Former Toronto Raptors Assistant Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren is thriving with the Indiana Pacers.
So, the Toronto Raptors finally got their first win. Mazal tov. Still, while the city breathes a sigh of relief, we are far from comfortable with how the season’s started. Maybe last year’s ability to maintain success while enduring the loss of Kawhi Leonard gave the fanbase a false sense of security, but at some point losing talented guys had to start to hurt the team.
One such loss is former assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren. Bjorkgren was hired by the Indiana Pacers to be their head coach back in October, and while we miss Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol’s contributions, it’s Bjorkgren who’s enjoyed the most success since leaving the North. Statistically, he is the greatest coach in NBA history with an 80%-win rate. Legendary stuff.
So who is this guy?
Bjorkgren got his start coaching in the G league back in 2007. He bounced around for a while until he was picked up as an assistant by the Phoenix Suns in 2016 before taking on a similar role with the Raptors from 2018-2020.
Bjorkgren has always had a close relationship with our own Head Coach Nick Nurse, dating back as far as the 2007 Iowa Energy where he assisted under Nurse. In a post-game interview last Tuesday, Bjorkgren was asked about his coaching mentors over the years and Nick Nurse’s name came up more than once.
As a team, the Pacers are in an awkward position in the league.
They’re clearly talented, but they don’t have a single superstar on their roster to propel them into serious contention. This lack of a tippy-top guy doesn’t usually bode well for a playoff team (as the 2020 Toronto Raptors can attest), yet the same “sum of their parts” identity that has been failing the Raptors thus far this season has been kicking all sorts of butt in Indiana. Why is that? The teams are both reasonably equal in terms of skill and versatility. So why has it been working in Indiana and not in Toronto/Tampa?
In two words; Domantas Sabonis.
I have always loved Sabonis. I cherish a soft spot for any second-generation NBA player, as well as slow, goofy-looking Europeans, who have eyes at the back of their head.
Despite making his first all-star team last season, Sabonis flew more or less under the national media’s radar. Focusing instead on the will-they won’t-they soap opera that is Victor Oladipo’s knee. However, it looks like the script has flipped in 2021.
Coach Bjorkgren has immediately crowned Sabonis the Pacer’s offensive focal point and has empowered him by running the ball through him a la Nikola Jokic. Triangle offence, floppy actions, high post, and faceup opportunities not only put Sabonis in a position to score but allow him to dish the rock to teammates just like his daddy used to do.
Now, at a first glance, you might think that this is Bjorkgren giving Sabonis the Marc Gasol treatment. Gasol, whose time overlapped with Bjorkgren in Toronto and is on the shortlist of the greatest passing big men of all time, is the kind of player Sabonis is may remind us of. Though in reality, the way Nate Bjorkgren is using him is much more reminiscent of the way we used to use Serge Ibaka.
High screen and roll and pick-and-pop actions, using him inside the three-point line where he can be more involved in every motion, not to mention the aggression to carry his lineup’s scoring load is much closer to how we would run Ibaka off the bench. The difference is Sabonis is two times the offensive player Ibaka is, so within Bjorkgren’s system, he becomes both a creator and a finisher. The engine of the offence rather than a cog.
The Pacers’ depth in talent
All credit to the talent on the Pacers’ roster, but this team would not be winning this much on that alone. Yes, Oladipo’s been healthy so far, and yes Sabonis has been great, but it’s been the deliberate, almost surgical strategic coaching of Nate Bjorkgren that has let them shine like this early on. He has been maximizing his team and his players.
Oladipo and Brogdon sharing the ball as dual creators in the backcourt (Kyle Lowry & Fred VanVleet esque), Miles Turner blocking shots and spreading the floor for cuts and drives (Gasol and Ibaka the role players), T.J. Warren being the king of the 20-0-0 box score, and Sabonis being the fulcrum of the team, scoring, rebounding, distributing, just like his dad used to do.
Surround this core with 3-&-D wings like Doug McDermott and the Holiday brothers, a gnat-like T.J. McConnell, and a stretch big in T.J. Leaf, and we’re suddenly seeing a lot of space for those guys to operate.
Still, both my and Coach Bjorkgren’s favourite part of this team is its intelligence. It’s filled with guys who have made careers off of playing as part of a unit and putting the team before themselves. Even their all-stars Oladipo and Sabonis (and Brogdon too), they all had to earn their stripes playing backup to Eric Bledsoe or standing in the corner while Russell Westbrook dribbled the ball flat. These Pacers have intelligence and humility.
That’s what has allowed them to so quickly adapt to a new head coach. That’s what’s allowed them to buy in and succeed under Bjorkgren’s watch.
As a Raptors fan, it’s a shame to see such a clearly talented coach move away from us, but as a believer in the strength of our organization’s culture, it just adds one more name to the list of successful Toronto Raptors graduates.
Congratulations to Coach Bjorkgren on his success. See you in the Conference Finals (I hope).