In a surprise move, the Indiana Pacers have hired Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their next head coach, replacing the recently fired Nate McMillan, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
Bjorkgren joined Toronto’s scouting department in 2017 and was promoted to assistant coach when Nick Nurse assumed head-coaching duties the following season. The 45-year-old was part of a staff that led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship and a second seed in the Eastern Conference this season. Bjorkgren previously worked under Nurse as an assistant with the G League’s Iowa Energy from 2007-11.
In between, Bjorkgren spent four seasons as head coach of three G League franchises in four different cities, before working as a Phoenix Suns assistant under Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson from 2015-17.
“The big thing for me is being as prepared as I can be every single day,” Bjorkgren said during a profile produced by the Raptors earlier this season. “No matter if it’s a practice or it’s a game, you have to be so prepared. If our guys ask any question, I have to be able to answer it, and I have to be able to have the reason why I’m answering that way. And it’s the same thing with Coach Nurse. He’s given me a ton of responsibility over the years, especially these last two years with the Raptors, and if there’s something he asks me about our team, the opposing team or anything else, I better have the answer ready for him.”
The Pacers interviewed more than a dozen candidates for the position. Two-time Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni, former Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger and New Orleans Pelicans assistant Chris Finch were all mentioned as frontrunners, according to various media reports. Finals MVP turned ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups was also believed to be among the top candidates.
But Bjorkgren beat them all, and he has big shoes to fill. McMillan led the Pacers to the playoffs in each of his four seasons. He finished no worse than sixth in Coach of the Year voting the past three years, developing Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis into All-Stars. After pushing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in a 2018 first-round exit, McMillan’s Pacers were swept from the opening round each of the last two years, largely due to serious injuries suffered by Oladipo and Sabonis.
The Pacers could be in for a busy offseason, beyond Bjorkgren’s hiring. Oladipo has denied reports he wants out of Indiana, but he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and the Pacers may explore trade possibilities if they become convinced he will leave. Likewise, the frontcourt fit between Sabonis and Myles Turner remains awkward, which could make Turner a candidate to be moved in a deal this winter.
Nine benches will feature a different head coach when the NBA debuts next season. Six of those jobs have now been filled. In addition to the Pacers hiring Bjorkgren, Billy Donovan left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Chicago Bulls, Doc Rivers jumped from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Philadelphia 76ers, Tyronn Lue replaced Rivers in L.A., the New York Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau and Steve Nash joined the Brooklyn Nets. That leaves the Thunder, Pelicans and Houston Rockets still with vacancies.
McMillan was fired two weeks after signing a one-year extension with the team in August. He was one of four Black head coaches to lose his job at season’s end. Only two of the nine openings this offseason have been filled by Black coaches thus far, well short of NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s stated goal.
Roughly half of the head coaching candidates interviewed by the Pacers were Black, including assistants Jamahl Mosley, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, Charles Lee, David Vanterpool and Ime Udoka. Only Billups — a former player with no coaching experience — was deemed a finalist, according to multiple reports.
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