Perhaps no one coaching in the NBA the last two seasons has been asked to do more with less than Fred Hoiberg.
Hoiberg inherited a team that was expected to contend, yet was, effectively, breaking down and being broken up, injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol’s impending free agency all but dooming any chances for the team in Hoiberg’s rookie coaching season.
Hoiberg then was charged with a transition, a team with 10 new players, more under 25 years old rotation players than all but four NBA teams, combined with declining veterans like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Thus the reality of the transition reflected elapse more than strategy. Despite rampant predictions of missing the playoffs and fewer than 40 wins, the Bulls came on strong to make the playoffs last season and almost pulled off an upset of top seeded Boston.
Now with Las Vegas summer camp a memory, Hoiberg is just being asked to do less.
Which goes against who he is and has been.
It’s also the thankless and near impossible job of coaching an NBA team that is rebuilding while retaining your dignity and credibility. Lose because that gives the organization greater odds of adding top talent, which eventually can make your job easier? But what sort of competitor who reaches the NBA can accept and sign onto apathetic defeat?
And then how do you explain that to your players, who are starting careers whose success, effectively, is measured by victories and personal achievement?
“Competiveness was the reason I survived 10 years in the league,” notes Hoiberg of his role playing career with the Pacers and Bulls. “It certainly wasn’t because I was a great athlete. It was because I was a competitor, always the first guy in the gym and trying to outwork people. The same thing applies as a coach. You have to put the time in, draw up the game plans that give your team a chance to win, and as the season went on and our group came together, I thought we performed very well. Especially at the end of the season.
“Just don’t change who you are as far as your competitive nature,” Hoiberg says. “Something we will continue to do is compete. I’m still getting to know our players and once we get healthy we’ll see how it is. You always look back at the end of the year and try to evaluate your performance and try to get better every year.
There’s perhaps no NBA coach who has drawn a shorter straw or has had more unrealistic expectations, and thus the ensuing criticism for not meeting them. Whatever they were.
First, Hoiberg inherits a team that was a rocket ship on reentry. Merely looking for a soft landing. Exploration and adventure was over. Then Rose fractures his face and is nearly blinded 30 minutes into the first practice. And there, again, will be only bodies to recover in yet a third consecutive season of injury updates. Before long Noah is gone for the season, perhaps more formality, as the free agency acquisition of Gasol sentenced Noah to a unhappy reserve role. That season, eight of the top 11 players in the rotation missed at least 10 games with injuries.
Welcome to the NBA, Fred.
Gasol by then had moved on mentally to his free agency options, and all three were soon gone.
The replacement, albeit more a place holder for what would come next, was one more chance to compete while contemplating. But Wade, as it turned out, had little left and the friction between he and Rondo never abated as much as each insisted it could or would. Fingers were pointed regularly, veterans at one another, the community at the coach.
Enjoying it so far, Fred?
It became obvious to pretty much everyone there no longer was a path anywhere but down, the aging Wade declaring his desire for his paycheck, Rondo insistent his career remained as a significant starter, Jimmy Butler caught in the middle trying to please everyone. The hopes that near miraculously began with those ping pong balls and Rose in 2008 were finally ready to be buried. Like with a death, it takes time to accept and move on. The Bulls championship hopes died that sunny April day in 2008 when Rose came down the wrong way. Darkness set in long before sunset.
It took five years to accept and mourn. Finally, it’s time to move on.
So in his third season, Hoiberg gets his third completely different roster and plan, this one perhaps even more confusing because it strikes at the core values of professional athletes.
Management has staked out the future, and the community has apparently agreed as it has with various similar construction projects around the city. There will be delays and frustration, but eventually there should be a superior road to be traversed and enjoyed.
It’s just an ugly job breaking it down and putting that new pavement in place.
Though the workers have no less pride of accomplishment than those who get to enjoy the final product.
So it comes to Hoiberg again to get the best out of the talent on the roster. When, well, many from outside apparently won’t seem to mind if they are not all that great. After all, it’s just starting and the faces there often are not the ones who get to finish the job.
There are challenges to (differing rosters every year),” Hoiberg points out. “When I was at Iowa State I had a new group pretty much every year because I took so many transfers. Every team had a different different dynamic to it with different guys and skill sets. I played traditionally two of those years because I had a traditional point guard. I played a couple of years where I had a point forward initiate my offense. So it’s all about trying to figure out your roster and trying to put them on the floor in spots where they can be successful.
I do have some experience with that, but there are challenges, no doubt about that.”
Often overlooked is that Hoiberg is an innovative offensive coach. Unfortunately, a lot of his players have overlooked that as well in tending to retreat into their personal comfort zones. So, do what? Bench Rose, Butler, Wade, Gasol? He did bench Rondo, and that didn’t go so well.
So now Hoiberg finally gets a lump of sporting clay to mold. It’s easy to say he should have told Wade to run more or maybe Gasol to challenge the pick and roll more. Or maybe Rose and Butler to pass more. But when five championships, an MVP and multiple All-Star games and not caring much for that guy is your answer, well, it’s not so simple.
