The Indiana Pacers Hired Nate Bjorkgren. Wait, Who?!

It is no secret that this site’s official editorial position in regards to the Indiana Pacers’ coaching search was, in Dire Straits intonation, “I want my MDA.”

Considering this site practically worships at the altar of 3-pointers, layups, and free throws, it makes sense; one of my coinages here is “D’Antoni Index”, a catch-all stat that combines 3PAR, FTR, and percentage of shots taken within three feet of the basket (a proxy for layups and dunks) to determine a team’s (or a coach’s) propensity for designing a system with an optimal potential average outcome per shot attempt.

D’Antoni is the trope namer and codifier for the stat, but there were plenty of other folks out there whose teams, either in their capacity as head coach, assistant, or member of a coaching tree, ranked highly in the stat; from the moment Kenny Atkinson got his walking papers from Brooklyn, he ended up on my Pacers-fan radar screen as well.

But perhaps I’m overthinking this; after all, “anyone but Nate McMillan” would be an improvement in Indiana unless the Pacers hired Byron Scott or Lionel Hollins or anyone who used to coach the Chicago Bulls after Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan ditched town in the winter of 1999.

So now the Pacers have hired Nate Bjorkgren, an assistant from 2019 championship-winning Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s staff. It’s Bjorkgren’s first run as an NBA head coach, and so far it’s drawing some intrigue from Pacers fans as “interesting, hiring a fresh face instead of a retread.”

But what can we expect from Bjorkgren in terms of actual philosophy for the team? Well, let’s look at what the Raptors have done in the past two seasons Nurse has been coaching them and see what we can learn.

First off, there’s the simple matter of D’Antoni Index. For reference, the Index is calculated by adding up its three components mentioned above, then subtracting the sum of the league averages in those three metrics from the team’s total. Higher is (generally; there are roster-based factors why it’s not a 1:1 correlation, but generally) better.

The Raptors in 2018-19 put up a .379 3PAR (10th in the NBA), a .247 FTR (21st), and a .279 0-3 ft attempt rate (19th). This adds up to .905; the league average in 2019 was .910, giving a DAI of minus-.005. Middle of the pack, but the Raptors won the title.

In 2019-20, Toronto posted a .412 3PAR (6th), .264 FTR (T-12th), and impressive .311 0-3 ft rate (5th). That’s a raw total of .987 and a DAI of plus-.061. Mike D’Antoni‘s Rockets posted a DAI of plus-.160, in a completely different stratosphere, but you know what? The Raptors and Rockets reached the same level of the playoffs, reaching the second round before bowing out to Boston and the eventual champion Lakers.

And that’s in Nurse’s second year coaching the team. There was an absolutely massive improvement across the board in attacking the basket, getting to the line, and getting shooters good looks beyond the arc.

Assuming Bjorkgren adheres to the same philosophy that Nurse did, this is everything a Pacers fan could hope for in terms of finally bringing the team’s offense out of the Dark Ages and into the 2020s, which has a chance to make Indiana far more competitive than they ever were as a guaranteed first-round playoff out under McMillan.

As a point of contrast for D’Antoni Index, McMillan’s Pacers in 2020 were dead last in 3PAR (.317), dead last in FTR (.216), and ninth in 0-3 ft rate (.297), for a DAI of…oh gods, let me wash the vomit out of my mouth…minus-.095.

The only team worse in that stat? Coach Pop’s Spurs (note my skepticism of Hammon’s coaching education I mentioned earlier), at not just minus-.113 but 29th in 3PAR, 29th in FTR, and dead last in shots 3 feet and in. No wonder San Antonio missed the playoffs.

The moral of the story here is that Indiana just poached a coach from a team that not only understands the principles of modern, efficient NBA basketball, but a team that showed massive improvement as the coach implemented his system more fully in Year 2.

What this means for the Pacers?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. But the idea of, say, Myles Turner bombing away from 3-point land, of Domantas Sabonis dominating the paint with plenty of layups, dunks, and trips to the line, of this roster, which managed a prorated 51-31 record last season, actually showing why 51 wins was a gross underachievement?

Look out, Eastern Conference. Like a Pokemon, PACERS is evolving!

And with Bjorkgren coaching, it’s super effective!

Can’t wait for next season.