INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Now that the Indiana Pacers' long, injury-riddled season is over, the hard part begins.
President of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard is embarking on yet another offseason filled with questions, the first being whether to keep coach Nate Bjorkgren.
Pritchard hired the 45-year-old former Raptors assistant in October, hopeful he could forge tight bonds with players and implement a new philosophy to keep his team fresh for a long postseason run.
It didn't work.
Rumors of internal strife surfaced late in the season, which culminated with an embarrassing 142-115 season-ending loss at Washington.
"Coach really did his best this year," guard Malcolm Brogdon said afterward. "Regardless of the reports, regardless of all the distractions and the noise, he continued to communicate with his players. He continued to work extremely hard for us and coach us the best he could, and we appreciated that. That's what I just told him in the locker room: I appreciate him. I appreciate everything he did for me and this team."
Brogdon thrived in Bjorkgren's offense. He averaged a career-high 21.2 points per game while the team averaged a franchise-record 115.3 points.
Defense, rebounding, an inability to close out games and injuries were far bigger obstacles.
Indiana finished 25th in the league in points allowed (115.3), had the fourth-worst rebounding differential (minus-4.1) and blew 17 fourth-quarter leads. Had they been better in any of those areas, the Pacers probably would have made their sixth straight playoff appearance.
But they couldn't overcome all the injuries.
T.J. Warren, Indiana's top scorer in 2019-20, went down with a season-ending left foot injury in late December. Myles Turner, the NBA's blocks champion, didn't return after hurting his right foot in mid-April. Caris LeVert, who was acquired in a January trade for Victor Oladipo, missed both play-in games after entering the league's health and safety protocols.
There were times Indiana didn't have any of its opening-game starters available. And yet, Bjorkgren still had Indiana within one win of making the playoffs and having a chance to end a five-year run of first-round exits.
"I thought he did great. As a first-year coach, it's always going to take a little time," Doug McDermott said Friday. "You've got to manage a lot of stuff. There's a lot on your plate and in terms of all we went through, with all the testing and everything, I thought he did great. I thought he grew a lot as the year went on. I know there was a lot of stuff that was written about him that I don't agree with and I think Indiana is lucky to have him."
If Bjorkgren does return, then Pritchard may need to make some roster changes.
While all five starters are under contract next season, McDermott and NBA steals champ T.J. McConnell can become free agents. Fans are also wondering whether the defensive struggles were the result of Bjorkgren not having the right cast. Either way, something needs to change.
"I think we overcame a lot, but I'm not in it to come up short like this," Turner said. "You have to remember this taste in your mouth. We've gotten swept before, but not making the playoffs at all, that's a gut punch."
Domantas Sabonis made his second straight All-Star Game this season, and at age 25, he's emerging as one of the league's bright young stars.
His 48 double-doubles were tied for fifth in the league and his nine triple-doubles broke the Pacers' single-season and career records. Sabonis fell one assist short of back-to-back triple-doubles during the play-in round.
McDermott, a nine-year NBA veteran who has played with five different teams, said he's never been through a season when he's seen so many teammates hurt. He thinks the NBA schedule may have played a part in it.
"A lot of games, not a lot of days off," he said. " I think we finished the season with eight games in 12 days."
HOME SWEET HOME
Goga Bitadze saw his minutes and productivity increase this season and he knows he needs to play more to keep progressing. So he's planning to take about a week off before getting back to work and he hopes to play on the Pacers' summer league team, too.
First, though, will be his first trip to his home country of Georgia in more than a year.
"I really miss my family, I haven't seen them for a long time," he said. "Because of this pandemic, they couldn't come over, so I had to go through this by myself."