Why the Pacers fired coach Nate Bjorkgren after just one season

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After one season, the Nate Bjorkgren era is over for the Pacers.

Indiana moved to fire its coach less than 12 months after hiring him. The Pacers disappointed during the 2020-21 season, going just 34-38 and losing in the play-in tournament after logging a 45-28 record the previous year under Nate McMillan.

One of the biggest issues for the Pacers was their complete regression on defense under Bjorkgren. This season, the team allowed 115.3 points per game, which ranked second-worst in the Eastern Conference and sixth-worst in the league as a whole.

The previous year under McMillan, they ranked third in the East (and third league-wide) with a mark of 107.5 points allowed per game. And that strong defensive play was a big part of their success.

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That said, while the Pacers’ lagging performance certainly played a role in Bjorkgren’s departure, the behind-the-scenes issues were the bigger reason for Bjorkgren’s departure.

Why the Pacers fired Nate Bjorkgren

The major problem with Bjorkgren during his time in Indiana was his failure to connect with the players and staff. His relationships with those in the organization became strained and that led to his departure.

Additionally, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that part of the decision was based on the fact that the Pacers are ready to win now with the roster they have.

That certainly played a role in Bjorkgren’s departure, but his hiring was a suspect one from the start.

As outlined in a Bleacher Report story, Bjorkgren’s hire surprised many of the players who used to play for him, as well as executives across the NBA.

“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, per Bleacher Report. “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.”

“They didn’t do their background on who [Bjorkgren] was or how he treated people,” said one person close to the coaching search, per BR. “They just talked hoops with him.”

This explains why T.J. Warren, who played under Bjorkgren when he was an assistant with the Suns, reportedly requested a trade after Indiana hired him. Warren ultimately didn’t get moved as he missed most of the season with a foot injury, but his already-strained relationship with Bjorkgren was a red flag early in the coach’s tenure.

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While the Pacers players seemed happy with Bjorkgren after starting the season 6-2, things fell apart quickly after that. In the Bleacher Report story, Bjorkgren was detailed as being controlling. He reportedly screamed at long-time staffers, coaches and players, and had “a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing” going.

“He’s just very different,” said one league executive who has worked previously with Bjorkgren, per BR. “He’s not a d—k; he’s just completely out of his element as a leader.”

If that wasn’t enough, his defensive system wasn’t working, yet he didn’t make the adjustments needed to fix the problems.

“Nate is trying to coach a team that he doesn’t have,” said one Pacers staffer, per BR. “He’s trying to fit the system to the players and not the other way around.”

All of those issues came together and led to Bjorkgren’s ouster after just one season. Now, the Pacers will search for a new coach and may look with retrospective regret at their decision to part with McMillan, who is coaching the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It appears that Indiana already has an interest in one candidate. As reported by Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, the Pacers are expected to take a look at former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts as their search commences.

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