There is concern about Bjorkgren’s mental state. That’s not to suggest he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown, but league sources have told IndyStar that he has taken this hard. The losing and internal conflict has been bad enough, but his fierce, competitive nature can be a weakness as much as a strength.
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While there is ample smoke surrounding Bjorkgren, multiple league sources disputed much of what is being reported. Before the Pacers hired Bjorkgren from the Toronto Raptors, where he was an assistant, they ran it past Warren to get his input. Both were briefly in Phoenix together.
Thursday’s 133-126 win against the Atlanta Hawks kept the Pacers (31-35) in ninth place, a half-game ahead of the 10th-place Wizards (31-36). Seeds 7-10 will participate in a play-in tournament for the final two playoff seeds. “We just talked about playing basketball the right way, just playing hard and when you do that, most of the time you come out on top,” said Bjorkgren, who met with his team until 1 a.m. following Wednesday’s non-effort vs. the Sacramento Kings that resulted in disciplinary actions.
Michael Grange: Nurse was said “it hurt” to see friend/longtime assistant Nate Bjorkgren under fire in Indiana, when asked by @BlakeMurphyODC. Questioned some of the sourcing of reports. Said things related to Toronto were ‘bald-faced lies’
Eric Koreen: “It’s no fun for him and it’s no fun for me to see one of my best friends go through that,” Nurse says of the Bjorkgren situation in Indiana. He denies part of B/R report thad had to do with Raptors. “That part was 100 percent false.”
Scott Agness: Nate Bjorkgren on hanging in there considering internal discourse: “I feel OK. There’s been a lot of ups and downs the last few days. There’s nothing easy about it. Lots of challenges coming at you.” Players have spoken up about sticking together + working to find a rhythm.
Nurse was heavily consulted throughout the interview process, sources said, but Indiana brass never contacted Phoenix executives for insight on Bjorkgren’s time as a Suns assistant from 2015-17. Nor did they consult with last year’s Orlando Bubble breakout player T.J. Warren—who played under Bjorkgren in Phoenix—according to sources. When news of Bjorkgren’s hire became public, Warren requested a trade from the Pacers, according to sources.
It’s believed that Warren even opted for an elective season-ending surgery in March, both to better serve his recovery from a stress fracture in his left foot and also to avoid playing for Bjorkgren for the remainder of this season.
Should a change ultimately occur on the bench, Mike D’Antoni is once again considered the leader in the clubhouse to fill Indiana’s opening, sources said. But could a few games and the play-in tournament be enough to prevent any turnover?
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnorowski first reported on Tuesday evening, it appears Bjorkgren’s tenure in Indiana will likely come to an end after just one season. His struggles as a head coach could even put longtime Pacers executives Kevin Pritchard and Chad Buchanon in jeopardy as well, multiple league sources told Bleacher Report.
“He’s just very different,” said one league executive who has worked previously with Bjorkgren. “He’s not a d–k; he’s just completely out of his element as a leader.” “He didn’t come in relationship-building in an easy way from Day 1,” said one Pacers voice.
Bjorkgren’s communication style has been categorized as aggressive and abrasive with players and members of the Pacers staff, from his front-of-the-bench assistants down to trainers and equipment personnel. That behavior was cited as the cause for one assistant coach’s resignation and one player to elect for season-ending surgery. “Typically younger coaches bring a more positive, spirited, encouraging behavior, not an antagonistic approach,” said an assistant general manager.
Nate McMillan’s success in Atlanta, after Indiana curiously fired him back in August just two weeks following a contract-extension agreement, has further muddied these waters. Multiple league sources with knowledge of the situation described McMillan’s additional year as something more of a parting gift than an earnest extension. By the Orlando bubble when Miami swept Indiana in the first round of the playoffs, Pacers players had grown fatigued by McMillan’s tough-minded approach, sources said. His slower-paced scheme, which diverged from modern trends of playing style—Indiana finished 30th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game last season—was also a source of consternation within the organization.
