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Kevin Pritchard on Nate Bjorkgren’s future as Pacers coach: ‘I’m not committing either way’

Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 10: Head coach Nate Bjorkgren of the Indiana Pacers reacts to a referee’s call during the second quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on May 10, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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First-year Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren came under fire for his management style. His job was clearly in jeopardy, even before Indiana finished 34-38 and outside the playoffs.

Pacers president Kevin Pritchard:

In the exit meetings, no one said that they were unhappy. Yes, they said he does micromanage. To me, as a new coach, trying to set your ways – I’m pretty sure some people think Bill Belichick micromanages. And Nate had to find his identity.
He is our coach as of now, and I’m going to have fair discussion with him.
I’m not committing either way.
There’s this balance. There’s this art and science of coaching. And there’s no doubt Nate has this incredible science of coaching, X and Os, what play to call and how to manage the X and Os within a game and to teach it. And then there’s the art. That is – I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around some amazing, emotionally intelligent coaches. And I think that’s there for Nate. I really do. But that’s got to be improved. And I had a 15-minute conversation with Nate, and he was very self-reflective, and he’s like, “I know I’ve got to get better at this. I want to get better at this.” And so I’ve got a young coach who’s got some super talent in X and Os but needs some improvement in human management.

There’s something to be said for Pritchard taking his time to thoroughly evaluate the situation. But he didn’t have to hold this press conference until deciding on Bjorkgren.

“I’m not committing either way” is one eyebrow-raising statement.

If Pacers players are disenchanted with Bjorkgren, they now know Pritchard isn’t completely committed to him. That will make Bjorkgren’s job even more difficult if he returns.

Which is why it seems unlikely Bjorkgren will return. Once an NBA head coach loses the clear public support of his front office, he usually gets fired soon after.

Not always, though.

At his season-ending press conference in 2017, Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, “We need a culture reset” and “The style of play is something that we need to change.” It seemed likely Toronto would fire Dwane Casey, who’d previously been on the hot seat. Yet, the Raptors kept Casey (though fired him the next year).

Bjorkgren will need a similarly surprising break to avoid the list of NBA head coaches who lasted one season or less in their first non-interim job since the NBA-ABA merger:

  • John Beilein: 2020 CLE (14-40)
  • Igor Kokoskov: 2019 PHO (19-63)
  • Jason Kidd: 2014 BRK (44-38)
  • Mike Dunlap: 2013 CHA (21-61)
  • Keith Smart: 2011 GSW (36-46)
  • Michael Curry: 2009 DET (39-43)
  • Sam Vincent: 2008 CHA (32-50)
  • Randy Ayers: 2004 PHI (21-31)
  • Kevin O’Neill: 2004 TOR (33-49)
  • Leonard Hamilton: 2001 WAS (19-63)
  • Gar Heard: 2000 WAS (14-30)
  • Mike D’Antoni: 1999 DEN (14-36)
  • Bill Hanzlik: 1998 DEN (11-71)
  • Johnny Davis: 1997 PHI (22-60)
  • Brendan Malone: 1996 TOR (21-61)
  • Quinn Buckner: 1994 DAL (13-69)
  • Jerry Tarkanian: 1993 SAS (9-11)
  • John Wetzel: 1988 PHO (28-54)
  • Morris McHone: 1984 SAS (11-20)
  • Bill Musselman: 1981 CLE (25-46)
  • Stan Albeck: 1980 CLE (37-45)
  • Jack McKinney: 1980 LAL (10-4)
  • Bob Hopkins: 1978 SEA (5-17)
  • Tates Locke: 1977 BUF (16-30)

Maybe Bjorkgren just needs more time to improve. Like rookie players, rookie coaches can grow in future seasons. Pritchard is clearly impressed with both Bjorkgren’s technical ability and willingness to address his interpersonal weaknesses.

But coaches rarely get an opportunities to work through those issues unless winning more than Bjorkgren did.