INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time in franchise history under owner Herb Simon, the Indiana Pacers have fired a head coach after just one season.
Nate Bjorkgren was let go as Indiana coach Wednesday, after a disappointing 34-38 season that ended with the Pacers failing to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The Pacers defeated the Charlotte Hornets in one postseason play-in game before losing to the Washington Wizards with the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference on the line
Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard took a chance on Bjorkgren, who had no NBA head coaching experience but developed a reputation as a bright innovative offensive mind as an NBA assistant with the Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns. While the Pacers surged offensively in 2020-21 under Bjorkgren, they struggled defensively, dropping from sixth to 14th in the league in defensive efficiency.
“After every game, I really looked at a couple of things, and in my mind, I asked myself, did we play hard, did we play smart and did we play together?” Pritchard said. “There were times when we didn’t, and sometimes we did. And so that’s sort of that consistency that Pacers ethos is all about.”
Reports also surfaced last month of Bjorkgren’s inability to effectively communicate with players. One report, citing unnamed sources, said Pacers starting forward T.J. Warren opted to undergo season-ending foot surgery last January rather than play for Bjorkgren, though Warren denied the report. The report said Warren had conflicts with Bjorkgren when the coach was an assistant with the Suns.
“The characteristics of a head coach, it’s skewing and it’s changing all the time, and now it’s becoming more about human management and bringing out the best and bringing them together,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard said ownership didn’t play a role in the decision, but he consulted heavily with Pacers senior front office advisor Donnie Walsh and other staff members.
The leading candidate to replace Bjorkgren is former Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who has Indiana ties. Stotts was a 1976 Indiana All-Star who graduated from Bloomington North before moving on to play in college at Oklahoma. Stotts also was an assistant coach in the CBA with the Fort Wayne Fury from 1991-92 before going on to NBA head coaching stints with the Atlanta Hawks (2002-04), Milwaukee Bucks (2005-07) and Trail Blazers (2012-21). His 402 wins with Portland rank second in franchise history, but the parties mutually agreed to part ways after a second consecutive first-round playoff exit last week.
Other possible candidates include Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni and Boston Celtics team president Brad Stevens, who led Butler to back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011. Stevens, a Zionsville native, was recently promoted from Celtics head coach to the front office.
“There’s a few guys we’re sort of looking at hard, or will start to,” Pritchard said. “But that process really hasn’t started yet. Maybe a little bit in our minds but, as the true process of hiring, that hasn’t really started yet.”
Asked the importance of hiring a coach with prior NBA head coaching experience, Pritchard said: “It’s really easy to take the pendulum and go way over, you go from sort of a modern coach back to traditional and back to modern, and there’s a challenge in that …
“Maybe we don’t swing the pendulum so far over. Maybe it swings to the middle, but it’s hard to do. I think there’s a balance of some experience and some new level of basketball. Yeah, you’ve got to defend. You’ve got to get stops, but this new age of basketball is high-level offensive talents, and you’ve got to make shots.”