All-Star scorers have come and gone through Indiana — from Reggie Miller to Jermaine O’Neal to Danny Granger and now Paul George — and yet the foundation linking all of them has been the Pacers’ devotion to the defensive end. That identity, according to team president Larry Bird, has been maintained by assistant coach Dan Burke dating back to his arrival in 1997.
“He’s one of our most important guys,” Bird says. “We’ve always been strong on the defensive end, and it’s because of Dan. He’s one of those guys; they don’t get credit for what they do. He runs our defense and nobody knows about it.”
Burke’s influence on the East’s most consistent franchise — the Pacers’ 21 playoff appearances rank No. 1 in the conference since 1990 — is all the more remarkable considering his background. He was working for UPS and coaching high school football in Portland when his uncle Rick Adelman, an assistant in 1985-86 to coach Jack Ramsay, asked Burke to help the Trail Blazers part-time by breaking down video using VHS cassettes, which were cutting-edge in those days.
Eventually Burke was editing video of potential Draft picks for owner Paul Allen. By 1997, he was being hired to accompany Blazers’ assistants Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter to Indiana for Bird’s rookie year as coach.
“He was very instrumental in a lot of things we did,” says Bird of Burke. “He had a big say in a lot of things. He knew the opposing players, he knew their tendencies, he knew what they were going to run at the end of the game. He was a big part of it from day one, and that’s probably why he’s still here.”
The ultimate proof of Burke’s importance is that he has survived as an assistant in spite of four coaching changes — Bird, Isiah Thomas, Carlisle, Jim O’Brien and Frank Vogel have all valued him.
“Be really good at what you do: That’s the simplest way to put it,” says Vogel of Burke’s secret to longevity. “I know how good he is.”
A frank (yet fair) assessor of team, players
Burke did not envision a long-term stay when he moved his young family to Indianapolis: “I told my wife, ‘We are in it now — we’re going to be moving every three years. Are you ready for that?’ ” Instead they’ve been able to take on challenges from a secure foundation. The younger of his two daughters was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes before she enrolled in school. His wife survived breast cancer, which was diagnosed on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Those kinds of things make you more entrenched in where you are,” says Burke, 57, whose family is healthy, his children all grown up. “We’ve become Hoosiers.”
“He survived through Isiah and the other guys also,” says Bird. “He’s a mainstay, he’s done his job well — why change? Now if we ever change coaches and they want somebody else, that’s a different story. But all you got to do is look at what he’s done over the last 19 years.”
Burke grew up with eight brothers and sisters in Portland. He quit college midway to work part-time at a grocery store and elsewhere, returned to Portland State (paying his own way) in order to become a teacher, and took on numerous assignments that helped bring out his attention to the details.
“I taught living skills to handicapped adults,” he says. “That was teaching patience and routine. Everything was marked. Everything. Say you’re teaching the guy how to use a fork: You’re using these fingers, you’re doing it the same way every time.”
Burke has been able to relate to players — and confront them when necessary — even though he never played beyond high school, and surely never dreamed of coaching in the NBA.
“They respect him,” says Bird. “He expects a lot from them and he ain’t afraid to tell them. Today’s coaches, most of them are scared to death of the players. But Dan’s not. Dan tells them the right thing. He never tells them any bull.
“Sometimes they need to hear the truth. He don’t just yell at them to be yelling at them like a lot of people. When they’re wrong, he’ll tell them they’re wrong. And sometimes you get a little bit of talk-back. But at the end of the day the players know he’s right. He tells them straightforward and they know it when they’re wrong, so it makes for a pretty good working relationship.”
He has a good balance between knowing what he knows because of his experience, but also wanting to learn how a player really feels on the court.
– Pacers center Ian Mahinmi on assistant coach Dan Burke
Burke has built a cult following in Indiana for his frank appearances at halftime of Pacers’ broadcasts on FS Indiana.
“I didn’t think we got out of the corner when the ball rang,” he said during one in-game interview. “They’re fighting us with 16-ounce gloves, and we’re using 8.”
“This is a 2-point game,” he said another time, “but it feels like we should be down 40.”
“Quit fighting the officials,” he complained one night, clipboard in hand, before returning to the bench for the start of the second half, “and start fighting the Sacramento Kings.”
Many times, Burke admits, he is still fuming from his presentation to the players when he appears on camera.
“I show clips at halftime, and sometimes I come out here angry, like, ‘What the hell are we doing? This isn’t Pacer basketball.’ By the time you come out you’re supposed to smile at the camera, but sometimes I don’t have it in me.”
The Pacers players have heard much worse, of course.
“I don’t think it’s said in a funny way,” says center Ian Mahinmi. “I think he’s a little bit of a smart-ass. But sometimes stuff has to be said a certain way for them to impact you. It’s never personal with him. You’re a grown man. You’ve got to be able to take stuff. Ain’t nobody babysitting you out here, and if you’re not happy about it, his office is always open.”
Burke helps Pacers find new defensive identity
Burke was surprised by the Pacers’ defensive domination of Game 1 at Toronto. They held the Raptors to 38 percent from the field, forced 19 turnovers and limited the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to 25 points on 8-for-32 shooting. Best of all was the leadership provided by Paul George (33 points), who was a star at both ends.
“I’ve got to say that that’s the best I’ve seen Paul defensively in a long time — he looked like the Paul of old,” says Burke. “And as a team that was the grittiest and gutsiest game I’ve seen from us all year. We’re a loose crew, but we have gamers, we have guys that care. But it’s like Forrest Gump and the box of chocolates: We weren’t sure what you’re going to get. I was so happy for them.”
