future in Indiana.

Wojnarowski reported May 4 that Bjorkgren had "significant work to do with his relationships among players throughout the team and with some members of the organization."

Shams Charania of The Athletic provided more detail, explaining how the Pacers brought him in to connect with the players better than McMillan had. Instead, his man management style became problematic:

"While he is indeed far more invested when it comes to coaching in accordance with modern-day NBA thinking, Bjorkgren's abrasive style has come as a surprise—in interactions with players and his own coaching staff members—and led to the kind of frustration that has caused significant concern. It hasn't been reserved merely for the players, either, as several sources cited instances where Bjorkgren's personality and tendency to be controlling with assistant coaches and other staff members caused unnecessary tension."

Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer painted a damning portrait of not only Bjorkgren but also the Pacers for their hiring process. While they spoke with Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, for whom he was an assistant, they didn't connect with any of his former co-workers on the Phoenix Suns.

T.J. Warren, who played under Bjorkgren in Phoenix, wasn't consulted, either, and requested to be traded upon learning of the hiring, per Fischer.

Sean Highkin @highkin

"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." https://t.co/5Whyfc0FqB

Wojnarowski reported Bjorkgren was working to improve things in the locker room, and there's a chance things would've improved if he had been afforded a second season. 

While he had spent four years as an assistant, working as a head coach presents different challenges. Bjorkgren isn't the first, nor will he be the last to struggle with the transition. One NBA executive described him as "just completely out of his element as a leader" to Fischer.

The Pacers clearly felt they couldn't afford to take a wait-and-see approach and needed to make the change now.

Warren and Jeremy Lamb are free agents after the 2021-22 season, while Caris LeVert, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are all due to hit the open market in 2023. The franchise is built to contend now, and it might be facing a serious reset in a few years.

Indiana could ill afford to tread water in another lost season with Bjorkgren on the sideline.

When the Pacers were searching for a replacement for McMillan, Mike D'Antoni was heavily linked to the role. Having experimented with a first-time head coach, perhaps they'll make another run at D'Antoni, who works on the Brooklyn Nets staff, or more generally target candidates with head coaching experience.

Warren made just four appearances, while LeVert's time with the team was after a physical revealed renal cell carcinoma of his kidney. Myles Turner also saw a toe injury interrupt one of the best defensive seasons of his NBA career.

The Pacers are positioned well to rebound in 2021-22 under new stewardship.