Bulls Fire Fred Hoiberg - What Now?
Via. Sports Illustrated
After 24 games of his fourth season as the Chicago Bulls head coach, Fred Hoiberg found himself jobless early Monday. The Bulls front office had seen enough, preferring the guiding hand of Hoiberg’s associate head coach Jim Boylen, a member of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and a coach under Hoiberg since 2015.
But this story isn’t about Hoiberg, and it’s only a little about Boylen; this is a story of team mismanagement from the front-office down, so it will infect whichever coach holds the reins. Hoiberg was an offensive mind; Boylen emphasizes defense, but unless there is a commitment to providing the coach with the players he needs, this is going to be the same Bulls team that Hoiberg led to 5-19.
That’s the big issue: Hoiberg was never really given the players he needed to play his style of basketball: fast-paced, wide-open, offensive basketball. This was not a secret when he was hired: he was coming off a brilliant run as Iowa State’s head coach, where, under Hoiberg’s helm, the Cyclones were two-time Big 12 tournament champions (2014,2015) and he was also Big 12 Coach of the Year (2012). As an ex-player, he could command a locker room, but taking over for the defense-first Tom Thibodeau meant a roster of grinders, not a roster of runners, and he suffered.
In some ways, he never had a shot. The cupboard wasn’t bare with Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Taj Gibson amongst the starters, but -- and their reunion in Minnesota was evidence of this -- they remained loyal to Thibodeau, and never entirely bought in. Seeking new players to bolster Hoiberg’s brand of up-tempo basketball, the front office provided...Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo? Big names, sure, but antithetical to what Hoiberg was trying to accomplish on the floor.
The Bulls made the playoffs that second season, and with Rondo playing out of his mind against his former team, the Bulls almost pulled off the 8-seed upset over the Boston Celtics. Rondo’s thumb injury ended his season and the ride; the Bulls would not make the playoffs under Hoiberg again.
Was it worth it? Rondo and Wade were both gone after that season, and Butler was traded: for Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, and Zach LaVine. After Bobby Portis broke Nikola Mirotic’s face, Mirotic was shipped off too, to New Orleans for the old-and-useless trio of Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen, and a first round pick that became Chandler Hutchison.
After overloading a roster with aging vets, the front office cleared them all out for a youth movement, and then was surprised a little over a year later that they had a young, developing team that wasn’t winning a lot. That’s tough to pin on Hoiberg.
While the Bulls were expected to be bad this year, things have been grim with two starters being sidelined for most of the season. Dunn, the centerpiece of the Butler trade, played just one game before spraining his MCL. Lauri Markkanen was very impressive as a rookie, but came back from injury just in time to play in Hoiberg’s last game. When two of the high lottery picks upon whom the team’s future depends have each played one of twenty-four games, it seems hard to put that on a head coach, but Hoiberg took the fall just the same.
Several things should keep a Bulls fan up at night: none of them having anything to do with Fred Hoiberg, but all of them having to do with the future success of the franchise. First, the fans in the stands. Since 2004, the Bulls have either been first or second in attendance. From 2010 to now, the Bulls have led the league. How is that a problem? The people of Chicago have shown that the product on the court doesn’t matter; they’ll still fill the seats. This insulates the front office from daring decision-making, and the team suffers.
Second is the looming shadow still cast by Michael Jordan. Having the greatest player of all time is wonderful in the moment, but (cue the world’s smallest violin) creates an impossible standard for future players to measure up to. Why else has a huge sports market like Chicago -- the third largest in the country -- struggled to land talent? The expectations can be that large. Derrick Rose felt that weight. It’s too much for any one player to shoulder.
Third is the belief that the Bulls front office cares more about accruing power than it does building a winner. Tom Thibodeau made the playoffs every year he coached the Bulls, and won 65% of his games -- on average 53-29 every year. But egos clashed and team building strategies were never aligned. After a 50-32 season, he was unceremoniously shown the door
It’s a new chapter for the Bulls franchise on the bench, but not where it counts: upstairs. Bulls fans can hope for the best when it comes to Jim Boylen, but until the Bulls are willing to shift their organizational values, their fans can expect more of the same.