Two more NBA head coaches were fired this week. The Portland Trail Blazers parted ways Terry Stotts after nine seasons due to another first-round playoff exit, and the Indiana Pacers realized they made a huge mistake with Nate Bjorkgren, firing the rookie coach after one tumultuous season.
The Indiana Pacers qualified for the Play-in Tournament, but they failed to advance to the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers secured the #6 seed, but they were picked off by the #3 Denver Nuggets in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. That was the fourth instance in the last five postseasons in which the Blazers were bounced in the first round.
Mike D’Antoni, currently an assistant coach with Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets, is rumored to become the next head coach of either the Portland Trail Blazers or the Indiana Pacers.
Stotts says goodbye to Rip City
Stotts compiled a 402-318 record in nine seasons with the Trail Blazers. The Blazers fielded competitive teams during the regular season under Stotts, but they were cannon fodder in the postseason. Stotts, Damian Lillard, and the Blazers were knocked out in the first round five times in the last eight years.
“I have the utmost respect for Terry and what he has accomplished these past nine seasons,” said president of basketball operations Neil Olshey. “This was a difficult decision on both a personal and professional level, but it’s in the best interest of the franchise to move in another direction.”
Stotts got along great with the players, but he couldn’t deliver fans in Rip City an actual championship.
Now the big question remains, will the next head coach determine whether or not Lillard stay in Portland? Or, will Dame decide to finish out his career with the New York Knicks? Lillard said his loyalties were with Portland, but the Knicks and MSG were the only other venue in which he imagined playing. After an ugly opening-round bust out, the upstart Knicks could really use Lillard’s scoring and playmaking abilities.
D’Antoni or Vanterpool next Blazers coach?
Lillard endorsed Jason Kidd for the head coach job in Portland. Kidd, currently an assistant coach with the LA Lakers, has however, withdrawn his name from consideration.
Many players in the league were irked when long-time Blazers assistant David Vanterpool was passed over for the Minnesota Timberwolves job after Ryan Saunders was fired midseason. The T-Wolves opted for Chris Finch, an assistant with the Toronto Raptors, instead of Vanterpool. Lillard and CJ McCollum both have a long-standing relationship with Vanterpool, so he’s also at the top of the list.
|Portland Trail Blazers – Head Coach Candidates|
- Mike D’Antoni
- Chauncy Billups
- David Vanterpool
- Mike Brown
- Jeff Van Gundy
- Darvin Ham
Mike D’Antoni and his spread offense philosophy would be a good fit with Lillard and the Blazers. If you like what Dame can do now, just imagine him running a juiced-up offense. D’Antoni would green-light him to take half-court shots with impunity.
LA Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, former Cleveland Cavs head coach Mike Brown, and ex-New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy are also on Portland’s shortlist of coaching candidates.
Punting on Bjorkgren
Nate Bjorkgren’s tenure was doomed before he even coached a game in Indiana.
The Indiana Pacers made a controversial decision to fire popular head coach Nate McMillan in favor of the latest trend by hiring a more offensive-minded head coach. The Pacers eyed one of Nick Nurse’s assistants with the Toronto Raptors. Nurse is an offensive guru and his assistant coaches were tapped to become head coaches after the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship. The Pacers hired Bjorkgren solely on his resume, but overlooked the fact that he’d never been a head coach before and had a questionable relationship with players.
TJ Warren was perplexed that the Pacers didn’t consult him about hiring Bjorkgren, considering he played under him when Bjorkgren was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns. Warren knew Bjorkgren would be trouble, so he asked the Pacers for a trade. When the Pacers declined his request, Warren opted for season-ending surgery because he knew it would be an ugly campaign. He was 100% correct.
“When he was hired I was surprised, because he’s not the easiest to work with just on anything,” one of Bjorkgren’s former players told Bleacher Report. “He’s kind of stubborn, won’t listen, even though it might be good conversation. He’s a micromanager and he’s not for everyone.”
Bjorkgren might be an offensive guru, but he has zero people skills. In the second half of the season, Bleacher Report published an in-depth article about how Bjorkgren created a toxic atmosphere. Yet despite their dysfunction in the locker room, the Pacers were fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament.
Who wants to coach the Pacers?
The Indiana Pacers are in a difficult spot in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. At best, they’ll be jockeying for a fourth seed with the Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 ruling Gotham, and Joel Embiid entrenched in Philadelphia. Plus, the New York Knicks are playing good ball for the first time in over a decade, while the Chicago Bulls and Zach LaVine will be the team to watch next season.
The Pacers acted like a bunch of amateurs last season with the unvetted and trend-chasing hiring of Bjorkgren. Instead of landing a future Hall of Fame player, the Pacers’ front office helped facilitate the James Harden trade from Houston to Brooklyn by taking part in the four-team megadeal.
|Indiana Pacers – Head Coach Candidates
- Mike D’Antoni
- Mark Jackson
- Terry Stotts
- Mike Brown
- David Fizdale
- Steve Clifford
The right head coach can put the Pacers back on track, but whoever takes the job will have a tough assignment trying to compete with the coastal elites.
The Pacers could entice former Pacers player Mark Jackson to replace Bjorkgren as head coach. D’Antoni is rumored for every head coach vacancy in the offseason. He was heavily rumored to take the Pacers job last year, but the team shocked everyone when they tapped Bjorkgren instead. Stotts is also available now that the Blazers fired him, though it’s not sure he’s ready for another whirl on the NBA coaching carousel.