Pacers fire Bjorkgren as coach after just 1 season

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Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) shakes hands with coach Nate Bjorkgren, right, after fouling out during the second half of the team’s NBA basketball Eastern Conference play-in game against the Washington Wizards, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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 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.

It just didn’t pay off.

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 Pacers.

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.

Sure, injuries played a part in the results.

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.

But there was tumult behind the scenes, too.

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 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 Pacers president Donnie Walsh and had multiple discussions with Bjorkgren before making Wednesday’s announcement.

“There are certain things (traits) that are non-negotiables 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.”

Not all of the problems in this unusual season were Bjorkgren’s fault.

Pritchard said he challenged some current players to become more vocal leaders and that he might add another veteran to help hold the bench more accountable.

The Pacers have now fired two coaches in less than 12 months. Pritchard let go of Nate McMillan in August after a third consecutive first-round playoff exit and just weeks after announcing the coach had received a contract extension.

McMillan has since helped led the Atlanta Hawks into the second round of the playoffs this season after losing his final nine playoff games with the Pacers.

Now McMillan’s successor is gone, too, albeit with next season’s salary guaranteed.

Though Pritchard could move quickly after researching between 12 and 18 job candidates during last year’s abbreviated offseason, Pritchard plans to spend this coaching search looking for someone who can get the Pacers turned around.

Maybe even a more experienced coach such as former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, a high school graduate of Bloomington North, about a one-hour drive from Indianapolis.

“I wanted to take a risk — maybe a lower floor and higher ceiling,” Pritchard said. “Maybe this year we look at something a little different. I have something in my mind, but I don’t want to quite come forward with that yet.”

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