Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse has long suspected he was on borrowed time with Nate Bjorkgren on the bench beside him.
That time finally ended on Tuesday when the Indiana Pacers made Bjorkgren the 16th coach in their history in the NBA.
Bjorkgren was one of a number of men the Pacers interviewed for the job. Among that group were former Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, Nets interim head coach and former Orlando head coach Jaque Vaughn, and former Pistons star Chauncey Billups.
All were interviewing in hopes of replacing Nate McMillan who was let go at the end of the year after yet another first-round exit from the playoffs.
McMillan is a widely respected head coach and had a successful coaching mark of 183-136 in the regular season with the Pacers, but come playoff time he couldn’t duplicate that success.
His playoff record was just 3-16, opening the door for Bjorkgren who will be stepping into his first head coaching role in the NBA after stints as an assistant first in Phoenix and for the past two seasons in Toronto alongside his good friend Nurse.
The Nurse/Bjorkgren relationship goes all the way back to 1993 when Nurse was an assistant coach at the University of South Dakota and Bjorkgren was a freshman point guard on the team.
Fourteen years later the two worked side by side, Nurse as head coach and Bjorkgren moving from an unpaid volunteer assistant to a paid assistant a year later with the Iowa Energy of the NBA’s D-League in 2007.
When Nurse became head coach in Toronto in 2018 he brought Bjorkgren on to his staff after the latter had spent a few years with the Phoenix Suns. That year the Raptors won their first NBA title.
Having travelled the route Nurse did to get to the NBA — years in the British Basketball League followed by years coaching in the D-League and just about everywhere else before he got his chance — it’s not a surprise that the Raptors head coach has gone out of his way to promote members of his own staff every chance he gets.
Bjorkgren’s departure, though, is going to remove not just a good coach and great developer of talent from Toronto’s staff, but a guy Nurse would lean on when any doubts would start to creep in.
“Nate’s kind of just always my guy that’s telling me all the time that we can do it,” Nurse said in his year end availability following the Raptors win in 2019. “He’s a really good basketball coach and one for those super-positive guys that he would just never let me let the wheels come off. I would be like, ‘We’re really in trouble, we’re really in trouble,’ and he would get me in a room and say, ‘We’re gonna live, we’re gonna live, we’re down 18, we’re gonna win,’ and we would. He’s done that with me a lot of years.”
Bjorkgren is also the guy who has kept Nurse from losing it completely on those particularly one-sided nights when all the calls are going against the Raptors and Nurse’s head is ready to come off. If you remember any of those such incidents chances are you saw Bjorkgren sidling up to his head coach and talking him off the ledge before that second technical came his way.
But instead of looking to hold on to Bjorkgren by hiding these qualities, Nurse is continuously promoting his assistants even if he doesn’t think he does it enough.
“I’ve said many times and I should probably say it more often: As far as a coaching staff goes, those guys are big time,” Nurse said of his staff midway through last season. “All three of those guys —Adrian (Griffin), Nate and Sergio (Scariola) — they are all head coach-level guys and they take these game plans and they dig into them. They eat them up and spit them back out to our players in an incredible way, an incredible format and they are really good men.”
There’s even a little similarity in the way first Nurse and now Bjorkgren have made that final leap to the NBA head coaching ranks. Nurse replaced a very successful head coach in Dwane Casey. Casey in fact had just won the Coach of the Year Award when he was let go primarily because the Raptors, despite year-after-year improvement under his watch, had failed to take that next step of repeating that winning in the post-season.
Now Bjorkgren steps into a similar situation where McMillan, a man who received coach of the year votes, was let go because his team, as good as it was in the regular season, could never get out of the first round in the playoffs.
Bjorkgren helped Nurse navigate the Raptors from a team that enjoyed success in the regular season to a team that won it all in the playoffs.
It’s a good bet the Pacers took that into consideration when selecting Bjorkgren as their next head coach.
“I am honoured to take on the role as head coach of the Indiana Pacers,” Bjorkgren said in a statement issued by the Pacers on Tuesday. “This is something I have prepared for during my career. I want to thank Kevin (Pritchard), Chad (Buchanan), Kelly (Krauskopf), Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh, and Herb and Steve Simon for this opportunity. I also want to thank Nick Nurse for giving me my first professional coaching job 14 years ago. I’m looking forward to working with this great team to achieve our goal as NBA Champions.”
NURSE AND BJOKGREN’S SUMMER JOB
In his recently published book Rapture — Fifteen teams, Four countries, one NBA Championship, And How to Find A Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere, Nurse recalls a pivotal summer in not just his own coaching career but that of Nate Bjorkgren’s as well.
It came after the first season (2007) of the D-League’s newest entry the Iowa Energy, a team Nurse basically willed into existence in order to ensure he would get a head coaching job.
The first year ended with the Energy outside of the playoffs having won 22 and lost 28 during the regular season. Nurse was not happy and wound up spending the bulk of the entire off-season cooped up in his basement along with Bjorkgren, who would become a paid assistant that next season.
“Nate and I spent the months after the season in my basement, holed up like survivalists. I put up dry-erase boards on every wall. Day in and day out, we plotted how we could improve offensively, how we could get better defensively, what we could do differently in terms of player personnel.
“Once we came up with something it would go on a spreadsheet, so we would be running back and forth between the whiteboards and the computer.”
The following three seasons the Energy were a combined 102-48.
Two men with a similar passion for the game and with a work ethic that would not let them fail.
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