Kevin Pritchard is a man fighting to save face and resuscitate a franchise.
The Pacers president of basketball operations just fired coach Nate Bjorkgren after one season. Meanwhile, Nate McMillan, the coach Pritchard fired last August, is leading the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Pritchard followed the trend of the past several years: hiring a hot assistant coach from a contending team and hoping his fresh ideas would turn the team into a winner. The Raptors won with that strategy after they named Nick Nurse to replace Dwane Casey. Nurse led the Raptors to the NBA championship in his first season (2018-19) and was named coach of the year after last season.
But that method doesn’t always work, and it should serve as a cautionary tale for general managers trying to find the next Erik Spoelstra or Quin Snyder. Bjorkgren couldn’t relate to the players, couldn’t motivate a young team to improve, and finally a bad situation exploded in May when center Goga Bitadze and assistant coach Greg Foster had to be separated during a timeout in a loss to the Kings.
Firing a coach after one season is rare, but Pritchard acknowledged that changes had to be made. Now, the Pacers are a franchise in chaos after removing two coaches in a span of 10 months. Pritchard is apparently fighting for his job, and the team is monitoring the situation in Dallas with Rick Carlisle, who coached the Pacers from 2003-07.
Pritchard has to score big with this hire, and the goal will be a coach with an NBA pedigree who can command the attention of the players. Sound familiar, Celtics fans?
“This was a really tough decision, one that had a lot of thought, a lot of deliberation,” Pritchard said of firing Bjorkgren. “It’s something we didn’t do lightly, and as we reflect back on the season there were some real challenges this past year, but as I really look at a couple of things and I asked myself, did we play hard? Did we play smart and did we play together? There were times that we did and times that we didn’t.”
What many veteran NBA assistant coaches have issue with, especially those with playing experience, is teams seeking these “hot assistants” that lack the ability to relate or connect with players.
“When we hired Nate [Bjorkgren], we wanted to try something new, try something different, open up the possibilities,” Pritchard said. “We’re thankful for Nate. He worked his tail off. There are some things he did well, some things he wish he would have done differently. There’s a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is we look at our goals we’re trying to accomplish and then we line them up with the timelines, and we felt like this was the best decision going forward.”
The past two years don’t reflect well on Pritchard. There are those who believe McMillan never should have been fired. He coached a team besieged with injuries, including to former All-Star Victor Oladipo and high-scoring forward T.J. Warren. The Pacers also dealt with injuries this season but made little improvement, losing the final play-in game to the Wizards.
Perhaps if the Pacers had advanced to the main draw of the playoffs, Bjorkgren would have kept his job.
“There’s certain things that are non-negotiables for me,” Pritchard said. “This is a shared responsibility. This is my fault. This is our organization’s fault. We’ve got to do better.”
The Pacers have talent. Domantas Sabonis was named an All-Star for the second consecutive season. Caris LeVert averaged 20.7 points after coming back from a procedure to remove a cancerous cyst from his kidney. Malcolm Brogdon led the club in scoring with 21.2 points per game.
“We’ve got a decent team and we’re trying to go to good, and those players will give us some feedback,” Pritchard said. “You’ve got to push players. You’ve got to get them to be their best. That’s what great coaches do. Individually, I really like the locker room. During exit meetings, I was probably as hard as I’ve ever been on a group that someone has to be a vocal leader. Right now, I’m not sure who that is.”
The Pacers lacked the veteran mentors that successful teams possess.
“When you have a locker room that holds each other accountable, that isn’t afraid of tough love, that is willing to give it, then you know you have it,” Pritchard said. “With this past year we might have just been too nice. I think sometimes we had kind of a nice locker room. I challenged a couple of players. I’m excited to see what happens. But we may not have that person. We’ve been able to win ugly over the past 10 years, but this year I didn’t think we were able to win ugly.”
Coaching the Pacers is not easy. Indiana is not a popular free agent destination. The Pacers have reached the Finals only once since joining the NBA in 1976.
Other than the glory days of Reggie Miller draining 3-pointers, the franchise has been mediocre. So, this coaching hire is critical for Pritchard and the future of the franchise.
“I’ve beat myself up pretty hard over this one,” Pritchard said. “That head coaching seat is a very challenging seat. Some experience in championship-level basketball is important. Nate [Bjorkgren] beat himself up today as much as any coach I’ve ever seen. He took it pretty hard. I think he knows what he needs to improve on, and I think he will.”
Barkley never at a loss for words
Who doesn’t like hearing from Charles Barkley? The Hall of Famer has established himself as the most popular analyst in television sports history, partly because he has strong opinions, but also because he never takes himself too seriously.
Barkley offered his thoughts on a variety of NBA-related topics, and his assessments were thought-provoking and at times hilarious.
On the Nets:
“I’m rooting against those guys. I think you already know that. [Kevin Durant] is a great player. And I think he’s a great kid. I don’t know him that well. But I’m not a fan of super teams. So, listen, if they win it, they win it.
“But I want it perfectly clear, I’m rooting against those guys. I root against all super teams. I’m old school. I said the other day if I would have known you guys were going to make fun of me for not winning the championship, I would have joined a super team back in my day.
“Me and Patrick [Ewing] and Karl Malone and John Stockton. But … I feel good about my legacy. I’m pretty sure Patrick and John and Karl do. LeBron [James] started this super team thing, and it’s the way the game is played now.”
Barkley did play with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen in Houston, but all three had seen better days.