Vogel (250-181 in six seasons) has always employed small, highly talented coaching staffs. Nate McMillan was a coach for a dozen years with the Seattle Sonics and Portland Trail Blazers and is likely to run his own team again someday. Popeye Jones, the former NBA forward, is in his third season with the Pacers after seven years assisting the Brooklyn Nets and Dallas Mavericks. In preseason, that staff was trying to figure out how to adapt to the departures of Roy Hibbert and David West, the All-Stars whose intimidating frontcourt presence had helped the Pacers reach successive conference finals through 2014.
“We spent the summer talking about, OK, if we’re going small, we’ve really got to change things — drastic changes,” says Burke. “Gamble more, deny more. But then we started to kind of calm down.”
As strong as Hibbert had been in covering the side pick-and-roll, for example, they realized that Mahinmi could be superior.
“Ian has even more mobility, and he has got a better instinct to be up with that drop, and give the weak side a little bit of time to react to what happens, and take away what we call cross-screens or crossover dribbles,” Burke says. “And he wins a lot of the straight-up attacks because they are happening further from the basket. We decided Ian would actually be better. So let’s keep that the same.”
You don’t want to be too strict, because they’re the ones in the battle. But you want to have a certain level of accountability.
– Indiana Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke
The Pacers emerged as the No. 3 defensive team in the NBA this season. The mobility of their frontcourt has provided versatility to deal with offenses that stretch the floor more than ever.
“We started settling down again and saying, ‘Let’s be us,”‘ Burke says. “It has been solid. You’ve got to have a Plan B in place and maybe tweak some rules. But you don’t want your defense out there thinking too much and being hesitant or robotic. So we’ve kind of stayed the same, really.”
Like most teams, the Pacers are switching more than ever. But even that adjustment has been minimized.
“I will tell you the worst night we’ve had — and I’m sure 29 teams are saying this — was against Golden State the first time we played them,” says Burke. “Because I felt we lost confidence in our system and ourselves. We started that game saying we are going to switch everything.”
Burke has learned to minimize the switching in fear that too much of it will lead to confusion.
“It’s when you see guys stop,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Are we switching that?’ And they’ll be in-between. ‘Oh, I thought we were switching that.’ No, we are not switching that. We’re only switching this.
“You don’t want to be too strict, because they’re the ones in the battle. But you want to have a certain level of accountability. And I think doing things certain way, everyone knows who is responsible for what. And their teammates know. So now they can coach each other. You want a players-coached team where they hold each other accountable. But it doesn’t work if you’ve got too many questions.”
Pacers’ teamwork shines through
At the same time, Burke appreciates suggestions from his players.
“He’s open-minded as far as learning new stuff and getting input on what I think we should do and what I feel comfortable doing,” Mahinmi says. “He has a good balance between knowing what he knows because of his experience, but also wanting to learn how a player really feels on the court. Whether its D.B. or coach Vogel, they have no hesitation as far as coming to me and saying, OK, what do you think about that?’ “
“I think they want to own it,” Burke says. “I have never been in that trench. I have never been in that heat of battle. In fact, after the (Game 2) shootaround, Paul and Ian asked me about certain play, like, ‘What if I do this?’ And I’m trying to imagine, if I am guarding DeRozan, all I’m thinking about is I’m getting through to his right hand. I don’t know if I want to stop and also bump (Bismack) Biyombo and then hold him up for a second and then get back to DeRozan. It has got to be straightforward.
“So the most I can do is ask them their opinion. That doesn’t mean we have to agree. But that is part of growth too. Sometimes you have disagreements. If they come to the bench and say, ‘DB, can we try this?’ Yeah, we will try it once, and we will do it that way if it works. And then you see a little more pep in their step, you see a little more resolve to get it done. It is a players’ league, and you’ve really got to listen to them and ask them.”
When to change and when to hold true to your identity — this is the question that Burke and other defensive coordinators have been juggling in this small-ball era.
“Even in Game 1, there were a couple of times we could’ve switched,” Burke says. “But we were so hell-bent defensively. Do you want to break that aggressiveness? It’s something I’ve been struggling with all year.”
The Pacers had been inconsistent offensively this season as they transitioned to a smaller, more mobile lineup.
“Our regular season was defined by us losing a lot of games in the last few minutes,” Bird says. “We had a lot of leads we let go. We weren’t closing games. We could have easily won 48 to 50 games this year. We were in a position to win that — we didn’t win it, and you are who you are. But in saying that, we had the year I thought we would have. Now it’s playoff time and we feel like we can compete against anyone if we guard people, and that’s what’s going on. We hope we can keep them down to 35-40 percent shooting, run them off the 3-point line and get a lot of help (on defense). If we can do that, we’ll be fine.”
It’s asking a lot. And yet, as the playoffs began last weekend, Burke saw — and more importantly heard — teamwork that reminded him of their recent years of title contention.
“You’re begging them to talk more out there and be more of a player-coached team again,” says Burke. “These guys just don’t talk. They talk back here,” he says, gesturing to the locker room, “and they talk on the bus, and I’m sure everyone in the league has the same problem. But it was good to see some form of that, and some pride out there.
“It was the first game I can honestly say that we wore a team down this year. We used to pride ourselves on that. And (the Raptors) will probably dispute it. They’re waiting for us to kind of crack and go on a 0-8 run. But we went the other way. And that was the first game all year I saw that much grit and resolve from our guys.”
But the questions in a playoff series continue to pop up faster than leaks in a lifeboat. As successful as the Pacers have been defensively against DeRozan, they were hopeless against center Jonas Valanciunas (23 points and 15 rebounds) in Toronto’s Game 2 win. Adding to Burke’s misery was the increasing aggression of Lowry (10 free throws and nine assists) and the news that a lower-back strain was raising doubts of Mahinmi’s availability for Game 3. And so it will be interesting to see what Burke has to say coming out of the locker room at halftime on Thursday.