Fred Hoiberg is not the best coach in the NBA, and I wouldn’t argue that he should be in the Coach of the Year conversation (well, at least not seriously). But because of the Bulls’ late-season push to get to the playoffs and their 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Celtics, maybe it’s time to reevaluate whether he’s really the worst.
In an age where shows like First Take and Undisputed set the narrative for sports discussion, and the most discussed opinions are the most extreme, it can be hard to take a moderate, middle of the road, reasonable approach to a situation.
I’d like to take a stab at that with the Bulls’ second-year head coach.
Hoiberg’s greatest problem is he faces a nemesis he can’t beat: the history that happened before he was hired.
Hoiberg came into a dysfunctional situation when he took over for Tom Thibodeau, who was ousted by Gar Forman and John Paxson (GarPax) after a multi-year clash between coach and front office. The ensuing “national” search for a new head coach lasted all of 38 seconds, and Hoiberg was named the new headmaster in a move that was almost as surprising as Thibodeau’s firing. Which is to say, it wasn’t surprising at all.
A lot of baggage came with the job. All the resentment from the fans over the Thibodeau situation was attached to Hoiberg. Many fans wanted him to fail because they identified him with GarPax, and they wanted to GarPax to fail. Thus, he’s even held accountable for their failures (which are many) and for basically anything that ever goes wrong.
In 2015-16, Hoiberg dealt with the most-injured roster in the league, and they missed the playoffs in spite of having a winning record. Jimmy Butler emerged as the team’s best player, but one offhand remark about a need to “coach harder” had the media skewering both he and the coach. There was also locker-room drama in the form of a rumored “beef” between Butler and former MVP Derrick Rose.
The front office solved the “beef” problem by dealing Rose to the Knicks. But then they made things worse for Hoiberg when they handed him two ball-dominant guards with no outside stroke in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. And outside of Rondo, the rotation had no viable point guard options with any experience. It was a random collection of young pups and also-rans like Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan (and then later Cameron Payne).
The offseason moves were panned. In an age of pace and space, the Bulls had neither, but they had a coach who (allegedly) was hired for his ability to enact just that sort of system. It seems odd to (justifiably) fault the front office for building that office, but then turn around and judge the coach by what he accomplishes with that roster.
The drama-filled Bulls were up and down this season, beating good teams one night and losing to awful teams the next. Whenever they beat a good team, the critics found a reason to dismiss it — scheduling, injuries, back-to-backs or just luck. But whenever a bad team beat the Bulls it was always “coaching,” even if the same scheduling, injury or luck issues applied to the Bulls in some of those losses. Sure, Hoiberg had his issues in some of these games (rotation/lineup choices were often a mess), but it wasn’t fair to blame him for everything.
The Bulls appeared on the verge of missing the playoffs again when they sat at 33-38 in late March, but then they closed the regular season by winning eight of their last 11 games to clinch a postseason spot on the last day of the season. And now, Hoiberg’s eighth-seeded Bulls have not only won the first two games of their first-round series, they’ve decisively outplayed the top-seeded Boston Celtics in doing so.
It’s certainly helped having Butler play at a superstar level down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs, but maybe, just maybe, some of their recent success is due to coaching.
Hoiberg was able to navigate the chaotic situation featuring Butler, Wade and Rondo earlier in the season that everybody was complaining about. Rondo sticking up for the kids after the criticism from Butler and Wade (Hoiberg benched them for a game) seemed to repair the team, and it looks like chemistry is the best it’s been in a long time.
Hoiberg has started to figure things out on the court as well in spite of losing his best 3-point shooter in Doug McDermott at the trade deadline. From there on out, Chicago was 10th in the NBA in made 3s per game at 10.2 and sixth in percentage with 38.2. So maybe those 10 makes on 40 percent shooting from deep in Game 2 aren’t quite as anomalous as Hoiberg’s critics would make it seem. And if you’re going to criticize the front office for not giving him floor spacing, why criticize him for the lack of it?
Furthermore, the Bulls’ defense took significant strides at the end of the season. They even finished sixth in the league in defensive rating this year. They did get a boost from the last two games when they completely dominated the awful Magic and Nets, but they still deserve credit for showing up and taking care of business in those games. Given Chicago’s struggles against bad teams all year, many expected them to blow it and miss the playoffs by losing one of those games. That didn’t happen.
The Bulls made it through a roller-coaster year featuring plenty of bricks, blown leads, drama and rotation roulette (Hoiberg has done better with this recently) with a playoff berth. They passed through those fires and became stronger because of it. And when the Bulls didn’t collapse when the Celtics made runs in Games 1 and 2, it was, in part, thanks to that team fortitude.
Doesn’t some of that involve good coaching?
Hoiberg should also get at least some credit for Rondo’s resurgence over the last month and a half that culminated in a Game 2 performance that was arguably the point guard’s best in years. Hoiberg recently talked about the Rondo situation with Tom Westerholm of MassOnline:
“When he was taken out of the rotation for a couple games, he was great,” Hoiberg said. “He was always in there leading and working. We put him back in there in the second unit, and he was awesome. I think he took a lot of pride in that role, to be the leader of that young group. We moved him back into the starting lineup, and obviously, he was ready for it.”
Even noted coaching genius Rick Carlisle couldn’t get #PlayoffRondo back. That situation in Dallas was a disaster. But Hoiberg did, giving just the right amount of carrot and the right amount of stick that brought the best out of Rondo.
Now they’re without Rondo due to a fractured thumb, so if the Bulls suddenly go belly up, critics will surely use that as justification to “prove” that the winning wasn’t Hoiberg, ignoring the influence the coach had on Rondo to make him effective.
Or maybe the Bulls will keep winning and pull off the upset because of how Hoiberg has coached them up. Rondo himself said Hoiberg has had the team extremely prepared for the Celtics, and Chicago has done a great job exploiting Boston’s weaknesses, especially on the glass:
Rondo: "Fred Hoiberg has done a helluva job getting us prepared."
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) April 19, 2017
Hoiberg has also done a nice job in this series with “After Timeout” plays (ATOs) after struggling for much of the last two years. Per Synergy, the Bulls were 27th this year on ATOs, but they’re second in the playoffs. If Hoiberg is going to get hammered when he’s doing poorly, he should get credit when things are working.
Simply put, maybe part of the reason the Bulls are in the playoffs and up 2-0 on the Celtics is Hoiberg. And maybe that isn’t just an “excuse” for GarPax to let him keep his job. Maybe he’s actually learned a thing or two over the last two years and has earned a longer leash.
Is Hoiberg a great coach? No.
Is he a growing coach? Absolutely.
It’s time for Bulls fans to evaluate him fairly and cast the same critical eye on his successes that we have on his failures.