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Nate Bjorkgren fired after tumultuous first year as Pacers head coach

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Farewell, Indiana Raptors.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

The search for New New Nate is on. After taking extra time to evaluate the job performance of first-time head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have decided to dismiss Nate McMillan’s replacement after one season with the team, reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. According to Wojnarowski, Pacers management met with Bjorkgren on Tuesday and ultimately “decided that the disconnect between him and a veteran locker room with playoff aspirations had created an insurmountable gulf.”

“The 2020-21 season was not what any of us hoped or anticipated it would be, and our results on the court certainly did not meet the standards for what our organization and our fans have come to expect,” said Kevin Pritchard, via a statement issued the Pacers. “We have determined this is the right time to move in a different direction, and on behalf of the Simon Family and the entire Pacers organization, I want to express my gratitude to Nate for his efforts leading our team. While we do not have a definite timetable for our search, we will move quickly to identify candidates who will make our team and our organization stronger.”

At his season ending press conference, Pritchard didn’t commit to Bjorkgren either way, but praised the first-time head coach’s acumen for Xs and Os while acknowledging the improvement that was needed with regard to human management.

“There’s this balance,” said Pritchard. “There’s this art and science of coaching. And there’s no doubt Nate has this incredible science of coaching, Xs and Os, what play to call and how to manage the X and Os within a game and to teach it. And then there’s the art. That is – I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around some amazing, emotionally intelligent coaches. And I think that’s there for Nate. I really do. But that’s got to be improved. And I had a 15-minute conversation with Nate, and he was very self-reflective, and he’s like, “I know I’ve got to get better at this. I want to get better at this.”

Without being inside the locker room, there’s no way to know the exact specifics of the way in which Bjorkgren was rubbing those throughout the organization the wrong way, but it’s easy to understand today’s decision, especially if those concerns extended beyond players, and fair to question if he truly would’ve been self-reflective with regard to improving his management style, given his auto-pilot game-plans that arguably fit the roster he wanted, rather than the team he had.

To that point, from the standpoint of Xs and Os, continuing to go overboard with overs in the name of hyperaggression against Russell Westbrook, for the fourth time in as many losses to the Washington Wizards, was inexcusable, even if the intermitted and/or prolonged absences of T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, and Caris LeVert also clearly played a major role in why the Pacers failed to advance to the first-round of the playoffs, let alone finished with a worse overall record.

Still, isn’t that also sort of the point?

In the absence of the team’s best wing defender and rim protector, Bjorkgren, in contrast to the flexibility he displayed as a tactician across G League franchises, was stubborn, unwilling to adjust a coverage which had surrendered easy scores repeatedly throughout the season to numerous non-shooters, including the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, while simultaneously expecting Domantas Sabonis to function as if he were Turner at the rim, which is to say nothing of the mileage the lefty big man racked up all year in his help-and-fly role at the four.

Granted, stepping into the role of head coach amid a condensed schedule without a fully training camp to implement a whirling defensive system, couldn’t have been easy.

But, again, isn’t that also sort of the point?

From the get go, despite the benefits of borrowing from Nick Nurse’s offense, it was questionable if this roster, short on Toronto’s rangy defenders and loaded with combo guards and centers, could pull off such an aggressive, shape-shifting scheme, especially considering how often the excesses of ball pressure forced the team to play in rotation without mobile length or any semblance of cohesion. Better conditioning and availability would’ve helped over the long haul, but the curveballs (i.e. box-and-one, triangle-and-two, etc.) that were intended as agents of chaos for opponents, all too often turned out to be boomerangs, instead, causing confusion for the Pacers.

Overall, while the front office deserves blame for why yet another coaching change is already needed, there should at least be some solace taken in that the need for change was readily admitted and recognized, rather than expecting Bjorkgren to be what he wasn’t, at least to this point.

Per Wojnarowski, with Bjorkgren reportedly “losing the locker-room” as a rookie head coach, the team is expected to pursue a more “established” candidate, with former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts increasingly linked by league sources as a candidate, according to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer.