Bulls' Fred Hoiberg skirts questions about job status amidst team's recent struggles

Second-year coach sits Rondo for second half of Chicago's loss at Indiana

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – People get fired for a number of reasons.

Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is facing intense heat with his team struggling in its last ten games.

The second-year coach so far is falling short of expectations and failing to deliver on the attributes that got him hired.

So has Hoiberg done that?

From all accounts, he gets along great with Bulls VP of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman. And since that was the overwhelming reason why he was hired prior to last season – to be the anti-Tom Thibodeau, to keep open the lines of communication with, and make comfortable, Chicago’s front office – it seems unlikely that Hoiberg would have the NBA’s “hottest seat,” as portrayed by ESPN’s Marc Stein.

Or, at least, unfair if he does.

With their 111-101 loss at Indiana Friday afternoon, the Bulls dropped to 3-7 in their past 10 games and 16-17 overall. They are a team caught in the switches with some win-now veterans (Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez) and a bench of younger players (Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis) whom Paxson and Forman project as a core moving forward.

The Bulls have scored some impressive victories – over Cleveland, over San Antonio, as well as a 4-2 mark on their annually dreaded “circus” trip. But they also have lost against, on paper, beatable opponents when failing to bring the needed level of intensity and effort. Playing down to the competition has been an issue for three seasons now, a flaw more attributable to the coach comings-and-goings, rather than actual Xs & Os or personality.

The 2014-15 season was so obviously Thibodeau’s last, given his bosses’ frustration with his style, that the locker room shrugged off any accountability for its loss to a banged-up Cleveland squad in the East semifinals. Hoiberg, meanwhile, came in almost as a nepotistic hire – Forman was on Iowa State’s coaching staff back when the 44-year-old former NBA reserve played there – so some on the largely intact roster that returned for last season questioned his credentials.

That team, with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, wasn’t suited to play the pace-and-space offensive style Hoiberg was said to favor and the 42-20 lottery finish was a step backward from the Thibodeau years. This year’s roster fits “Hoiball” even worse – the Bulls rank 25th in pace and dead last in 3-point field goals, attempts and percentage.

Chicago’s 8-4 start, built in part on a favorable schedule, raised expectations. And the glut of teams in the East hovering close to .500 has done the same, making playoff berths seem readily available. The Bulls’ standard-operating procedure has been to strive for postseason paydays and avoid rebuilds, so there’s no sense Hoiberg has a mandate to rip up the “retool” blueprint and start fresh. Nor is there any sense the front office would risk catching lightning in a bottle the way it did in 2008 when it snagged Rose in the draft.

The conjecture about Hoiberg’s job status – midway through the second season of his five-year, $25 million contract – appeared to be driven as much by the lack of any coach firings so far this season, a departure from NBA business as usual in recent years. So he might have been a convenient target, given the Bulls’ current funk and the dozen head coaches working their first full seasons.

Hoiberg didn’t engage the speculation, telling reporters before Friday’s game in Indianapolis, “Like probably 24 other coaches I’m trying to find a way for us to go out and play consistent basketball on a nightly basis.” He also had the pressing problem of dealing with Rondo, who already served a 1-game behavioral suspension this season and whom Hoiberg benched in the second half against the Pacers in favor of backup guard Michael Carter-Williams.

Bulls management dismissed the report, as well it should. Hoiberg might be better suited to develop a young team such as Minnesota, but – given the situation into which he was dropped in Chicago – he hasn’t failed to do anything for which he was hired. So unless his bosses transparently use him as a fall guy for a flawed vision, he doesn’t deserve to be fired.

There’s not a lot of confidence around town, by the way, that the current Bulls regime ought to be the one firing or hiring any more coaches anyway.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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