The Indiana Pacers are in unwelcome territory.
The franchise is in the first season of Nate Bjorkgren’s tenure as Head Coach, and to say things aren’t going as planned would be hyperbole. The team sits at 31-35 with six games to go, they are on pace to have their second-worst winning percentage of the last decade. After being the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last year, more was expected of the Pacers this season.
Losing happens, and the team has been hit with numerous injuries to key players this campaign. If losing was the only problem befalling Indiana, their situation wouldn’t be so dire. But in the last few days, numerous reports have surfaced suggesting that Bjorkgren has clashed with Pacers players, assistant coaches, and other staffers, indicating that the environment around the team is tense. It’s not just the losing for the Pacers, it’s also the off-court drama that’s slamming their season.
Multiple outlets have written stories suggesting that Bjorkgren’s communication style is abrasive and uncomfortable, which Bjorkgren himself acknowledged earlier this week. “Communication is an enormous part of this. It’s the management of personalities, it’s bigger than the X’s and O’s part,” he said of his job. “That’s where I’ve got to keep growing, got to keep learning, and got to get better.
“The record isn’t what we wanted it to be. Losing those games and stuff, it hurts,” he added. “I’ve got to do a better job in those areas… that’s part of head coaching is learning how to communicate, leaning how to constantly connect with individuals and your team. That’s something I’m going to continue to strive to get better at.”
Two parts of that quote stand out. One is Bjorkgren acknowledging that the Pacers record isn’t where they want it to be. All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis stated before the season that the team had goals to win often and make a run in the playoffs. As of now, that is looking unlikely. Injuries have held the team down, but even the Head Coach acknowledges that the team hasn’t played as well as they have wanted to this season. That falls on everyone.
The second interesting note Bjorkgren made was stating that he has “got to do a better job in those areas.” Bjorkgren conceded earlier this week that he is a young coach who is still learning, growing, and trying to get better. But he has also acknowledged, more than once, that he has to coach his team more effectively. He even went as far as saying he is the main culprit for the team’s current situation.
“This is on me. I’m the Head Coach,” he said. “Things should be pointed at me and rest on my shoulders.”
It’s noble that Bjorkgren has shouldered the blame amidst turmoil. It might be the bare minimum that he can do as the reported primary cause of the team’s issues — he’s been creating angst as a micro-manager of others. But Bjorkgren accepting responsibility for the Pacers situation will be helpful in getting the team through the remainder of this season without any problems expanding.
Bjorkgren’s players are responding positively, publicly at least, to him bearing the brunt of the turmoil. After the Pacers beat a good Atlanta Hawks team on Thursday, both Caris LeVert and Doug McDermott mentioned that the team wanted to play connected and together in that game to prove they can move forward with fewer distractions. “We just wanted to come together tonight and play for each other, have a lot of fun, and just block out the noise,” LeVert said.
Reserve point guard T.J. McConnell took it a step further, crediting Bjorkgren for the team’s performance in that much-needed win.
“We came out with a different mentality because of coach,” McConnell said after the win. “The performance we had yesterday was unacceptable, straight forward. [Bjorkgren] came in with an amazing attitude after everything that is circulating and got us ready. All credit to him.”
The Pacers had to get themselves straightened out after that “unacceptable performance” McConnell referenced, which took place on Wednesday night. Indiana lost to the Sacramento Kings at home and only managed to score 93 points, their second lowest scoring outing of the season. It was a pitiful performance for a team that was starting to have their off-court troubles surface.
To make matters worse, Assistant Coach Greg Foster and young center Goga Bitadze had an altercation late in the third quarter of that game. Bitadze had choice words for his coach during live play, which Foster did not take kindly to. Foster had to be restrained during the next break in the action, and he was suspended one game for his role in the scuffle. Bitadze received a fine.
It was a microcosm of the issues the Pacers are dealing with — the players and coaching staff communicate poorly and a turbulent relationship. Between the Pacers loss to Sacramento and win over Atlanta, the team had a calibration session to get back on task. “Just had a good little meeting. Players and the coaches, looking straight ahead,” Bjorkgren said. “Looking at the next opponent here tonight. Staying together, staying focused.”
