INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Strange circumstances on and off the court have made this an odd first year for Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren. He's never been an NBA head coach before, and he's had to face a lot of unique challenges.
He's struggled through a lot of things these first few months, most notably in developing relationships with players and staff members. It's been bad enough that ESPN Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that his job could be on the line.
The Pacers are 30-34 and sit as the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference at the moment, and they've dealt with significant injuries to star players all season long. Bjorkgren has had to deal with COVID-19 protocols, significant injuries to just about all of his star players, a demanding schedule, and no fans in the stands for much of the year.
Could he be a one-and-done head coach in Indiana? ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, his job is not necessarily safe heading into the off-season.
"Amid a year of difficulties with players and staff, Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren’s future with the franchise is uncertain as the regular season nears an end, sources tell ESPN. The Pacers are 30-34 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference." Wojnarowski tweeted on Tuesday evening.
The news came as a bit of surprise, because Bjorkgren still has his teams in the playoffs, though at the moment they would be part of the new play-in tournament that the NBA is using for the first time. He's done that despite a season-ending injury to forward T.J. Warren, center Myles Turner missing 17 games and minor injuries to other key players such as point guard Malcolm Brogdon and All-Star Domantas Sabonis.
Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' president of basketball operations, was asked about Bjorkgren and this season during an exclusive half hour-long interview with AllPacers.com three weeks ago.
"You are what you are. You are what your record is," Kevin Pritchard told AllPacers in an exclusive phone call on April 19. "We thought we would be a little bit better here, but as we go into these last 16 games, we're not too far out, so that gives us a little hope. I want to evaluate this team in its entirety and not make too many judgments now."
Wojnarowski added to his report that Bjorgren's relationships with players are a big reason for the possibility of his firing.
"Bjorkgren has work to do on relationships with key players in his locker room, sources tell ESPN, and has thus far shown a willingness within the organization to try to address those issues." Wojnarowski added to his tweet on Tuesday.
NBA teams rarely fire a coach after just his first season at the helm. Ironically, Pritchard has no track record of doing so – or anything even close to that. Pritchard had a long run of four years with Nate McMillen when they worked together and genearl manager and coach in Portland from 2006-10. in Portland with the Trail Blazers. Then during Pritchard's first three years in charge of the Pacers, McMillan was once again his head coach the entire team.
He fired McMillan after the Pacers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Miami Heat last summer. McMillan never got past the first round as the Pacers' coach.
"He's the only one I ever had," Pritchard said in that April 19 interview with AllPacers. "Nate (McMillan) and I have a great relationship. One of the things when you work together for 11 or 12 years, you've been through it. You've been through the wars, you've got the scar tissue, you know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we could really have straight-up conversations. I felt like that was our big advantage."
The track record of continuity is all the more reason why a dismissal of Bjorkgren would come as a huge surprise. The entire Pacers organization has not had a coach for only one season dating back to 1970. Based on history alone, Pritchard and the organization have no track record of anything that would suggest a sudden change like this.
"Continuity makes a difference when you're healthy," Pritchard said. "I don't know how many games that we saw what we anticipated our starting five being this year to what has happened actually this year. We've had major injuries, so we haven't seen that starting five altogether," he said.
The one glaring flaw that Bjorkgren has going against him right now is that the Pacers' defense is brutal. They rank 25th in the NBA points allowed per game, and teams average 115.1 points per game against them.
"We've got to play harder, we've got to coach better, there's a number of things," Bjorkgren said on Monday after the Pacers allowed a mind-numbing 154 points to the Washington Wizards. "We're all in this together."
On the season, the Pacers are eighth in points scored per game (115 points per game), but that doesn't always matter when you're giving up that much or more on some nights.
That's not Pacers basketball through the years.
"We've had such a defensive culture that it's different and we know that we're going to have to get back to that,'' Pritchard said. "We're trying to emphasize it every day from here on out and will put an emphasis on it next year too because defense has served us well.
"Even though we haven't done as well in the playoffs, we've gotten there, we've been competitive, and if it wasn't for a couple injuries, who knows where we would have been? We're not going to use that excuse. We've got a get back to that hard hat and lunch-pale type of mantra."
As of 2019, according to NBC Sports, only 21 head coaches in NBA history had been fired after their first season on the helm.
The question now remains, will Pritchard and the Pacers add Bjorkgren to a concise list in all of the NBA's history of coaches who only had one year to figure everything out.
Bjorkgren has not commented on the report. He will be meeting with the media later on Wednesday prior to the Pacers' game with the Sacramento Kings.
Related stories on Pacers basketball
- PRITCHARD SPEAKS OUT: Pacers president Kevin Pritchard talks about a variety of important subjects in an exclusive interview with AllPacers.com. CLICK HERE
- BROGDON INJURY: Here's the latest health update on Pacers point guard Malcolm Brodgan ahead of Wednesday's game against the Sacramento Kings. CLICK HERE
- PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT: The NBA is having a play-in tournament for the first time this year to determine the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. Here's everything you need to know on how it works. CLICK HERE