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NBA

Let’s Check In On The Indiana Pacers, As Well As, For No Particular Reason, The Atlanta Hawks

Head coach Nate Bjorkgren diagrams a play for the Indiana Pacers during a timeout
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Indiana Pacers went to the (multiply abominable and unofficial-seeming) 2020 NBA playoffs as the fourth seed in the deeply shitty East; it was their fifth straight playoff appearance, and fourth in a row under head coach Nate McMillan, who’d taken over in the offseason of 2016 after the departure of Frank Vogel. The Pacers had staggered and improvised their way through an injury-wracked campaign to get there: Victor Oladipo, who’d been a breakout MVP candidate two seasons prior, played all of 19 badly diminished games; Jeremy Lamb, the streaky sixth man who’d supplied the team with much of what paltry shot-making it had in the pre-pandemic schedule, blew out his knee in February; Domantas Sabonis, fresh off the first all-star honors of his career, skipped the Orlando bubble altogether as he recovered from plantar fasciitis. The team spent that bizarre, deeply bleak pandemic season relying on T.J. Warren for all its offense and while that went remarkably well for a while, it also went just about as far as you could ever imagine the top-line description “depends for its survival upon T.J. Warren burning the building down” taking a team. The Pacers got swept out of the first round by the eventual Finals runners-up, the Miami Heat. It was their fifth first-round elimination in a row.

The Pacers fired McMillan two days later. A possible explanation for this is that the organization’s braintrust—owner Herbert Simon and team president Kevin Pritchard—are deeply insane, and so genuinely believed that a satisfactory head coach could have done meaningfully better with the shattered, irradiated roster that zombie-shambled its way in front of Jimmy Butler’s car. Another is that the organization hadn’t made any real, durable improvements either to the roster or to the results in three years of fitful flailing since trading disgruntled superstar Paul George for Oladipo and Sabonis, and that firing the head coach is easier—when you’re the team president, that is—than accounting for the dogshit he’s been spinning into … well, OK, not gold, but certainly copper, or at least manganese.

Here at Defector we called it a dumb and unwarranted decision at the time. A bunch of Pacers fans disagreed, pretty vehemently, but that’s homers for you. The complaints against McMillan’s coaching, such as they were, revolved around a perceived lack of ingenuity as a schemer of offense; personally I am not sure exactly how much schematic razzmatazz you reasonably can expect of a coach hastily cobbling together a makeshift rotation with a giant hole where its best player and only dynamic ball-handler is supposed to go, or what good you could expect that razzmatazz to do when the guards executing it would not crack the active roster of the team defending against them. In any event, the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 NBA championship rings are not attributable to sexy offensive scheming; it’s all those oar-handed oafs can do to throw one marginally catchable entry pass to Anthony Davis per possession without any three of them accidentally poking each others’ eyeballs out. There were also some rumors that the Pacers’ internal vibes were bad in McMillan’s last season, though if that’s true it never showed up on the court. What seemed beyond dispute about McMillan’s Pacers—what has seemed beyond dispute in each of McMillan’s three head-coaching stops prior to this season, in which he has amassed a 661-588 record—is that they reliably competed like hell, played tough defense, and proved themselves resilient in the face of injury and turnover. If a team relying on T.J. Warren for all its buckets can’t win a chip that way, I have bad news: No number of clever elevator-door sets is the solution to its problems.

In any event, after his dismissal from Indiana, McMillan caught on as an assistant coach on Lloyd Pierce’s staff with the young and theoretically up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks, who entered this season with some minor bushy-tailed optimism after three straight seasons among the dregs of the conference. The Hawks got off to a dismal 14-20 start. Franchise star Trae Young, grim advancements in the dark art of shithousery aside, seemed to be regressing; the vibes were bad all around. On March 1 the front office fired Pierce and promoted McMillan to replace him. The Hawks are 20-7 since then. They’ve rocketed up from 11th in the East, out of range even of the pathetic play-in gimmick, to fifth, with the same win-loss record as the fourth-place Knicks and a decent shot at hosting a playoff series if they can weather the few games Young will miss while recovering from an ankle sprain suffered this past Thursday. Those 27 games represent about a third of a normal NBA regular season and so not much of a sample, which means it might be easy to dismiss these results as a product of McMillan’s stewardship. Or it would be, anyway, if not for how well they jibe with the very much larger sample of, well, the entire rest of McMillan’s 15-and-a-half-year track record of being a good to very good NBA coach whose teams reliably play hard and smart and win most of their games.

As for the Pacers, Indiana’s front office hired Nate Bjorkgren as McMillan’s replacement; the new Nate had no prior head-coaching experience in the NBA, but he’d been an assistant on a championship-winning staff under Nick Nurse with the Toronto Raptors and had made a few successful stops in various D- and G-League towns. This fits a dismally familiar pattern across several American sports, where black coaches are stereotyped as defense-minded hardheads and then replaced by untested white guys, who are in turn stereotyped as better suited to what’s generally portrayed as the comparably cerebral, creative work of scheming sexy, dynamic offense. Bjorkgren’s old boss Nurse, in fact, got his job that way, when he replaced Dwane Casey, who won Coach of the Year the same season he got fired immediately on the heels of a second-round loss to LeBron James. (Off the top of my head, in addition to Nurse, this pattern has also given us Steve Kerr, and Lawrence Frank’s run with the Nets, as well as the coaching careers of Mike Budenholzer, Kenny Atkinson, Jeff Hornacek, Luke Walton, and many others. Feel free to put your own examples in the comments below!)

Anyway, if Bjorkgren’s schematic offense and/or ATO play design have been particularly artful or sophisticated, it doesn’t seem to have made all that big a difference. The Pacers are 29-31, ninth in the East. They stink. That’s hardly surprising: The roster is still absolute dogshit, and only so many coaches can spin, uh, tungsten (?) (bismuth?) out of that.