This season beginning to feel similar for the Indiana Pacers

Indiana Pacers - Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Indiana Pacers - Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /
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Indiana Pacers
Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren – Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

The Coach

Nate McMillan and Nate Bjorkgren were brought in under different circumstances. McMillan, a veteran head coach in the NBA, was hired after Frank Vogel was surprisingly let go by former President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird. Most were mildly disappointed when Vogel was let go, but the hiring of McMillan was particularly maligned, as Bird hoped to play a faster and more modern style, something that McMillan was not known for.

Bjorkgren, a rookie head coach in the NBA, was hired after McMillan was swept for the third time in four years as head coach. The hire brought excitement and hope, as Bjorkgren hailed from the Nick Nurse coaching tree and was promised as someone who would bring a new philosophy to Indiana Pacers’ basketball – both on and off the court.

The two Nates found similar success in their first season and were dealt rosters that did not fit their style. McMillan began to find more success in 2017-18 when the team shed some of its defensive liabilities and re-worked the roster around Oladipo and Myles Turner.

Bjorkgren is dealing with a roster that is ill-equipped to play his style of defense. While he has made questionable coaching decisions on that side of the ball, specifically when it comes to the universal ball pressure that Pacers’ defenders apply, his personnel is not a good fit.

During his time in Toronto, Bjorkgren routinely was working with some of the more intelligent and lengthy defenders in the league. Frontline size and wingspans like O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam made it difficult on passing lanes and allowed Toronto to be out of position and still contest shots. Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, while undersized, are both elite defenders at the point of attack and could afford to gamble with aggressive pressure due to the size that Toronto had behind them.

This season’s Pacers roster can’t quite compare. Turner’s role defensively, as evidenced by the nearly six-point defensive rating swing in his on/off splits, has been critical to any semblance of defensive success Indiana has found, but overall, the defense has taken a large step back. While the departure of former assistant Dan Burke may have something to do with it, a 111.6 defensive rating in comparison to last season’s 108.0 number, is concerning.

Going over on every ball-screen, shading every offensive player middle, and closing out aggressively does not work with Indiana’s roster. Malcolm Brogdon isn’t quick enough to defend opposing guards in that fashion, and while Justin Holiday has been solid defensively, the wing combination of him and Caris LeVert isn’t big or long enough to cover up the mistakes. That isn’t even to mention Domantas Sabonis having to guard opposing 4’s.

Similar to McMillan in 2016-17, Bjorkgren is dealing with a team that simply isn’t fit to play the way he wants to play in his first season as head coach.