Pacers

New Nate, Same Indiana Hot Seat

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Much is ado about Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren’s job status.

Recent reports indicate Indiana’s front office now considers moving on from Bjorkgren after this season, despite another guaranteed season under contract.

The Pacers organization is generally tight-lipped about internal affairs and usually keeps matters close to the chest. As omniscient as Woj may seem, information about Bjorkgren did not materialize inside his head. Someone (or some people) within the Pacers organization wanted news made public and provided information to the media.

What’s Wrong?

A lot. This team should be much better.

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First and foremost, Indiana is not winning, despite a weak East and loaded (albeit oft-injured) roster. Interestingly, Woj reports Indiana’s problems with Bjorkgren primarily stem from personality conflicts, not the team record: “Bjorkgren’s style of coaching and communication — on the court, in the locker room and in individual settings with players and staff — has often been the root of team turmoil this season.”

Due to COVID-19, media are not allowed in the locker room. Necessary but limiting media conditions make it difficult to obtain a clearer picture of Bjorkgren’s relationships with players and staff. However, media members have still published interesting information on the relationship between Bjorkgren and the Pacers, even about the state of the locker room.

Player Frustration

With two solid centers (when healthy, and three counting Goga!), Indiana may not be best suited to run and gun for quick shots and a barrage of three-pointers, which new Nate has pushed for more of this season. According to The Athletic, players are not thrilled with Bjorkgren’s style of play given the roster. Two players, in particular, had their names dropped by an anonymous source: Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.

This is interesting especially since Bjorkgren was brought on to be a more analytically-minded coach, which seems to be Brogdon’s and Sabonis’ frustration. Also, both Brogdon and Sabonis are enjoying career statistical years when not injured. If they are frustrated despite their individual success, legitimate issues seem more likely.

Assuming the anonymous source is truthful– on one hand, if the team is unhappy, those leaders may take it upon themselves to say how the team feels as representatives of their teammates. There is constructive value in that. On the other hand, though, the two (arguably) best players unhappy with the head coach is generally not a recipe for success.

The Athletic lists an anonymous source describing coach Bjorkgren as “over-communicative.” If the source is truthful, in an effort to be approachable and personable, coach Nate may have unfortunately gone too far and alienated roster members. While Nate’s communication style seems far from malicious, it can be difficult to reverse the unintended negative effects. Difficult, not impossible.

This NBA season has been extra difficult for players and staff due to (among other reasons) a condensed schedule, strict social distancing, and family time restrictions. Hindsight is a genius, but perhaps an active communication style like Bjorkgren adopted was not the right call for this season, as it could be interpreted as overwhelming.

Coaching Staff Rifts

With a new head coach came a new coaching staff. Before the 2020-21 NBA regular season, Pacer fans were frustrated to see assistant coach Dan Burke, defensive guru and all-time interviewer, head to Philadelphia (see their W-L and defensive numbers). Bill Bayno, another revered assistant, left the team this season due to personal and medical reasons. Replacing the aforementioned assistants has proven more difficult than expected.

Unfortunately, there is apparent frustration among this season’s assistant coaches. Frustration boiled over when assistant coach Greg Foster went nuts.

IndyStar reporter J Michael contends that Bjorkgren has alienated assistant coaches with his control. Specific names of unhappy assistants have not been released.

Greg Foster

May 5, poop hit the fan for Indiana’s coaching staff. Down 22 at home to the Kings (yes, those Kings), Mo Harkless was generously ushered into the paint by Sabonis. Harkless blew right past Domas- there was no resistance. On this particular play, Goga Bitadze presumably was in charge of helping at the rim, but he opted out and let Harkless throw one down. Assistant coach Greg Foster got on Goga.

The very next possession, T.J. McConnell finds Goga for a clean three-pointer. Kings lead cut to 21. Indiana was back in it (∩︵∩). Goga runs back on defense and says some words that broadcast cameras picked up.

At the next dead ball, Foster went ballistic. The full video of the incident, though it feels sacrilegious to post as a fan of the team, is below. This dysfunction is despicable.

If Goga really said what the Internet believes, Foster had a right to be hot. But Mr. Foster, you are a grown man. If there is ever room for such a power-trip altercation, that has to happen behind closed doors. Foster is 30 years Goga’s senior. Sure, what Goga (allegedly) said was foul, but surely a 52-year-old man with NBA experience could find a better way to coach a young player and not embarrass a franchise.

Goga appeared to apologize (my fault) but that only seemed to further enrage Foster. Indiana hardly gets national attention. Coach Foster got us some. Maybe Foster was trying to light a fire in his team, down 21 to Sacramento. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. If you are unfit to coach properly, you ought not to coach. People make mistakes, but this level of unprofessionalism hints at deeper-rooted issues.

Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert should be commended for their efforts to de-escalate the situation. Near the beginning of his outburst, Foster was restrained by Turner, who apparently still plays great defense in street clothes. Lamb then appeared to say something de-escalating in nature to Foster (masks make it tougher to determine what was said). When Foster kept going he was met by a group of players, headed by Brogdon and LeVert, who calmly spoke with Foster. Afterward, Turner had his arm around Goga.

Clearly, within the coaching staff, there is dysfunction enough for awful outbursts like the Bitadze-Foster incident. Reports and video do not look great for Bjorkgren and his staff, but they do not mean the end of his Pacers tenure.

The Case for Nate

Bjorkgren replaced Nate McMillan. Old Nate was a solid regular-season coach but 3-16 in the playoffs. He directed a slower offense and solid defense (though the defense was mostly Dan Burke). The front office and fans wanted McMillan gone in favor of a modern (faster) offense and better playoff performance. While new Nate’s playoff performance is to be determined, the Pacers are playing at a faster pace and scoring more than last year (though this is common around the league).

New Nate’s approach seems more analytically based than old Nate’s largely personnel-based approach, which is in line with why he was hired to begin with. Growing pains are common for new coaches. Worse growing pains should be expected for a team with its healthiest starter recovering from cancer.

Closing Remarks

As Woj touched on in his report, Bjorkgren’s record is not the driving factor for displeasure. Nate’s communication style and micromanaging are supposedly most to blame. Thankfully, Bjorkgren is reportedly willing to work on his relationships with players and coaches. He is clearly an attentive and intelligent man, as one picks up from press conferences and interviews. He may not be the leader the Pacers need, but he could be. After all, Indiana hired him for a reason.

At ninth in the east, Indiana sits in NBA purgatory: toeing that lottery/playoff line. As far as first-year records go, Bjorkgren is near .500 – not ideal but not horrendous. To let Bjorkgren go without postseason experience and a shot at a (mostly) healthy roster seems unjust, especially during COVID-19. At the same time, though, if the team is not winning and negative relationships are cultivated within the organization, change ought to occur.

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About Will Deane

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