Indiana Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard would not commit to first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren to return next season and mentioned injuries and the pandemic as contributing factors to the team’s first losing season in six years.
The Pacers finished the regular season 34-38, then went 1-1 in the play-in round, falling 142-115 to the Washington Wizards on Thursday to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“We take a lot of pride in making the playoffs consistently, and we didn’t do that,” Pritchard said. “So there’s got to be some self-reflection.”
Pritchard made the decision to jettison Nate McMillan last offseason for Bjorkgren, a career NBA assistant with an innovative offensive mind. But while Indiana played at a more exciting offensive pace, the Pacers struggled all season defensively, dropping from sixth in 2019-20 to 14th in 2020-21 in the league in defensive efficiency.
“We need to get back to that defensive identity,” Pritchard said.
Off the court, numerous reports surfaced last month of Bjorkgren’s inability to effectively connect with players. Pritchard felt some of those reports were overblown but admitted Bjorkgren has room to grow as a communicator.
“I’ve got a young coach who’s got some super talent in Xs and Os but needs some improvement in human management,” Pritchard said.
Pressed about Bjorkgren’s future, Pritchard said: “He is our coach as of now, and I’m going to have a fair discussion with him. … I’m not committed either way.”
The Pacers navigated through numerous injuries throughout the season, beginning with forward T.J. Warren’s decision to undergo season-ending foot surgery in early January. Center Myles Turner missed the final month of the season and the play-in round with a toe injury, while point guard Malcolm Brogdon missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a hamstring injury.
Also, the Pacers dealt former Indiana University standout Victor Oladipo and received Nets swingman Caris LeVert, knowing LeVert would be out indefinitely due to a cancerous mass on his kidney. LeVert missed close to two months before recovering to play the final two months of the regular season. However, LeVert sat out the play-in round after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.
Pritchard said losing Turner, an elite rim protector, impacted the defense late in the season but said the loss of Warren was as impactful to the season-long defensive struggles for the Pacers.
“We missed his offense, but what no one is really talking about is we missed his defense,” Pritchard said. “He became a very good defender, and in this league if you don’t have a very good wing defender, you’ve got no shot.”
Pritchard also felt having limited fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse due to COVID-19 protocols impacted the Pacers going a disappointing 13-23 at home.
“When we got down at home in the past, the last 10 or 12 years, we made some great comebacks,” Pritchard said. “I think the energy in the building was a lot different this year.”
Pritchard doesn’t anticipate making changes to the starting five for the sake of making changes. Forward Domantas Sabonis played at an All-Star level and stayed healthy, while G League callup Oshae Brissett was a pleasant surprise.
“We’re not going to just make deals to just make deals,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard would like to re-sign forward Doug McDemott and point guard T.J. McConnell, who both are entering free agency. McDermott and McConnell both shined in reserve/spot starting roles throughout the 2020-21 season.
“They are core to what we’ve done,” Pritchard said. “They are two feet in on the Pacers … it was special to me to watch them blossom, and quite frankly we don’t win 34 games if those guys aren’t playing well night in, night out.”