When looking for the next head coach of the Indiana Pacers, President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard and the Pacers' brain trust zeroed in on four key characteristics.
They wanted the new coach to be of high character. They wanted a coach with a winning pedigree. They wanted a coach that was innovative. And they wanted a coach that was a great communicator and would "develop deep-rooted relationships" with players on and off the floor.
After an extremely thorough search process, Pritchard and his staff all came to the same conclusion. Nate Bjorkgren checked every box.
"We felt like this was a no-brainer," Pritchard said of the decision to hire Bjorkgren, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Toronto Raptors. "When we came to a decision, there were high-fives in our office and we knew that this was the right guy."
Bjorkgren may not be a household name just yet, but he blew away Indiana's front office during the interview process with both his basketball mind and his overall positivity.
Though the coaching search lasted nearly eight weeks, Bjorkgren and the Pacers connected quickly after Toronto was eliminated from the playoffs.
"From the very first Zoom call that I had with them, it felt good," Bjorkgren said in his introductory press conference on Wednesday. "I just remember shutting off the Zoom call or even in the interview process when I left Indianapolis in the second interview, I had no regrets. I always said what I wanted to say, I was honest, I said it from my heart, and it always felt good."
It has been a whirlwind 24 hours for the 45-year-old Bjorkgren since his hiring was officially announced on Tuesday. He quipped that he was getting a text message "about every five seconds for five straight hours" between congratulatory messages and starting conversations with his new players on the Pacers.
He flew to Indianapolis for Wednesday's virtual press conference, which was the culmination of a long coaching journey that started as a high school coach and teacher, included numerous stops in the NBA G League, and four seasons as an assistant in the NBA.
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"I've spent the last 23 years of my life coaching in just about every situation I could coach in…those 23 years have led me to this point and I'm ready to take on this challenge," Bjorkgren said.
"I love this team. I love the pieces that we have and they're going to be a tough team to beat."
When he made the decision to relieve Nate McMillan of his coaching duties on Aug. 26, Pritchard began an expansive search to identify the next coach. He said Wednesday that before interviews began, the scouting department compiled "books of information" on each possible candidate. Pritchard and the front office then held roughly a dozen interviews via Zoom before narrowing the field down to six finalists.
The finalists all flew out to Indianapolis, where they each spent hours with the Pacers front office, including Pritchard, general manager Chad Buchanan, and assistant general manager Kelly Krauskopf.
The most illuminating sessions from those interviews according to Pritchard were what he described as "board work," when they brought each candidate into a room with whiteboards and grilled them on their basketball philosophies and how they would handle different scenarios.
Bjorkgren shined in that setting, according to Pritchard. For him, it was the same thing he's been doing for years with reigning NBA Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, who he worked under in Toronto.
"There are some people that really like basketball and then there are some people that live, breathe, sweat, and tears it," Pritchard said. "And I can promise you that you will find out that Nate Bjorkgren lives and breathes basketball."
Photo Credit: Matt Krgyer
Bjorkgren's professional basketball career began with a leap of faith in 2007, when he left his job as a successful high school coach in the Phoenix area to join Nurse's staff as a volunteer assistant with the Iowa Energy in the G League. After their first season together, Bjorkgren said he and Nurse spent 12 hours a day in a basement lined with white boards outlining how they wanted to coach and what they thought could work at the professional level.
Those basement sessions built the foundation for what culminated in a G League title in 2011 before Bjorkgren left to become a head coach in the G League. Nurse eventually joined the Raptors' staff as an assistant in 2013 and brought Bjorkgren back onto his staff when he was named head coach in 2018. Together they helped guide Toronto to its first NBA championship in 2019.
Nurse's teams in Toronto certainly embraced the modern style of play in the NBA, with devotion to analytics, 3-point shots, and pace. But they also were known for their adaptability, changing their game plan to adapt to each opponent or even different moments in games rather than sticking to one defining philosophy.
Bjorkgren said those are also the pillars of his coaching philosophy.
"Very disruptive, very aggressive in style…We'll be a fun team to watch," he said. "You're going to see a lot of movement on both sides of the ball…My philosophy on the defense is to change and to change quite frequently. There are many times during a game that you can change, whether it be out of a timeout, quarter breaks, during free throws. I think that is the disruptive part."
That level of innovation should pose a stark contrast to how the Pacers played under McMillan, who had a more regimented philosophy when it came to game plans.
While he expressed a desire to play faster and shoot more 3-pointers in recent years, Indiana ranked 22nd in the NBA in pace and last in 3-point attempts last season. And though they experimented more with switching and zone defenses last season, McMillan's defenses were built around the principle of guarding your man straight up.