Barkley kept on going about his dislike for super teams:
“It ruins other franchises. When Kawhi [Leonard] left Toronto — first of all, other than Chicago that’s my favorite city in the world. I’m never going there again [because the Raptors likely won’t reach another NBA Finals]. When LeBron left Cleveland. I’m never going there again. James [Harden] left Houston. I’m never going to Houston again. Same thing when LeBron left Miami.
When these guys leave, there are very few super, superstars. And when they all leave, like Oklahoma City. Once [Durant] left, we’re never going back there again. And I just don’t think that’s good for the game.
“Even though we didn’t win the championship, the Sixers were worth watching, the Knicks were worth watching, the Pacers were worth watching when Reggie [Miller] was there. Same thing with Atlanta and Dominique [Wilkins]. So, I just don’t think it’s good for business. But hey, these young kids, they all fold to peer pressure and feel like they’ve got to win a championship or their life sucks. And I don’t believe … hey, listen, there’s not many people I’d trade my life with.”
On Chris Paul opting into the final year of his contract at $45 million:
“You know I like to drink, right? I’ve never been drunk enough to say no to $45 million. Not in my wildest drunken stupor. He’s going to make $45 million. I have never been drunk enough to say, no, I don’t need the $45 million. I’m good.
“I get in trouble on TNT because I’ve been saying, like for 10 years, Chris is the best leader we’ve got in the NBA. I’m a big Chris Paul fan. I don’t know if the Suns are going to win a championship, and Chris Paul is going to go to the Hall of Fame. The grass may not be greener somewhere else, but nothing is guaranteed to you. But I think that’s more money than I’ve made in my whole career.
“I’m not bragging. The most money I made was $5 million. That was my last year. Seriously, I’m not even joking, they’ve got a stat. I think I made $30 million in my whole career. And he’s going to say no to $45 million for one year?”
On whether the Warriors will compete for the Western Conference title next season:
“That’s a really tricky question. Klay [Thompson] hasn’t played basketball in two years. There’s nobody in the world in any sport who could not play for two years and you just assume, oh, he’s going to be back to Klay Thompson. And he had two serious, serious injuries.
“So, that’s a big question mark: Can he get back to being the best 2-guard in the NBA? That’s a really tough question, so I can’t answer that.”
“The West is going to be great for the next … because those boys in Denver are going to be there. Excuse me, you know the Lakers are going to do something. The Clippers will be really good again, depending on what Kawhi decides to do. But I have to wait and see the team put together.
“[Nikola Jokic] deserved MVP. He was fabulous, fabulous. But I think it’s fair to say that nobody played better basketball than Steph Curry in the NBA this year. He was awesome. And it was fun to watch.”
On the recent fan incidents at games:
“First of all, I don’t want to overreact to five incidents, because I don’t think we’ve had anything happen this week, right? Listen, all you can do is take their season tickets and ban them for life. But my biggest concern is one of these times one of these fans is going to run up on one of these big dudes and get hurt badly.
“And I never want that to happen. But you know one of these drunk fools is going to be on a bet or something. And they’re going to run out there to one of these big old dudes and get clocked.
“And that’s going to be really sad and unfortunate. But that’s really my only concern. I hope no player ever gets hurt. You saw that crazy thing with [Monica Seles] gets stabbed … never want that to happen.
“These dudes are big and strong and some of these fans get liquored up. If they stepped toward one of these guys the wrong way, something bad is going to happen. I mean, because these guys have a right to defend themselves. And I never want to see that.
“We’ve had, I think three or four, maybe five incidents and we have been playing two games a night. So, most of the fans have been behaving. But I’ve been in the NBA for 36 years, 16 as a player and 20 on television. Most of the fans are awesome.
“I would take it a step further. I’d say all sports. Like, if you do something crazy at a Phillies game, you should not be able to go to the Eagles or 76ers. We had a great conversation about this the other night. What do you do to these people? Because some of the behavior is not criminal. Like if somebody hit Kyrie [Irving] in the head with a bottle, and he loses an eye or breaks a jaw or something, that’s criminal. But dropping popcorn or running on the court, I don’t know if you can consider that criminal. They might try to bump up the charges, but I don’t know if it’s even criminal. But you’ve just got to take their tickets.”
The Raptors will likely be without forward Pascal Siakam into next season after the team revealed he required shoulder surgery that will cost him at least five months. The NBA plans on going back to a regular timetable, meaning training camps would begin in September and the season in October. Teams that reach the upcoming NBA Finals will have fewer than three months before camp begins. Siakam, meanwhile, could be out until November or December … The Bulls said guard Coby White sustained a shoulder injury during an offseason workout and will miss five months. The Bulls need White to take a major step after another disappointing season … Team USA will conduct training camp for its men’s and women’s teams in Las Vegas. Managing director Jerry Colangelo is formulating his men’s camp roster. It’s unlikely that James, Durant, Harden, or Irving will participate, but Curry and Damian Lillard are interested. Team USA will play a series of exhibition games in Vegas in early July before heading to Tokyo for the Olympics. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who has said he’s interested in playing in the Olympics, is a prime candidate for a roster spot … Not only does Brad Stevens have to pick a new coach for the Celtics, he also has to prepare for the draft, which is July 29. The Celtics have the 16th and 45th picks and could supplement their bench with two prospects in what is expected to be a deep draft. The Celtics are also expected to have both two-way contract spots open with Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters expected to move on. This year’s rookie class will also have the benefit of summer league for the first time since 2019. The Las Vegas Summer League will feature all 30 teams, each playing at least four games.