| Indianapolis Star
Don’t tell me you hate the Indiana Pacers’ hiring of Nate Bjorkgren as coach. To hate it, you’d have to know a good deal about him first, and you don’t. Hey, neither do I. Never heard of him until the news broke around noon Tuesday that the Pacers had hired Nate Someone-or-other to replace Nate McMillan.
Had you heard of Nick Nurse before the Toronto Raptors hired him in 2018? Erik Spoelstra before the Miami Heat hired him in 2008? Gregg Popovich before the San Antonio Spurs hired him in 1996? Me neither. Those hires turned out OK, and even if this one doesn’t — there’s a real chance it won’t — I don’t hate it. Kind of like it, even.
Kind of, I said. Love the Pacers’ hire of Nate Bjorkgren? Nope. Love and hate, they’re similar in some respects, like this one: To love something, you’d have to know a good deal about it first. And Nate Bjorkgren is just a name to me, a difficult name, one worth 23 points should you ever piece it together on a Scrabble board. A good “J” isn’t valuable only on the basketball court, if you know what I’m saying.
The Pacers could have hired more familiar names. Mike D’Antoni, for one. Or Chauncey Billups. Those were among the Pacers’ other finalists. Neither did a thing for me.
D’Antoni was a retread, a known commodity: Someone just good enough to keep getting hired by NBA teams — Suns, Knicks, Lakers, Rockets — but not good enough to stick around. No thanks.
Billups, a former player with credibility and communication skills, was intriguing … until he refused to participate in the Pacers’ first round of interviews. Wouldn’t get on a Zoom video call with the Pacers’ brass. Beneath him, apparently. That might play in some markets — fake it until you make it, all that — but not in Indiana.
Oh, I’d have hated the hiring of Billups — or D’Antoni. But this guy? Nah, don’t hate the hiring of Nate Bjorkgren. Let’s look deeper. But first, let’s look at Victor Oladipo.
Another hint: See ya, Vic
The most interesting thing about Nate Bjorkgren, to me, is that he has a prior relationship with one of the Pacers’ best players. And that player is not Oladipo.
Bjorkgren coached T.J. Warren, one of the breakout stars of the NBA’s restart in the Orlando bubble, with the Bakersfield Jam in the NBA’s G League. Warren averaged 26.8 ppg in nine games for Bjorkgren in 2014-15.
This isn’t why Bjorkgren was hired by the Pacers. Certainly not to pacify T.J. Warren. But it’s interesting — to me, anyway — that the Pacers did nothing with this hire to pacify Oladipo. Well, other than hire a coach who might just be the next big thing.
If Bjorkgren is good enough — if the Pacers are good enough — Oladipo may want to stick around. He’s entering the final year of his contract and said on “Instagram Live” with someone named Fat Joe (don’t ask) that he cares most about two things: getting a max contract and winning NBA titles.
I suspect Oladipo, who devotes the first two words on his Twitter and Instagram bios to what he considers himself — “Young mogul” — but never mentions “Indiana” or “Pacers,” is already gone. He wants the max contract and the NBA titles, sure, but I suspect more than anything he wants a platform to sell his music and his line of clothing. And I don’t suspect he considers Indianapolis to be that platform. I could be wrong. But I’m not.
Oladipo’s uncertain future had to have played a role in the Pacers’ coaching search, considering he is their highest-paid player — not their best player; that would be Domantas Sabonis — and entering the final year of his contract. You ask me, everyone involved, the Pacers, Oladipo, is prepared to move on. Oladipo won’t be here this time next year as the Pacers build around Sabonis, Warren and Brogdon. Those are the pieces we know will be here. And we know the coach. Finally. Someone named Nate. And I suspect he’ll work out just fine.
Nothing like the other Nate
Nate Bjorkgren has one thing the Pacers’ previous Nate, McMillan, lacked: An appreciation for the modern-day NBA player. McMillan wasn’t a bad guy, at all, but he wasn’t about that Instabook and Facegram nonsense. He was about basic X’s and O’s and max effort, and he was good at those things, posting a 183-136 record (.574) from 2016-20 and making the playoffs all four years here.
Bjorkgren, whose name in Icelandic means “birch tree branch,” is from the Nick Nurse tree. Nurse was an assistant at South Dakota when Bjorkgren walked on there in 1994, then hired him as a volunteer assistant in 2007 with the Iowa Energy of the NBA G League. Bjorkgren left a pretty good job in Phoenix, where he was named Arizona’s state coach of the year at Cactus Shadows High in 2006-07, to work for free for Nurse in the G League.
Nurse is all about connecting with his players, same as Spoelstra and even Popovich in his own churlishly charming way. Bjorkgren will be that way — more Nurse than Pop, promise — and he also will be like Nurse (and Spoelstra) in another way: He’ll coach honest-to-god NBA offense, not that 1990s dreck McMillan preferred.
Bjorkgren will bring that. It’s all he knows, considering he couldn’t have learned much from Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson in Phoenix from 2015-17, and considering he has spent the past two seasons with Nurse in Toronto, where the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title in his first season and 53 games this past season.
Now, Bjorkgren didn’t do that. Nurse did. But Bjorkgren was there, a branch on the Nurse tree, and he was paying attention. And clearly he won over Pritchard and other Pacers advisors in the interview process, selling himself better than two more experienced talkers, D’Antoni (an NBA head coach since 2003) and Billups (an ESPN talking head since 2014).
Now we get to see if Bjorkgren, who landed this gig in part because he talked a good game, can coach one. Whatever that answer is, it will come as news to all of us.