Hoiberg knows how hungry his team is to compete

This interview was conducted on Thursday, October 12, 2017.

Fred Hoiberg begins his third season as Bulls head coach, the third consecutive season Hoiberg will start with an entirely different roster, almost completely different starting lineup and players with a different style of play. It’s perhaps the most unconventional assignment, especially for a rookie coach, in NBA annals.

Hoiberg’s first Bulls team was considered a possible conference contender starting Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol. It was to be a fast team with a skilled big man who could shoot outside in Gasol and Joakim Noah coming off the bench. By the following season, nine players from that Bulls team, including three starters, were gone. Another two, Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson, were traded later in the season.

Hoiberg’s second team with Rose, Noah and Snell gone featured a now veteran starting lineup with Butler, Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson and was now a deliberate, isolation-oriented team committed to veterans and still considered at least a playoff contender. With the start of this season, seven of the top 10 players in the rotation who started last season are gone. Only Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Mirotic remain. Of the top nine scorers from Hoiberg’s first season in 2015-16, only Mirotic remains. It has been a time of almost unprecedented roster turnover for the Bulls.

Hoiberg begins this, his third season, with a roster that includes eight new players and a starting lineup with only one starter, Lopez, who was a starter to begin last season. Once again, it’s a new game with a new style of play and a new roster, this time with a rebuilding committed to young players and the future.

Hoiberg has arguably taken on one of the most difficult coaching assignments in the NBA given the incredible turnover of personnel, much of which was necessitated by injury and free agency, and as a result the annual evolving and remodeled style of play. Hoiberg has handled the relentless changes with an unusual level of professionalism, respect, courtesy and decency.

We sat down on the eve of the 2017-18 season to discuss this season’s Bulls and the direction of the franchise

Sam: “So, Fred, another openin’ of another show. You know I love show tunes. Just what is this season going to be about for the Bulls?”

Fred: “This season needs to be about our team going out and playing with great effort every time we step on the floor whether that’s a practice, whether it’s a shootaround. Obviously, in the game we need to give maximum 100 percent effort and grow as a team every time we step on the court. The big thing we are looking for is to go out there, develop a trust, be a great conditioned team. That’s one advantage we can have with this young group, being in better shape than the other teams we go up against and getting better every day, learning every day in the process. The biggest thing is to go out and play with that effort, movement and unselfishness, and our guys have really bought into that early in the season.”

Sam: “How much will this be about who emerges as a star or so called go-to guy?”

Fred: “Part of this is to see who fits with whom, what combinations work out there on the floor. With everybody being so new in this process, it probably won’t be 100 percent apparent early in the season. This is going to be a process—yes, that word--it’s going to take some time, especially with some of the injuries we have going on early in the season (Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, though Dunn could be playing by next week). But that is part of it, to see which of these guys will emerge and be part of the long term plans.”

Sam: “What have you emphasized?”

Fred: “What we’ve addressed pretty much every day is playing through adversity, playing through tough times. In the preseason, look at what happened in Dallas (47-point loss). We weren’t making shots and things weren’t going well and we folded and that can’t happen. I saw growth the next time our shots weren’t falling we shot 32 percent in the first half and it was a five-point game (in New Orleans). We were right in it to the end. That’s what we are looking for, to continue to battle even if things are not going our way. I’ve seen growth in that early in season.”

Sam: “What will the fans see with these guys?”

Fred: “The biggest thing we are asking of our players is every time they step on the floor to play with that great effort, to go out and play with great movement, play with great pace; we’re asking them to go out and play with great unselfishness and they’ve bought into that early in the season. I think our fans will respect that if our guys go out there every night and play hard. It’s a team I truly believe will do that. What happens with the wins and losses? You don’t worry about that going in. But if you put yourself in a position of playing with that maximum effort every night you are going to be in those positions where you can win games; that’s what we are going to do. Our guys have been committed to it.”

Sam: “How much of this season has to be about winning versus developing an identity and attitude to the game?”

Fred: “Everybody knows what the predictions are for our group. Our job is to get these guys to go out and play with a chip on their shoulder because of what those expectations are. We’ve got a lot of hungry players who are trying to establish themselves in this league, a lot of young players playing different roles than they’ve ever played in this league. Again, I know our guys are excited about that. The practices have been very competitive; even our shootarounds are taped. They are full contact. We are getting after it every time we step on the floor. It’s been fun. It’s been a fun team to be around because I know how hungry this group is. As far as wins and losses, we are not talking a lot about that. It’s about trusting the process, getting better every day and hopefully you’ll put yourself in position to win.”

