OFFICIAL: We have hired Nate Bjorkgren as our new head coach. Bjorkgren most recently served as an assistant on the Toronto Raptors, who won the NBA Championship during the 2018-19 season. Welcome to Indiana, Coach Bjorkgren!
– Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) October 20, 2020
Bjorkgren becomes the first coach from any Raptors staff to be hired away as a head coach, but there’s a good chance that he won’t be the last.
As much as the hiring is a credit to Bjorkgren’s readiness to take the next step to become a head coach at the NBA level, it is also a credit to the Raptors, and the culture created and cultivated by Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Nick Nurse, which says a lot considering he’s only been at the helm for two seasons.
While a member of the staff moving on is bittersweet, it’s more sweet than bitter; it’s yet another accomplishment in Toronto’s establishing itself as a model of success in the league.
Now, Raptors DNA will be present over 800 kilometres away in Indianapolis, IN. But what does that mean?
In all pro sports, especially football and basketball, there is often talk of coaching trees and coaching disciples. These “disciples” take what they’ve learned from (and collaborated to create with) the head coaches they worked so closely with and establish a new foundation in a new situation.
In the case of Bjorkgren, the familiarity with Nurse runs deep, as the two both hail from Iowa and have known one another for over 30 years, while their professional connection began in 2007 when Bjorkgren first served as Nurse’s assistant with the D-League’s Iowa Energy.
Bjorkgren spent a total of six seasons working with Nurse (four in Iowa, two in Toronto), historically winning a title in both stops. Based on his first two seasons in Toronto, we’ve quickly come to realize that Nurse’s success at every level is very much a product of his tendency to think outside of the box … literally.
Over the past two seasons, we saw the Raptors do things we rarely see on an NBA level, namely with their defensive looks that range from box-and-one to triangle-and-two zones as well as full-court pressure that is typically reserved to amateur hoops.
In his first interview as the Pacers head coach, Bjorkgren hinted that some of these practices may be a part of what his new team does as well:
“Very disruptive, very aggressive in style … We’ll be a fun team to watch. You’re going to see a lot of movement on both sides of the ball … My philosophy on the defence is to change and to change quite frequently. There are many times during a game that you can change, whether it be out of a timeout, quarter breaks, during free throws. I think that is the disruptive part.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see Indiana replicate exactly what Toronto does from an Xs and Os standpoint but, quite frankly, the DNA isn’t present in the Xs and Os, it’s present in the philosophy. On a day-to-day basis, there will be similarities in how practices are run, games are prepared for and players are developed.
Those small shifts make large differences in the grand scheme of things.
Bjorkgren assumes command of a talented Pacers roster that has dealt with setbacks in years past that has limited their postseason success. It’s a situation that shares a number of parallels with the situation that Nurse assumed when he took over the Raptors in 2018.
As Wheat Hotchkiss of Pacers.com outlined, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard found Bjorkgren to be the most fitting candidate due to his character, winning pedigree, innovation and ability to create relationships with players.
While many of those skills are intangible and existed within Bjorkgren well before he joined Nurse’s staff in 2018, there’s no question that he polished up in Toronto, where Kyle Lowry described him as “the [expletive] man. He’s always that positive, happy go-lucky [guy], always looking at the plus side, not looking at anything negative. We need that.”
That’s how to cultivate relationships with players.
Bjorkgren has a preexisting relationship with Indiana breakout star T.J. Warren, who he coached during his three seasons with the Phoenix Suns organization, and is rapidly working to develop relationships with each of his players, exchanging calls and texts with Victor Oladipo as well as big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who Bjorkgren says reminds him of younger versions of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
As we move towards the 2020-21 NBA season, we could very well be viewing Indiana as “Toronto West” or referring to the Pacers as the “Raptors South.” Regardless, for the first time, we’ll truly see elements of what makes the Raptors franchise successful within another franchise that looks to improve its fortunes.
Now, the Pacers are another team for Raptors fans to get behind, except for three (or four) times a year.
I get the feeling that Indiana will be the first of many.
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