Photo courtesy Pacers Sports and Entertainment
The Indiana Pacers’ coaching search was an exercise in immersion.
The team’s front office had no interest in rushing the process, with the start date of the 2020-21 season still unknown (and increasingly unlikely to occur before the end of 2020). They wanted a coach that would be more modern in both their style of play and style of communication than the old-school Nate McMillan, whom the front office had fired after four straight first-round playoff exits. After that remarkably consistent level of disappointment, they decided to take as much time as they needed.
“We challenged a lot of our scouts in this process to come up with intel and background information,” general manager Kevin Pritchard said. “That’s hours and hours of work, and books and books on each person. Sometimes I think that’s too much information, but we like having that.”
But for all the tape-watching that led Pritchard to hire Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as the Pacers’ new head coach, as the team officially announced Wednesday, the one that sealed the deal was recorded nowhere near an NBA arena.
“It was Nate and his daughter working on fundamental basketball in his house,” Pritchard said. “They were working on dribbling during this COVID time. You’ll hear his voice during that time, you’ll get to understand what he’s about and how positive he is. For us, we felt like we really needed that.”
Bjorkgren checked every one of Pritchard’s boxes. Though his hiring hasn’t been the most headline-grabbing piece of news during this strange offseason, the 45-year-old has a strong resumé for a first-time NBA head coach. He won an NBA championship as an assistant with the Raptors in 2019, and his relationship with Raptors head coach (and 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year) Nick Nurse goes back about 20 years. Bjorkgren has, in effect, been the right-hand man to one of the most innovative coaches currently working in professional basketball.
Still, Pritchard seemed most impressed by Bjorkgren’s ability to connect with and inspire players at all levels of basketball. Pritchard said that as important as X’s and O’s may be, the NBA is ultimately a players’ league, and the best teams are the ones that attract and develop the best talent.
“He brings joy back to basketball,” Pritchard said. “That doesn’t mean he can’t be tough. The balance that he’ll bring is he’ll know when to be tough, he’ll know when to push the players, but he’ll also know when to put his arm around them and say, ‘Listen, we got this, it’s important that we do this together.’”
Even as a player, Bjorkgren made an impact with the sheer audacity of his positive attitude. After two years at the University of South Dakota, then a Division II school, he transferred to Division III Buena Vista University so he could be back home in Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of 10,000 in the state’s northwest corner. Despite coming off the bench as a backup point guard for that team, former teammates and coaches say he was its driving force and backbone, leading the team to its first conference championship in 20 years.
“It wasn’t because of Nate the player, but it was because of Nate and his expectations,” said Brian Van Haaften, who took over as Buena Vista’s head coach in 1996, the same year Bjorkgren transferred in. “He was really good at creating a good atmosphere and creating high expectations for our team. In our team meetings that we would have, I could still hear him say, ‘This is going to be a team that we’re going to do well against,’ because of this or that. He was basically another coach on the floor.”
Bjorkgren started coaching at the high school level immediately after college, first as an assistant at Linn-Marr High School in Marion, Iowa, then as a head coach at Cactus Shadows High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he earned state tournament berths in each of his three seasons.
His relationship with Nurse led him to the big leagues. Eight years Bjorkgren’s senior, Nurse had been an assistant coach at South Dakota during Bjorkgren’s stint there as a player. The two stayed in touch while Nurse was coaching professionally in Great Britain, and when Nurse was hired in 2007 to coach the NBA D-League’s Iowa Energy he hired Bjorkgren as an assistant. They spent four years together in Iowa, winning a D-League championship in 2011 and developing an even closer bond because of their shared coaching sensibilities.
“After that first season together, we spent 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 12-hour days in a basement,” Bjorkgren said. “We had white boards all over the walls. We spent every waking second on how we wanted to coach professional basketball.”
Nurse eventually became the head coach of the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and Bjorkgren took a head coaching job with the then-Dakota Wizards (now the Santa Cruz Warriors), before coming back to coach the Energy and then the Bakersfield Jam. Nurse was hired as an assistant with the Raptors in 2013, and two years later Bjorkgren broke in to the NBA as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns. They reunited in 2018 when Nurse was promoted to head coach of the Raptors and added Bjorkgren to his staff.
The duo had about as perfect of a debut as a coaching staff can have, coaching NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to a 2019 championship. But even after Leonard departed last offseason, the Raptors still posted the second-best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, reaching the second round of the playoffs before losing a thrilling seven-game series to the Boston Celtics. The roster still featured rising star Pascal Siakam and veteran guard Kyle Lowry, but their 53 wins, good for second best in the conference, were largely due to contributions from role players who developed under Bjorkgren’s guidance.
“He has great respect for all of his guys,” Van Haaften said. “And he propels his players to get better. You look at some of the Raptors. You look at how much better O.G. Anunoby got, how much better Fred Van Vleet got, Norman Powell. Those guys got a lot better. I think that’s a real testament to Nate and the whole staff.”
Nurse and Bjorkgren’s signature style combined excellent player development with adaptive in-game strategy. They embraced multiple shapes of zone defense, making them a nightmare to try to prepare for and to score against. They ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency during the regular season, and first in the playoffs—turning the box-and-one, a strategy more often seen in middle school gymnasiums than the NBA, into both a successful pro strategy and an affectionate NBA in-joke. Celtics coach Brad Stevens, the former Butler coach and Zionsville star, said Nurse threw more defenses at him during the Eastern Conference semifinals than he’d ever seen as an opposing coach.
“It’s coaching without fear,” Bjorkgren said. “That’s something coach Nurse and I spent a lot of time on. … It’s not about being crazy, just throwing something out there to throw it out there on defense. It’s about making changes at the right time and developing that confidence in the players that they’re going to believe in you and believe in each other when it’s time to change defenses.”
Offensively, the Raptors played the wide-open style of basketball that has become typical in the NBA, finishing third in the NBA in 3-pointers made per game and sixth in 3-point attempts per game. That fits Pritchard’s stated desire for the Pacers to “modernize” their offense—although the Pacers were strong on the defensive end, their offensive strategy was stuck in the past, the team finishing last in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game and 29th of 30 in made 3-pointers.
Despite rumors of a potential roster shake-up, Bjorkgren believes the Pacers can modernize their offense with their current personnel. That includes big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who never seemed to quite find a rhythm when they shared the court.
“When you talk about those two bigs, they’re not just any two bigs,” Bjorkgren said. “… I compare them very much to Serge (Ibaka) and Marc Gasol. I’m very comfortable with playing those two together.”
But making it work will ultimately mean connecting with players, which Bjorkgren made a point of doing immediately when he accepted the job. He reached out to every player on the roster by phone or text message, including All-Star Victor Oladipo, the former Indiana University star who’s rumored to be looking for an out from the team in the final year of his contract.
From Oladipo to the team’s 15th man on the bench, Bjorkgren wanted his players to understand first and foremost that he’s there for them.
“I think it’s probably 80 percent of it. It’s very important,” Bjorkgren said. “You have to have your team ready. If a team asks you a question, you have to be able to have the answers.”
“And it’s bigger than that. There’s so many things that are happening in players’ lives, and I want to be able to mold them, and to be there for them for anything at all. That’s the last thing I said on my phone conversations… ‘Anything at all, please call me. Please text me.”