Wade’s still around, though in what role or for how long is unclear. But even with Wade, it is clear that it’s now about the guys who have done nothing but get here.
“This is a group with which we should be able to have some more movement, especially when (Zach) LaVine gets healthy,” said Hoiberg. “I’m excited to space the floor with shooting. (Lauri) Markkanen has shown the ability to shoot at the front line position. Those kinds of guys are difficult to prepare for when you have front court players to make a shot and make a play. As Markkanen progresses and gets stronger, he’ll be a guy who can do both of those things. I’m excited about that. When LaVine gets healthy (February, 2017 ACL surgery), there are so many things he can do with that athleticism and the way he shoots it as easy as he does.
“We had two completely separate identities with our two groups last year,” Hoiberg noted. “With our first group we ran a lot of short pick and roll and tried to beat teams up in the paint and we did a pretty good job of that with Taj (Gibson) and Robin (Lopez, the latter also returning). The second group was more a spacing group. The thing the trade (of Gibson and Doug McDermott) did was it allowed us to play the same way with both groups. And we should be able to do that with the makeup of our team now. It’s always easier if you can play the same way with your first and second units.”
If you mention tank with Hoiberg, it better be about your study of Shermans or your septic. Hoiberg knows the narrative is now about obtaining more talent through the draft, but the job of coaches and players is to win games. Hoiberg is comfortable with that.
“We played a lot of young guys last year,” Hoiberg noted. “But we also do have some guys with experience. The biggest thing is going out there and competing and playing hard every single time you step on the floor. I think if we do that the way the league is we’ll have a chance to hopefully put ourselves in a position to win. The hard part is closing games with an inexperienced group. But I’m confident our team is going to compete every time we take the floor. Go out and compete and if you do good things will happen.”
That’s also the important lesson that gets lost with teams supposedly playing out seasons for high draft picks. The Bulls in the Butler trade acquired three players who could be part of their significant core moving forward. When you lose regularly, and don’t seem to care otherwise, players can accept losing and become losers. Hoiberg understands that. The term “culture” is thrown around NBA locker rooms like dirty socks. It’s needed, and often change is good.
“We’ve got young players who hopefully are going to go out and compete and play the right way,” said Hoiberg. “If they do, that is what we are building. We’ve got a young group of guys to play hard. We have five first and second year players who played a lot of minutes last year. Bobby (Portis) and Cris (Felicio) are going into their third year and got valuable experience and now we are adding to that with more young players. You are trying to see which ones are going to be there and make sense for the future, the guys who are going to go out and play the right way, how we want to play and continue to build this thing. But you are not going to look at this and say we want to go out and lose X amount of games; we can’t approach it that way. We have to go out and hopefully give ourselves a chance.”
Though Hoiberg also understands no coach looks much better than his talent. Hoiberg is inured to the scrutiny that adheres to community and media frustration. It’s reminiscent of something Richard Nixon once said, as only he would, “I don’t mind if they examine me with a microscope. But not with a proctoscope.”
Hoiberg has retained an easy manner despite the scrutiny and still likes to joke with reporters. I’ve rarely seen him even testy with media and he still uses first names when addressing most, which is uncommon. He’s generally been a much better person than his critics.
So Hoiberg sat intently during the week or so of Summer League watching, figuring, perhaps hoping. Kris Dunn had to bail out early. Cameron Payne followed. Markkanen showed progress and then sat a pair of games, and perhaps Hoiberg found some scoring in Antonio Blakeney. LaVine stopped in for a few days and assured everyone he would be ready to go sooner than expected. Though no one was making predictions this time. They’ll let him heal. And get to 110 percent, as the players like to say.
And maybe this doesn’t take as long as it often does given some of the more mature young talent and perhaps LeBron leaving the Eastern Conference after this season. That was the big talk among team executives in Las Vegas while fans taking the short drive over from Los Angeles swooned about Lonzo Ball. There are all sort of possibilities.
“A big part of last season was developing young players, which I think we did a good job of,” said Hoiberg. “We played as many young players as any team in the league. We wanted to make the playoffs and we accomplished that and we played our best basketball at the end of the season when it mattered most.
“Now it’s about those young players who are back and experienced the playoffs taking the next step,” said Hoiberg. “It’s going to be important for some of these guys to emerge as leaders. Wade and Lopez are two of the elder statesman of the team, but now it’s important for those guys to take a back seat. They’ve (young guys) got to take that next step now and I think we have some guys who will do that. With all the young players you are going to have inconsistencies. We’re going to have that this year, but it’s all about going out and competing. That’s where the real frustration was last season. There were nights where we didn’t lay it all out there on the floor and those are the things that bother you as a coach.
“The thing we are trying to instill,” said Hoiberg, “is going out and competing every night we go on the floor. That will be the judge of what we do; that’s what it’s about.”