Later, he detailed more of what was discussed in that meeting. “That was the talk [about re-focusing]. And the guys understand that too. Guys have spoken up about that too,” Bjorkgren detailed. “Sticking together and finding that rhythm again and keeping focused. Supporting each other, and at the same time, challenging each other. There’s a lot that goes on during the course of a basketball game, lot’s of highs and some lows. Sticking together through thick and thin.”
That interaction helped create some short-term success. It may get the Pacers through the season intact, which will then allow them to address their bigger issues in the offseason. The team has handled their private business becoming public well.
The turmoil remains the story, though. As it should. The Pacers hired Bjorkgren this season. The Indiana front office thought he was the coach that took take the team to the next level, and he hasn’t been able to do that.
If Bjorkgren was winning often but struggled with communication, he could be forgiven. Fans and organizations like winning — it cures all. Similarly, if the Pacers had their current record but players were responding well to Bjorkgren’s communication style and were confident in his ability to lead, the losing could be forgiven — to an extent. Losing stinks, but for a rookie Head Coach, establishing building blocks for future seasons is important.
The problem for the Pacers is that Bjorkgren isn’t winning or communicating. And those two things happen to be two of the top traits that Pacers President Of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard was looking for in his coaching hire last fall.
“We have to figure out how to communicate better with these players… communication would probably be my top thing,” Pritchard explained when naming the top traits he was looking for in his coaching hire. Then, when the Pacers actually hired Bjorkgren, Pritchard stated in the press release that Bjorkgren “comes from a winning background [and] has experienced championship success.”
In his first season as the man in charge for the blue and gold, Bjorkgren has done neither of the primary things he was hired to do. That’s problematic. And the fact that the grievances some within the Pacers have with Bjorkgren became public indicates that his communication style is detrimental to the team. The Pacers may be re-grouping on the fly and still be capable of winning games right now, but the situation the team is in is troublesome.
The front office builds the team and hires the staff. Pritchard and others within the Pacers brass deserve criticism for hiring the wrong people. Even if this situation was unforeseeable and unique, NBA front offices are supposed to build winning teams and cultures, and Indiana has not done that.
Overall, Pritchard and his team in the front office have performed well since he took over in 2017. They have made numerous successful trades and signings while keeping a small-market team strong — Pritchard’s resume is first-class. He doesn’t deserve to lose his job for his role in creating this maddening Pacers season.
But he does need to look inward and figure out what went wrong in this hiring process so that it can be avoided in future coaching additions. There could be another coaching change coming for the Pacers soon — multiple outlets have reported that Bjorkgren’s job status is in jeopardy, and ESPN NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the job status of Bjorkgren is “expected to be addressed after the season.”
It’s unclear if the Pacers will move on from Bjorkgren when this season is over, but it’s not hard to imagine Bjorkgren losing his job given the damning nature of his reported actions and style. He may just not be a good fit as the Pacers Head Coach.
For now, the Indiana Pacers will do everything they can to save their season, and in Bjorkgren’s case, maybe his job. The team still can make the play-in game(s) and, in turn, the playoffs. It is exceedingly unlikely that the Pacers win a postseason series, but extending his team’s season as long as possible may be the only way for Bjorkgren to keep his job.
The players want to keep winning too, both as competitive individuals and, in some cases, supporters of their coach. “I don’t think this looks like a locker room that quit on their coach,” McConnell said after Indiana’s win over Atlanta. “And we haven’t, and we won’t. We love playing for him, and we’re going to continue to fight and do everything we can like we did tonight.”
Nate Bjorkgren will be happy to have some players in his corner for the rest of this season. Who knows what is coming for him, and the Indiana Pacers, after that. But with this season soon to come to and end, the team doesn’t have time to sort out their issues in full. They need to do whatever they can to stay focused and make it through the rest of this campaign. Once that happens, the changes can come.