Sam: “Are the three players, LaVine, Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade going to be the main point of this season?”

Fred: “I think we’ve got a lot of young players trying to establish themselves in this league. It’s not just the three guys we got in the trade. Denzel (Valentine) is coming into his second year; he’s been really good as far as buying in going out and making simple plays. You look at Jerian Grant going into his third year, Bobby Portis going into his third year. Paul Zipser is going into his second year. Felicio, who we have locked up, going into year three. So it’s not just about the three players from the trade. We played five guys in their first and second seasons a year ago and got good production out of those guys in different parts of the season. So it’s the whole body of work with these young players and getting them to build great chemistry and going out and buying into playing team basketball. Those three players do have a chance to be very good players. Kris Dunn, unfortunately, right before his injury was having his best game, playing with a swagger, playing with a great aggressiveness and that’s what we need from him every time he steps on the floor, ball pressure. He’s been a hawk on defense. Markkanen had a really big summer (with his national team), so he’s a little bit behind early on in the process. But he’s shown great flashes of what he can be, a skilled front court player who can play both front court positions and the kind of guy who can space the floor and fits well into this offense. LaVine has been an absolute rock star to this point. He’s been working extremely hard on his rehab; he’s ahead of schedule. He shoots it with ease and he is arguably the best athlete in the league. So we have three players we did get in that trade on draft night that have a chance to be special players in this league.”

Sam: “How much are you looking forward, of course without diminishing anyone, to see Dunn back with LaVine and that athletic side?”

Fred: “I am excited about that. The other thing I am excited about, look at some of the other young, athletic players we have. You get a guy in David Nwaba on a no risk contract, a young athletic player who can get into the paint. Antonio Blakeney is a kid I’m excited about watching his development. He’s still such a raw player in this league. Felicio is an athletic kid. We have some guys who can get up and down the floor. In a couple of our early contests the way we shared it and shot it we did have some spacing lineups we can put out there together. So, again, it has been a very fun group to be around and coach. We miss those guys from (previous seasons). I loved the opportunity to coach them, but these guys have been great.”

Sam: How difficult has it been for you coaching with now a third basically completely different roster?”

Fred: “Every year as a staff you get together and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of your team and you try to put together a system based on that and where you can put players on the floor and utilize their skill set. Last year’s team, the reality of it is we had more guys who were comfortable in isolation situations in Jimmy, who we played through a lot, with Dwyane, who we also played through and Rondo once we switched the lineups to utilize his playmaking with pace on the break. The biggest thing you have to look at is how do you utilize the roster to the best of your abilities to get them to play to their strengths. This group we have right now, we have to be a team that trusts one another, has great movement, a team that hopefully can get out and get something accomplished early in possessions. But the thing they’ve really bought into is the unselfishness and that’s been fun to coach.”

Sam: Coaches of teams that don’t win titles—and even some that do as we see with the baseball Cubs—often have only one guess and it’s a second. How do you look toward this team?

Fred: “I am excited. It’s a young, eager, hungry eager to learn team. That’s been fun. The competitiveness is there every day. These guys want to be on the floor; they love practicing. Veteran teams I’ve been part of, a lot of those as a player, those guys don’t always love to practice. But these guys have shown early on. A lot come back for extra work at night, some early before practice; they are junkies. They want to be out on the floor and that’s how you get better.”

Sam: “Do you feel the community can embrace a group like this with a run that had the team in the conference finals just a few years ago?”

Fred: “I do, knowing the community will embrace teams that go out and play hard, that go out and dive on the floor, go out and play and leave everything out there. I know the community will respect that if our guys play like that every night.”

Sam: “So you’re saying different from last season? Though certainly not as successful.”

Fred: “Last year’s team we pretty much knew before we started and took the court for practice four of the starters. We knew Rajon, Dwyane, Jimmy and Lopez were going to be starters. The year before is was that way as well with Pau and Derrick. And then Derrick broke the bone in his eye the first practice. That didn’t help when you are trying to put in a new system. Then Mike Dunleavy was injured, Noah going down. That first year was tough with 10 rotation players missing double digit games that season. That’s hard to overcome, but that’s part of this league. This year everything has been wide open except for the center spot. We knew Robin would anchor that, but other than that it’s been great competition with guys coming in fighting for those minutes and who will get those rotation spots. That makes it a great competition for everyone.”