Fred Hoiberg leaves the Bulls with a complicated and forgettable legacy.
Let’s rewind all the way back to June 2nd, 2015, the day Fred Hoiberg was officially hired by the Bulls.
It was 19 days after the Bulls were bounced out of the playoffs in the second round by the LeBron James led Cavaliers, the fourth time in six years that the Bulls season came to an end at the hands of a James led team.
Tom Thibedeau was fired immediately after the season-ending loss, a move that surprised nobody. Thibodeau’s demanding, next man up coaching style led to a lot of wins and a coach of the year award, but the same personality he paraded on the sideline every night rubbed a lot of people in the organization the wrong way off the court.
General manager Gar Forman had a great relationship with the then Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, the same school that Forman was an assistant at back in the 90’s. He advocated for Fred and his bosses rubber-stamped the deal.
“Obviously we’ve known Fred for a long, long time and felt very highly of Fred,” Forman said. “We have great respect for who he is as a person, and we have great respect for the job that he has done. He’s a talented, in-demand coach that has attracted significant interest throughout the league and was on top of our list as we began this process … as we [visited with him] it became very apparent to us that he was the fit that we had talked about. A fit with our players, a fit with our team, and he was the right guy to maximize the potential of this basketball team.”
The Bulls, coming off a 50 win season that saw their dynamic backcourt of a blossoming Jimmy Butler and a semi-healthy Derrick Rose miss 48 games due to injuries, made just one change to their roster that offseason, replacing the retired Nazr Muhammed with their first-round draft pick Bobby Portis. It was clear that the Bulls management group thought that Hoiberg’s offensive mind and relaxed coaching style would be able to get more production out of the team’s roster than Thibedeau could.
That thought process is why this obituary has been writing itself since the day Fred was hired.
YEAR #1: Fred’s Biggest Failure
The 2015-16 season was a disaster in every way. First, Hoiberg told the media that Joakim Noah offered to come off the bench in order cover up his desire to bench the declining fan favorite in favor of adding more shooting next to Pau Gasol in the starting lineup. Noah immediately refuted that report. Noah’s season ended in January because of a shoulder injury, which put that storyline on the backburner.
Then there was the communication issue with Derrick Rose.
Rose: "As far as my performance, I love the way I pushed the ball."
Hoiberg: "We gotta get (Rose) back to playing with more pace."
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 4, 2015
Considering Hoiberg was brought in solely to rejuvenate the offense with his pace and space system, not being able to get the starting point guard to understand what’s expected of him reflected poorly on the head coach.
Then there was this Jimmy Butler quote:
“I believe in the guys in this locker room but I also believe we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times. I’m sorry, I know Fred is a laid back guy and I really respect him for that but when guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, you have to get on guys, myself included.”
“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing,” Butler continued. “Nobody spoke up about it. I did (but) probably not enough times. I think that (Hoiberg) has to hold everybody accountable from the No. 1 player all the way to how ever many guys we have. Everybody has to do their job.”
- Lying to the media to cover up the real reason he benched a fan favorite
- Failed to properly communicate expectations with the team’s most important player
- Publicly called out by his best player
Those are some serious red flags that don’t even include his attempts to motivate his team by showing them clips from ‘Animal House’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber’, clips that motivated his team so much that they won eight fewer games than the year before.
42 wins and a seven-year postseason streak snapped. Hoiberg was put in a bad situation, but he certainly did not make lemonade with the lemons he was given in year one.
YEAR #2: Unfair Circumstances
Hoiberg’s second season should go down unquestionably as the year his bosses screwed him over the most.
Gasol and Noah left in free agency. Rose was traded. Taj Gibson was entering a contract year. The Thibs era Bulls window had closed and it was time to rebuild, and the Bulls had a top 20 player in his prime with three years of team control left ready to be traded.
But Paxson and Forman, stubborn in their ways, refused to give in to reality and tricked themselves into believing they’d be able to build a core around Jimmy Butler and some cap space.
Forman stood in front of the media after the Derrick Rose trade and said the team’s primary goal would be to get “younger and more athletic”. He and Paxson then proceeded to pay a 34-year-old Dwyane Wade and a 30-year-old Rajon Rondo roughly $55M to fix their problems.
The Bulls, with no youth or shooting, proceeded to slog their way to a .500 season and first-round playoff exit, with Wade and Butler undermining Hoiberg’s authority at every turn. It was more apparent than ever at that point that Hoiberg may never get a fair shot.
YEAR #3: Change Of Direction
The Bulls finally did Hoiberg a favor and acquired some young, athletic talent by trading away Butler. With management signing off on a rebuild, it gave Fred an opportunity to focus more on implementing his system and culture rather than strictly wins, losses and egos.
The Bulls started the season an abysmal 3-20 but upon the return of Nikola Mirotic, who was infamously injured by a Bobby Portis practice punch (a prime example of Hoiberg being unable to control his players), the Bulls went on to win 15 of their next 23 games. Second-year point guard Kris Dunn was improving, rookie Lauri Markkanen exceeded expectations, and the Bulls were quite honestly fun to watch.
The Bulls ended up trading Mirotic, taking things overly cautious with Zach LaVine’s return from a torn ACL and Dunn suffered face and ankle injuries down the stretch. The Bulls finished just 27-55, their worst record in 14 seasons, but there were legitimate signs of hope.
YEAR #4: Written On The Wall
Entering this season, Hoiberg was going to need to show his bosses he deserved an extension. The Bulls were not going to let Fred enter next season as a lame duck, with intentions of competing for a playoff berth in 2020 to make the organization a more attractive destination for free agents.
It’s only fitting that Hoiberg’s ‘prove it’ season kicked off with a training camp injury to his best player, followed by his point guard suffering a knee injury in game #3 that still hasn’t healed six weeks later. Can’t get any worse? Sixth man Bobby Portis, Markannen’s temporary replacement, suffered the exact same injury Dunn did the very next game.
Fred tried what he could. He went with his rookie lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr. at center over the less talented veteran Robin Lopez, a move not all coaches would have the stones to do. Zach LaVine is 10th in the NBA in scoring and looks much better than he did last season, it’s fair to wonder how big of a role Hoiberg has played in LaVine’s resurgence.
Despite having a roster depleted enough to need Justin Holiday to play over 35 minutes a night, the Bulls lack of effort and energy throughout their 5-19 start trumped all of the injury excuses in the eyes of the front office.
“We’ve had discussions with Fred and his staff for all the time he’s been here, and we talked about a way of playing,” Paxson said. “And yes, the injuries have played a part in us not being able to do that. You have to be able to get your identity across to your team, and we just felt that we’re not playing the style with the force that we want our group to play with and that we can be.”
“You may not win games, but you can get any of your players to play that way. That’s why we decided to do it now with three of our more talented players coming back. We need to identify the right way to play, and we need that spirit with our group.”
Fred Hoiberg is a flawed coach who was dealt a BS hand. He’s a bright basketball mind with a successful NCAA coaching resume who now has playing, coaching, and front office experience in the NBA, his future holds endless possibilities. Whether or not Hoiberg ever gets another head coaching job in the NBA, the $25M he was paid for his 3+ years coaching the Bulls should help ease any grief he has over his failure in Chicago.
Mid-season coaching changes are rarely expected and sometimes undeserved. We can debate all day whether or not the timing of this move was fair, but one thing we can all agree on is that it’s time to move forward.
Thank you for your time, Fred, but the Bulls season continues in Indianapolis tonight without you. For better or worse.