In turn, Pacers management set out to find a high-energy, new-age coach. Indiana initially cast a wide net, meeting with north of 20 candidates, sources said, including various profiles ranging from Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to former head coach Dave Joerger. And while Mike D’Antoni was long considered the favorite to fill Indiana’s opening, the Pacers grew to specifically covet a “Nick Nurse-type,” sources said. Pritchard is said to hold a longstanding relationship with Nurse, the inventive play caller who piloted Toronto to the 2019 championship in just his first year at the helm of the Raptors. Both men played overseas and later coached in the American minor leagues such as the ABA and USBL during the early 2000s. Nurse’s analytics-minded offensive acumen, honed in the G League, plus his outside-the-box defensive tactics, such as mixing various zone looks to keep opponents off kilter, particularly intrigued Prichard, sources said.
“They didn’t do their background on who [Bjorkgren] was or how he treated people,” said one person close to the coaching search. “They just talked hoops with him.” It seems that missing intel foreshadowed the very interpersonal issues that have since risen in Indiana. “When he was hired I was surprised, because he’s not the easiest to work with just on anything,” said one of Bjorkgren’s former G League players. “He’s kind of stubborn, won’t listen, even though it might be good conversation. He’s a micromanager and he’s not for everyone.”
“Nate is trying to coach a team that he doesn’t have,” said one Pacers staffer. “He’s trying to fit the system to the players and not the other way around.” Shortly after Christmas, word began to circulate that Bjorkgren was indeed prone to screaming at longtime Indiana staffers just as he’d done in the G League. His niceness and “infectious” positivity seen during his interview process and training camp began to come across to several Indiana staffers as insincere. “That’s how he is in general,” added one Indiana staffer. “He’s got like a Jekyll and Hyde thing.”
One day after ESPN reported coach Nate Bjorkgren faces an uncertain future with Indiana, the new coach blamed himself for any communication problems with players and those in the organization. “You know I don’t make excuses for things,” he told reporters before the game. “I’m a young coach. I’m learning, I’m growing and I’m trying to be better. This is on me. I’m the head coach and fingers should be pointed at me. I love coaching this team and the relationships with these coaches and players, I’ve just got to keep getting better.”
Players throughout the roster have voiced their dissatisfaction with Bjorkgren and their general unhappiness amid a down season, including key star players in Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, sources said. Those sources say Bjorkgren has implemented an analytics style of coaching that players privately do not find suitable for the roster, and that there have been issues among the coaching staff at times. Bjorkgren has worked to address matters internally, and one source described him as “over-communicative” to make sure he is sharing and receiving messages from the roster. One coaching source predicted that this would have a similar ending to what took place in Charlotte in 2013, when former St. John’s assistant Mike Dunlap was fired after just one season amid widespread player frustration.
Amid a year of difficulties with players and staff, Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren’s future with the franchise is uncertain as the regular season nears an end, sources told ESPN.
Bjorkgren has significant work to do with his relationships among players throughout the team and with some members of the organization, but has thus far shown a willingness to try to address those issues, sources told ESPN.
Scott Agness: There’s a lot of issues inside the locker room that need to be addressed. It’s been an unusual year, but things have been bumpy.
A lot of variables factor into this slide after such a promising start to the season, but a coaching staff shakeup is likely to happen before next season, another league source told IndyStar. There’s no indication that Bjorkgren’s job is in jeopardy in the first season of a guaranteed multi-year deal, the same league source said.
Bjorkgren, multiple sources said, can be too much of a micro-manager and controlling. Brogdon and Sabonis have had his ear. Another source conceded that’s to be expected for a first-year coach learning his way to be hands-on and rely on his go-to guys.
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May 13, 2021 | 8:30 pm EDT Update
Michael Grange: Nurse said he was happy but not surprised Khem Birch said he planned to play for Canada this summer but didn’t plan to shut him down to keep him healthy. Says these end of season games are important reps for him.
Rick Bonnell: Bismack Biyombo addressed the @Charlotte Hornets crowd for the last regular season home game tonight. His final words: “We’ll see you next week.” Been a while since that was appropriate.
Jason Anderson: Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (back) is starting against the Kings tonight after being listed as questionable. Chimezie Metu is starting for the Kings. Luke Walton doesn’t expect them to “hug and all that … but I don’t expect anything to escalate.”