Kevin Pritchard hired Nate Bjorkgren to take the Indiana Pacers in a new direction.
They wound up going the wrong way.
“The 2020-21 season was not what some of us anticipated it would be, and our results on the court certainly did not fulfill the standards for what our company and our fans have come to expect,” Pritchard said in a statement.
Indiana went 34-38, completing the season with an embarrassing 142-115 reduction to Washington from the play-in tournament. The Pacers also generated their first losing season in the home in 32 years, and sometimes the attempt didn’t appear to be there, either.
A rash of accidents was part of the problem. Indiana’s leading scorer at 2019-20, T.J. Warren, endured a season-ending foot injury after just four matches. NBA blocks winner Myles Turner went 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 matches after team doctors found a cancerous growth in his left kidney.
“I have never actually seen anything like it,” possible free agent Doug McDermott explained. “I think a part of it had to do with the schedule. A whole lot of games, not a lot of days off. I believe we had eight games in 12 days to complete the season”
But the tumultuous part of Bjorkgren’s short tenure came outside the lines.
While Warren publicly disputed a report which he didn’t want to play to the trainer after the season finale, additional concerns ventured to the open. Warren also played Bjorkgren when he was an assistant in Phoenix.
The injured Turner helped break up a spat between his replacement, Goga Bitadze, and assistant coach Greg Foster through a game in early May.
And Pritchard stated players used the term”micromanaged” during interviews after their period ended.
Amid it all, Pritchard failed to make an immediate decision following the loss to Washington and instead opted for more meetings with the former top assistant trainer to Toronto coach Nick Nurse.
“Nate and I have a lengthy conversation over many days about what he needs to improve on,” Pritchard said on May 24. “But to make a determination on a coach this quick with this information, I’m not ready to do that at the moment.”
The Pacers haven’t stated what changed, but Pritchard also faced criticism during and following the underwhelming season.
Indiana has now fired two coaches in less than 12 months. Pritchard fired Nate McMillan at August after a third successive first-round playoff exit, just weeks after giving him a contract extension. McMillan helped take the Atlanta Hawks into the next round this year after losing his final nine playoff games with the Pacers.
Pritchard said the Pacers would proceed quickly to identify candidates to replace Bjorkgren but had no schedule for a hire. After conducting a hunt last fall that included nearly two dozen candidates, it is likely Pritchard currently has some ideas about which direction he wants to go next.
“We have a great deal of firepower, a great deal of guys who can score,” two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis explained. “But we are going to have to sacrifice to get as far as we can in the playoffs. We have to come in with another mindset next season.”