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Nate Bjorkgren fiasco offers an important reminder for Raptors

·6 min read
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A day after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Nate Bjorkgren’s first year with the Indiana Pacers and painted a picture of a head coach who has lost control of his team, center Goga Bitadze and assistant coach Greg Foster got into an altercation and had to be separated by teammates and coaches in a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

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After Wojnarowki’s report and the Bitadze-Foster scuffle, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer published a look at what has unfolded behind the scenes, and it’s not pretty. At the center of everything is Bjorkgren’s apparent lack of people skills which has rubbed players and coaches the wrong way.

The two most eye-opening anecdotes involve forward T.J. Warren, who reportedly requested a trade after Bjorkgren was hired as head coach (the two were previously together in Phoenix when Bjorkgren was an assistant to Earl Watson), and assistant coach Bill Bayno, who resigned in February due to personal and health reason but reportedly left because he was no longer able to work with Bjorkgren.

Warren took to Twitter to deny the trade request. Fischer’s story also claimed Bjorkgren would act as a “politician's chief of staff” as an assistant to Nick Nurse in Toronto, preventing coaches and players from talking to Nurse unless they went through him first, which Nurse subsequently called a bald-faced lie.

But one thing is clear, the Pacers hired Bjorkgren expecting one thing and have gotten something else entirely.

“Communication is an enormous part of this,” Bjorkgren said last week. “It’s the management of personalities, it’s bigger than the X’s and O’s part. That’s where I've got to keep growing, got to keep learning, and got to get better.”

The hiring of a new coach is usually a reaction to the previous coach’s flaws. In Indiana, the Pacers sought a “Nick Nurse-type,” someone who could improve Nate McMillan’s slow-pace offense and bring a more analytics-driven and open-minded approach to the game. The Pacers head coach has a history with Nurse that dates back to the D-League.

Bjorkgren seemed to check every box on paper. But it hasn’t translated. The communication part of being a head coach is just as important. There’s also a matter of Bjorkgren’s unwillingness to adjust to a roster that isn’t equipped to play a defense that deploys a litany of schemes, including box-and-ones and zones (sound familiar?).

It’s fascinating to contrast Bjorkgren’s first year as NBA head coach with Nurse. What is playing out in Indiana feels like a horror version of Toronto’s 2018-19 season.

Nick Nurse shot down a report that claimed Nate Bjorkgren used to police access to him with players and staff. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nick Nurse shot down a report that claimed Nate Bjorkgren used to police access to him with players and staff. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The circumstances were very different of course. Bjorkgren was joining a new organization while Nurse replaced Dwane Casey after being a long-time assistant. But you could argue there were more reasons for Nurse’s hiring to fail. There were immediate championship expectations, the integration of Kawhi Leonard into the locker room, and dealing with a starting point guard who wasn’t thrilled to see his best friend traded away.

The Raptors ended up winning the championship, but things could have quickly gone sideways. The locker room was an awkward place for the first half of the season, and what behind-the-scenes stories would we have heard if, say, the team lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.

Instead, the Raptors had a championship parade, and we could share a laugh about Leonard joking about how sick he was of hearing Nurse’s G-League stories by the playoffs.

There’s a respect in Toronto for Nurse, which Bjorkgren hasn’t earned in Indiana and likely won’t have a chance to. The reports of the dysfunction are surfacing now to probably set up Bjorkgren’s departure at the end of the season.

Meanwhile, Nurse is finishing up the most challenging season of his three-year run with the Raptors so far. Players and members of the organization are reportedly eager to pack up from Tampa Bay and leave when the regular season ends this Sunday, and who can blame them? The Raptors have been without a permanent home since the 2019-20 regular season was suspended last March. They had a few months to bask in the glory of being defending champions in Toronto and haven't been back since. When they return, the roster will have mostly turned over.

The Pacers’ current predicament illustrates the importance of having a front office, a coaching staff, and a roster that is connected. This might not be as important if you’re a team like the Brooklyn Nets and can assemble a trio of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant, but when you’re the Pacers or the Raptors, teams that have traditionally operated at a disadvantage to teams who can attract stars in free agency and trade, internal harmony is critical.

Only three head coaches in the NBA have been with their team for more than a decade (Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle). The common thread between all three? They've all won championships with the teams that currently employ them.

Nurse has that too, and when you look at the shelf life of head coaches, entering Year 4 with the same team is no small feat. Even with a championship and a coach of the year award in his first two seasons, things haven’t been perfect in the locker room in Tampa either, as everyone surely remembers two separate incidents between Nurse and Pascal Siakam this season, one of which led to a one-game suspension.

In the best-case scenario, we chalk those up to part of a frustrating season that everyone would rather forget. Or, Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry leave the organization this summer, further pulling at the continuity that has defined the Raptors for the better part of a decade.

There’s no reason to worry about anything with the Raptors, but Bjorkgren’s first year with the Pacers is an excellent reminder that harmony in the NBA can be a very fleeting concept.

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