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Why Nate Bjorkgren’s flexible coaching style fits a Pacers team in flux

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After weeks of interviewing candidates, the Pacers became the second team with a coaching vacancy to go with a first-time NBA coach.

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s a new Nate in town. After dismissing head coach Nate McMillan and conducting an exhaustive search, the Indiana Pacers have hired Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as the franchise’s next head coach, reports The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard in a statement released by Pacers.com. “This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time. He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

Prior to joining Nick Nurse’s coaching staff in Toronto and winning an NBA Championship, Bjorkgren also assisted Nurse, his long-time friend, for four years with the Iowa energy, where the two captured a G League title together in 2011. When Nurse moved on to Rio Grande Valley, Bjorkgren went on to accept a head coaching position with the then-Dakota Wizards, who later became the Santa Cruz Warriors. In the team’s inaugural season as the Warriors, Bjorkgren led Santa Cruz to the Finals, losing 0-2 to Nurse’s Vipers. From there, the long-time G League alum circled back to the Iowa Energy for a season before later signing a new deal to coach the Bakersfield Jam and eventually getting tapped as both a player development coach and assistant with the Phoenix Suns under Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson. You can listen to him tell that full (and winding) story, here.

As it pertains to his hiring with Pacers, however, what might be even more telling than his long-standing ties to Nurse are his connections to Phoenix. Not only because he was credited for developing four Suns players, including T.J. Warren, during the first single-affiliation season between Phoenix and Bakersfield, but also as a result of what can be surmised from what was also his final season managing his own team in the G League.

Coaching a young Jam roster full of first and second-year players to the playoffs against an Austin Spurs team that at times featured Orlando Johnson, Jonathan Simmons, and Kyle Anderson, Nurse’s former right-hand man put his team in the position to steal a win, despite being at a sizable talent disadvantage, by attempting to make the most of unpredictability.

Rather than making use of strict rules and play calls, Bjorkgren made his players tough to guard by allowing them to play freely within streamlined actions and guidelines.

For example, consider for a moment that the 45-year-old tactician used a stoppage in play at the free throw line like a defacto timeout to converse with his point guard, and look at what developed within the first 10 seconds of the shot-clock:

With Xavier Munford dribbling off a high pick, notice how Mac Koshwal rolls from the perimeter to the paint at the same as time as the other big moves from the paint to the perimeter. In addition to putting tons of pressure on the opposing four to make a choice between taking the screener and staying at home at the three-point line, that action opens up a matrix of quick-hitting, free-wheeling possibilities that is quintessentially Bjorkgren and could easily be replicated by Warren, Turner, and Sabonis or just Warren, Sabonis and a corner shooter.

Think of it this way: Like in the above example, if Sabonis is rolling and Warren is replacing, then whoever is slotted in the corner could sneak behind the defense. Stay attached to the shooters and Sabonis is rumbling down the lane 2-on-1. Commit to him on the roll, however, and be prepared to contend with him as a weak-side passer.

Here, Koshwal lets the defense off the hook by failing to make contact on the screen and he still manages to get an easy 1-on-1 opportunity just by virtue of the lane being opened up like a runway by the positioning of his teammates.

On top of highlighting the importance of starting and ending possessions with constantly re-established spacing, what both of those possessions go to show is that playing “faster” doesn’t have to be the product of leaking-out or merely running fast in transition.

If anything, that’s the unifying quality of all of Bjorkgren’s G League teams, none of which ranked below fifth in pace. For the season, Bakersfield was plus-37 in the 123 minutes that Koshwal and floor spacing forward/center Alec Brown, who can be seen popping in the above clip and didn’t join the team until mid-February after months of rehabbing a shoulder injury, shared the floor together. But, here’s the thing: Playing double-big, as the low, though high-efficiency, minutes go to show, wasn’t a mainstay of the Jam’s offense nor should it necessarily be projected onto the Pacers as an absolute for what to expect for next season.

Rather, aside from playing with pace, arguably the most defining characteristic of Bjorkgren’s tenure in the G League is that his teams were most similar in that they were dissimilar. With an offense based more in reads than play calls, his coaching philosophy across stops in Dakota/Santa Cruz, Iowa, and Bakersfield was oftentimes an expression of the players he had available, at times leaning heavily on manufacturing points out of stops, as was the case when he led the Warriors, a gritty, defensive-team to the Finals, while also laying waste to the paint with the Wizards, and teaching a young Jam team to take care of the ball and live at the line.

That’s why, given that the Pacers are currently chartering somewhat of an uncertain future in terms of personnel depending upon what happens this offseason with Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, Bjorkgren’s soft-spoken flexibility and exposure to Nick Nurse’s bold coaching tactics, could prove to be the right form of guidance at the right time for a team looking to level up while also in flux.