Pacers’ Nate Bjorkgren first rookie NBA head coach fired despite winning postseason game

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A report emerged early last month that first-year Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren was on the hot seat. That night, Bjorkgren looked feeble while managing a dispute between a player and assistant coach. The next day, another report covered Bjorkgren’s flaws in excruciating detail.

The main question wasn’t whether Bjorkgren would get fired. It was: How ugly will it get before he gets fired? When unhappy players believe the coach is on the way out, they’re freer to rebel further.

But then Indiana won four of its final seven regular-season games. The Pacers even blew out the Hornets in a play-in game.

Was that a great closing stretch? No. But it was decent for a mediocre 34-38 team and showed Bjorkgren hadn’t totally lost the locker room. The players weren’t rushing to end the season as quickly as possible, as sometimes happens in these situations.

Still, Indiana fired Bjorkgren yesterday.

That makes Bjorkgren the first rookie NBA head coach fired despite winning a postseason game.

Only one other rookie head coach has been fired after making the postseason at all. In 2009, the Pistons fired Michael Curry after they went 39-43 and got swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Here’s every coach to last only one full season on a job despite making the postseason:

Team Coach W L Postseason
2021 IND Nate Bjorkgren* 34 38 Lost in play-in tournament
2014 BRK Jason Kidd* 44 38 Lost in second round
2009 DET Michael Curry* 39 43 Swept in first round
2005 PHI Jim O’Brien 43 39 Lost in first round
2004 NOH Tim Floyd 41 41 Lost in first round
1986 CHI Stan Albeck 30 52 Swept in first round
1966 BAL Paul Seymour 38 42 Swept in division semifinals
1965 BAL Buddy Jeannette 37 43 Lost in division finals
1962 PHW Frank McGuire* 49 31 Lost in division finals
1950 WSC Bob Feerick* 32 36 Swept in division semifinals
1947 NYK Neil Cohalan* 33 27 Lost in BAA semifinals

*Rookie NBA head coach

The other rookie head coaches besides Bjorkgren and Curry on that list… Jason Kidd left the Nets for the Bucks in 2014. Frank McGuire chose not to move with the Warriors from Philadelphia to San Francisco in 1962. Bob Feerick retired as a player in 1950, ending his tenure as the Washington Capitols’ player-coach. Neil Cohalan took the Knicks job for their inaugural 1947 season with an understanding he’d step aside for Joe Lapchick after that year.

Jim O’Brien (2005 76ers), Tim Floyd (2004 New Orleans) and Stan Albeck (1986) were veteran NBA head coaches who got fired after one season in new jobs.

Buddy Jeannette got promotes to Baltimore Bullets general manager in 1965. His successor, Paul Seymour, resigned a year later to focus on his liquor store and real-estate business in Syracuse.

There just isn’t close precedent for Bjorkgren besides Curry, who – probably foreshadowing Bjorkgren – never got another NBA head-coaching position.

Yes, Bjorkgren made only the play-in tournament – not the playoffs like the other coaches on this list. The NBA now includes 20 of 30 teams in the postseason with four losing in the play-in tournament and not reaching the playoffs.

But at least that proportion of teams made the postseason in more than a third of the NBA’s seasons (previously most recently in 1988, when 16 of 23 teams made the playoffs). The current format isn’t far outside the norm.

Plus, Bjorkgren’s 34-38 record was third-best among rookie head coaches who got fired since the NBA-ABA merger, behind only Curry (39-43) and Paul Westhead (10-4 with the 1979-80 Lakers). Novice coaches usually don’t need to do much to get a second season.

But the Pacers – who made the playoffs the previous five years – were accustomed to more success.

Firing Bjorkgren looks reasonable, given all his problems. Better to move on than compound a mistake. Though it seems Bjorkgren could have improved after only one season on the job, he dug himself a big hole to escape.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that Indiana performed pretty well – going 34-38 and making the postseason – for what will be remembered as a disastrous coaching tenure.