Indiana Pacers: Was hiring Nate Bjorkgren a mistake?

Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Indiana Pacers, Nate Bjorkgren
Indiana Pacers, Nate Bjorkgren (Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports) /

Coach Bjorkgren’s habits have been more puzzling and less genius

When the Indiana Pacers got off to a fast 6-2 start, a lot of people were impressed by his strategic game planning that varies in almost every possession. His late-game play calling raised eyebrows back then, and for good reason. Even players raved about his coaching, especially in tense clutch situations.

Now, that seems like a distant past. As soon as players succumbed to an assortment of injuries, the team started to fall down in the standings. Since late February, the Pacers were stuck below .500, losing a lot of winnable games and bowing down to superior teams in embarrassing fashion.

Questionable Minutes Management

One detrimental pattern is the minutes management. Two players from Indiana are in the top 20 in minutes per game, headed by Sabonis at 7th with 35.7 and with Brogdon tied for 19th with 34.5 per contest. In the team, six players play north of 30 minutes per game this season, compared to just three last year. For the year, these are the players who have registered more than 40 minutes in a contest donning the Navy and Gold:

  • Sabonis: nine times
  • Brogdon: five times
  • J. Holiday: thrice
  • Turner, McConnell, Brissett: twice
  • LeVert: once

The lack of breathers for players in games is understated. Oftentimes, it leads to burnouts and droughts in both offense and defense. In fact, the Indiana Pacers have blown large leads on a lot of occasions while failing to convert baskets to stop the bleeding. This is the end result of a system that includes players running up and down the floor for 25 minutes straight (Brogdon), resting for less than two minutes in an entire game (McConnell), or for less than three minutes (Sabonis).

Massive Decline on Defense

Another noticeable trait from the Pacers this season is the drastic decline on defense, and the numbers speak for themselves. Indiana is 15th in defensive rating and a putrid 25th in opponents’ points per game. Last season, the team was 6th and 3rd in those categories. The season before that, they were an excellent 3rd and 1st in the same departments.

Nate McMillan has always prided himself on the less glamorous end of the floor, but even with his exit, the defense was projected to retain at least the same efficiency with the roster continuity. However, while the tweaks brought by Bjorkgren are innovative and true to his Toronto roots, they are mostly negated by a lack of schematic discipline.

The promised aggressiveness on defense is present with the team ranking 1st and 4th in blocks and steals per game, but these are not functional marks of a great point-preventing squad. Upon inspection, the Pacers are 29th in giving up points in the paint, 22nd in opponent fast break points, and dead-last in opponent second chance points per outing. To make matters worse, Indiana is still a bad rebounding team, ranking 26th in the league at 42.5 boards per game.

Sure, there are improvements, especially on offense. Indiana is the 8th-highest scoring team in the league, including a remarkable 4th in assists and 5th in made field goals per game. They are also letting it fly more from deep, at 16th in the season from last year’s 30th. But with injuries prompting adjustments and adaptability, scoring is less sustainable. Defense rarely betrays, and the Pacers have been outright bad on it this year.