Tom Thibodeau’s firing/Fred Hoiberg’s hiring were the worst kept secrets ever in NBA history. It was almost a lock, nearly a year ago today, months before it was actually official. I went on record after Thibs’ firing and said that I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of the Bulls hiring Hoiberg – I actually preferred Adrian Griffin. Griffin was a long-time assistant who already had a connection with the players. He had a great relationship with both Butler and Rose and I felt like any change to the system needed those two guys to buy into it. I felt like Griffin could accomplish that more easily than a guy who had never coached an NBA team before. Many felt Griffin would just be a Thibodeau clone, but I disagreed and I felt like they would keep something of that defensive identity while Griffin, who also played in the NBA, would have a feel about how to pace this team to ensure they were rested and firing on all cylinders by Playoff time.
But Bulls management had clearly decided to hire Hoiberg long before the firing of Thibodeau and despite their attempts to convince us there would be an exhaustive, global search, it was apparent that Fred Hoiberg was the successor to Tom Thibodeau. I, and most of Bulls Nation, had doubts about his ability to craft an elite defense with what we assumed was going to be a modern, exciting NBA offense. We were all surprised when the defense came out scorching – the Bulls have been in the top 5 in defensive rating for most of the season – and we were even more surprised that the offense hasn’t really materialized. Now, the Bulls are coming back down to earth on defense (now 10th in defensive rating) and their offense continues to be an abomination (25th in offensive rating) and as injuries begin to mount up, so do the losses. We can’t blame injuries for the Bulls’ woes. I wrote back in December about their struggles and the only guy they were missing was Mike Dunleavy.
Fred Hoiberg came into Chicago with an idea of how he wanted to play: He wanted pace and space, lots of threes, and to be a more modern NBA team. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that and truth be told, Tom Thibodeau probably wanted to play that way too. Unfortunately, the Bulls don’t have the talent to play that way. The Bulls are way up in PACE this year (96.1 for 11th in the NBA compared to 92.8 and 23rd last year). As mentioned before, their offensive rating has been a pathetic 25th this year compared to 11th last year. The Bulls are currently 8th in three-point percentage and they were 10th last year, they’re also 17th in points per game and were 15th in points per game last year. I know Hoiberg desires to play with a faster pace, but maybe that faster pace isn’t conducive to the talent around him. Great coaches adjust their system to the talent and don’t force talent to play their system. Sometimes there aren’t good fits.
Perhaps Thibodeau played his style of play the last few years because he had to and not because he wanted to. Maybe that’s how he maximized the talent of these Bulls – the very same Bulls that Fred Hoiberg has except Bobby Portis. Maybe Hoiberg should begin crafting a plan after the All-Star break to slow the pace down and play more halfcourt basketball. The Bulls have been lousy on the fast break for years: This year, they are 27th in fast break points compared to 23rd last year, 26th in 2013-2014, 24th in 2012-2013, and 13th in 2011-2012 (D-Rose’s last great season and the last year of “The Bench Mob”). The Bulls have a Derrick Rose, who obviously isn’t the same as he was before all the injuries, Pau Gasol, who is 35 years old, and aside from Jimmy Butler and sometimes Taj Gibson (who has quietly seen his athleticism decline) nobody that can really run or finish on the break. Maybe the All-Star break should be seen as an opportunity to rethink this strategy and maybe play more in the halfcourt. By playing more in the halfcourt and shortening possessions, the Bulls would probably find their offensive efficiency increasing while becoming more stable on defense. Maybe this group just has to win ugly in order to win.
We’ll see if Fred Hoiberg makes any adjustments after the break. Is the blame solely on him? No, there’s blame to go around from the players to the front office. Gar Forman and John Paxson have greatly overvalued their roster and thought the only problem was Tom Thibodeau. It wasn’t. This roster was in need of an overhaul and next season we may get it – unless the Bulls really do drop $20 million on Pau Gasol and further handicap the team into mediocrity. But one thing is clear: This team doesn’t have the talent to play the way Hoiberg wants to play. Something has to give and with the Bulls plummeting down the Eastern Conference standings and staggering into the All-Star break, this would be the time to make a change. Will they? Or will this freefall continue? Personally, I still have doubts about Fred Hoiberg and I’m still not sure he’s a good NBA coach. I’d love to see him prove me wrong.