Bjorkgren brings a fresh mindset to a Pacers team yearning for a breakthrough. Indiana has reached the playoffs for five straight seasons but has failed to get out of the first round on each occasion. Though hampered by injuries, the Blue & Gold were swept out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, a result that Pritchard ultimately deemed unacceptable.
Bjorkgren met with the entire Pacers team via Zoom on Tuesday and has since had individual conversations with most of the roster. He came away very impressed from those conversations.
"I had wanted this job so bad because of the talent on this team, the work ethic in these players and this organization," Bjorkgren said. "But man, after last night and today and talking to them on the phone and exchanging text messages…It gets me even more excited.
"This team is ready. They're great basketball players, but they're even better people. Just talking to them on the phone and getting to know them even a little bit more in the last 24 hours has been special to me."
On paper, the Pacers appear poised to make some noise in the Eastern Conference next season under Bjorkgren's leadership. Indiana's eight leading scorers from last season are all under contract for next year. The starters are all in or entering the prime of their careers, all aged between 24 and 28 years old and with four to seven seasons of NBA experience.
Should the roster remain intact for the start of the season, Bjorkgren will have the task of figuring out how to best utilize Indiana's two 24-year-old big men, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner.
The duo started together for the first time last season to generally positive results. Sabonis flourished, earning his first career All-Star selection and setting a single-season franchise record for double-doubles. Turner had to adjust to a lesser role offensively but eventually found his rhythm and was arguably the Pacers' best player in their playoff series with Miami.
Bjorkgren did not hesitate when asked Wednesday about the ability of Sabonis and Turner to coexist, saying he was "very confident" that they could. He said the pair reminded him in many ways of younger versions of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who anchored the middle on the Raptors' title-winning team.
"When you talk about those two bigs, they're not just any two bigs," Bjorkgren said. "They are very dynamic and they complement each other very well.
"From Domas being able to just put so much pressure on the game. I just know coaching against him in the past, his ability to screen and dive hard and how physical he is. And you talk about Myles Turner, who I had a great conversation with yesterday, how versatile he can be with stretching the floor and protecting the rim on the defensive end."
Photo Credit: Matt Krgyer
Bjorkgren and Pritchard also fielded the expected questions about two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, who continues to work his way back from rupturing his quad tendon in Jan. 2019 (coincidentally, Bjorkgren was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for that game, which was against Toronto). Barring a contract extension, Oladipo will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2020-21 season.
"We did a Zoom with the whole team yesterday and Victor spoke up and was as positive as I've ever seen him," Prichard said "…We have a great relationship. He feels good about the team. He's talked to me about how he thinks this team can be very good."
Bjorkgren said Oladipo texted him "immediately" when news of his hire broke.
"I called him right back," Bjorkgren said. "He was just getting ready to work out. We had a great talk. We talked about what I thought he could do, what I thought he could bring to this team, how he could make this team better, and how he could make himself better...I like his energy. I feel like our energy fed off each other a little bit there during the phone call."
Conversations like those will be of great importance to Bjorkgren as he builds relationships with his new players. Pritchard said at the beginning of the coaching search that he was looking for a coach who would communicate regularly with his players off the court and try to be involved in all aspects of their lives, something Bjorkgren pledged to do on Wednesday.
"There are people in this world that can bring energy and they make you feel better about yourself…when one of those guys calls you, you can't wait to pick up on the phone," Pritchard said. "To me, Nate has those characteristics."
In addition to his time working under Nurse, Bjorkgren also served as a head coach in the G League in four different markets. He coached the Dakota Wizards in 2011-12, stayed with the franchise the next season after it relocated to California and rebranded as the Santa Cruz Warriors, returned to Iowa for a year to coach the Energy, and coached the Bakersfield Jam in 2014-15.
He then spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, working under both Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson.
Bjorkgren said his time in the G League taught him the importance of flexibility, something he carries with him to this day.
"You have to adapt very early and quite often," he said. "You could wake up that morning and be at a shootaround and all of a sudden two players got called up to the NBA and one left (to play) overseas. You have to be able to coach on the fly. You have to be able to make decisions quickly. And you can't worry about (little) things."
Bjorkgren's next task is to put together a coaching staff. He said he and the Pacers' front office have already had conversations on the topic and have identified several potential candidates. Bjorkgren said the most important quality for him in an assistant would be the "versatility" to handle a variety of responsibilities.
The only date set in stone in the league calendar at the moment is the NBA Draft on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The Pacers own just one second-round pick this year, the 54th overall selection.
Beyond that, the start date for next season is unknown, though sometime in January seems like a best guess at this point. It's unclear if and when fans might be able to attend games again, but Bjorkgren expressed his excitement for the day when he finally mans the sidelines at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"I loved playing here, coaching against the Pacers," he said. "I'm going to love being on the side of the home team now."