NBA: Kevin Pritchard hired Nate Bjorkgren to take the Indiana Pacers in a new direction. They went the wrong way. A season filled with defensive struggles missed chances and locker room drama resulted in Wednesday in the firing of Bjorkgren after only one season as coach.
“This was my decision,” said Pritchard, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations. “This was a really tough decision, one that had a lot of thought behind it. I brought in my management team, something we didn’t do lightly.”
Pritchard expected the 45-year-old coach, who spent the previous two seasons as Nick Nurse’s top assistant in Toronto, to make an impact with his new-age approach and his creativity. When the hiring was announced in October, Pritchard acknowledged he was betting big on a young coach.
Indiana went 34-38 before finishing the season with an embarrassing 142-115 loss to Washington in the play-in tournament — a fitting end to an abysmal season. The Wizards averaged 140.3 points in sweeping four games from the Indiana Pacers.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) June 9, 2021
Indiana finished 25th in defensive scoring average (115.3 points), blew 17 fourth-quarter leads, and produced its first losing record at home in 32 seasons.
Indiana’s top scorer from 2019-20, T.J. Warren, suffered a season-ending foot injury after playing just four games. NBA blocks champion Myles Turner went down with a season-ending foot injury on April 18. And after trading two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo for swingman Caris LeVert in January, LeVert missed the next 24 games because team doctors found a cancerous growth on his left kidney.
“I’ve never really seen anything like it,” potential free agent Doug McDermott said at season’s end.
While Warren publicly disputed a report that he didn’t want to play for Bjorkgren following the season finale, other confrontations spilled into public view.
The injured Turner helped break up a spat between center Goga Bitadze and assistant coach Greg Foster during a game in early May. Team officials fined Bitadze and gave Foster a one-game suspension.
On May 24, Pritchard even acknowledged that players described Bjorkgren as a micromanager during their annual end-of-season interviews.
“We have a lot of firepower, a lot of guys who can score,” two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis said in May. “But we’re definitely going to have to sacrifice to get as far as we can in the playoffs. We have to come in with a different mindset next season.”
Even then, it appeared Bjorkgren’s future with the Indiana Pacers was tenuous at best. Pritchard, who also drew criticism for the team’s underwhelming results, didn’t endorse Bjorkgren and instead explained what he thought went wrong and how it could be fixed.
Then he consulted with former Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh and had multiple discussions with Bjorkgren before making Wednesday’s announcement.
“There are certain things (traits) that are non-negotiable for me going forward,” Pritchard said. “I hope I’ve learned from this in terms of selecting the right coach. Nate gets let go, but it’s my fault. We’ve got to do better.”