The Toronto Raptors saw another disciple of head coach Nick Nurse earn himself an NBA head coaching job last offseason, as Nate Bjorkgren was named the next coach of an Indiana Pacers team that is trying anything and everything to get over the hump.
Bjorkgren immediately turned a team that 23rd in points scored and third in points allowed under Nate McMillan last year and had them at sixth in points scored and 25th in points allowed. That philosophical change hurt Indiana, as they slipped from fifth in the conference to ninth, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed that Bjorkgren was out in Indiana after just one tough season. While Woj reported that the Pacers respected his coaching acumen and would’ve liked him in a rebuilding situation, they fired him with the intent of hiring a coach they think can win now with this deep team.
In an unusual season that was full of challenges, Bjorkgren was still axed, potentially due to some concerns that his style of coaching was not well received in the locker room. With all of those mitigating factors, was his firing justifiable?
Should former Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren have been fired?
Between Caris LeVert and TJ Warren, two of Indiana’s best perimeter players played a combined 39 games. Turner missed the end of the season with an injury, and even Malcolm Brogdon had his injury woes.
Bjorkgren’s schemes helped Myles Turner continue to prove his quality at the NBA level, and Domantas Sabonis was a double-double (and in some cases triple-double) machine.
At the same time, however, McMillan has helped the Atlanta Hawks make it to the second round of the postseason, while Bjorkgren took a team with all that talent in a very winnable East and couldn’t even make it into the top half. This is a results-driven business, and the Pacers declining in such a pronounced fashion is grounds for dismissal.
If Bjorkgren did indeed lose the locker room, he’s finished. No amount of in-game coaching acumen can make up for that lack of empathy and leadership ability.
Ultimately, Bjorkgren fizzled out, while McMillan led the Hawks on an unexpected run in the postseason. While Bjorkgren’s Xs and Os knowledge coupled with his ability to draw up plays makes him a solid assistant, he lacked the touch to make everything gel on and off the court.
Great head coaches like Nurse have that trait, but Bjorkgren doesn’t seem to possess it at this juncture. He will likely end up as an assistant soon after, but it will be a while before another HC job comes up.