A year ago, on the night of the 2017 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls switched gears. Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota, taking with him any pretense that the Bulls were a legitimate playoff team. In that moment, Chicago committed to a rebuild, which is to say, a dive into the draft lottery where coach Fred Hoiberg and his team presumably would be rewarded not for how many games they won but how many they lost. By whatever means necessary.
Soon after Butler was moved to the Timberwolves, veteran point guard Rajon Rondo was waived. A few months later, Dwyane Wade was cut loose (via a handsome buyout) to bounce through Cleveland to Miami. The Bulls moved forward with three young pieces courtesy of the Wolves — wing Zach LaVine, guard Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick in 2017, rookie forward Lauri Markkanen — and a general acceptance that getting from there to here was going to bring a lot of pain.
Some of that was literal: Bobby Portis slugged teammate Nikola Mirotic in a preseason practice, breaking two facial bones and putting Mirotic on the shelf for 23 games. Some of it was figurative: the frustration of a season that began as a 3-20 mess and ended in a 10-28 slog. In between, though, the Bulls somehow put together a 14-7 stretch that offered a glimpse of what 2018-19 might be. It also cost them precious lottery balls, eventually leaving them with the No. 7 pick (and No. 22, after dealing Mirotic in February to New Orleans) in Thursday’s Draft.
Hoiberg, who went from an alleged coaching “hot seat” during two .500 seasons, wound up with more job security as a coach headed toward 50 defeats and beyond. He spoke with NBA.com about his and the Bulls’, er, challenging season. This is edited from a pair of longer conversations, one at the end of the regular season, the other within the past week.
NBA.com: So you go through everything that was 2017-18, dutifully lose 55 games and wind up at No. 7 instead of in the top three for the Draft. The inevitable question is, was it worth it?
Fred Hoiberg: Obviously you’re disappointed. You were hoping to move up. But we’re confident we’re going to get a good player with the No. 7 pick and we’re confident we’ll get a good player with the 22nd pick.
NBA.com: C’mon, this isn’t our first rodeo. I get that people don’t like to use the word “tanking,” but the Bulls’ marching orders last season were pretty clear.
FH: I don’t think you can look at it that way in the midst of your season. The players are competitive, your staff is competitive. You want to play as well as you can and put yourself in a position to win.
When you look at the successful stretch that we had in December and January, you think about carrying those things forward and then adding, based on who we get, to the roster. There was some real frustration that we didn’t get a lot of wins at the end. But we developed some younger players and saw what we had with some of our guys.
NBA.com: When you guys had that run before the season’s midpoint, winning seven in a row (first team in NBA history with such a long winning streak immediately after a losing streak of 10 in a row) and 10 of 12, did you and the front office ever consider a Plan B? As in, maybe, show potential free agents how good your supporting cast could be, in hopes of luring big-name help this summer?
FH: I think we did. What we showed was a really good foundation and a young core that we can build around. When I look back at it, I just wish we could have had more opportunity to work with it and see what it would have looked like. When Zach LaVine came back [Jan. 13 from ACL knee surgery], the plan was for him to play about 20 minutes a night. Then his third game, Kris Dunn fell against Golden State and had that concussion [that cost him 11 games, before missing the final 14 with a toe injury]. It’s too bad we didn’t get the full look. But players like Cam Payne, Denzel [Valentine], Bobby, Robin [Lopez], Justin Holiday all had career years.
NBA.com: You had a lot of injuries down the stretch. Not to suggest that they weren’t all legit, but were you instructed at any point by VP John Paxson or GM Gar Forman to dial it back after that 14-7 success?
FH: No, we weren’t. And the big thing from the very beginning of last season, the two things we wanted to see, was competing at a high level every night and the development of our players. I think we accomplished that.
NBA.com: What — in your background as a player, coach, competitor, you name it — prepared you for this past season?
FH: Part of what prepared me for this was, I had been through this as a player. I went from four really competitive teams in Indiana, playing with someone as driven and helpful as Reggie Miller, taking me under his wing. There were other great veteran players who helped me just to survive and taught me a lot. Larry Brown was the coach, then Larry Bird my last two years.
Then when I came to Chicago, I knew it would be an opportunity to play. But it was a rebuild. Eventually I got thrust into the role of captain, as the oldest player on team at 28. It really helped me with what we’re going through now. I learned how important it is to keep guys’ morale up and be positive through the ups and downs. I give our guys all the credit in the world for remaining so positive, keeping up a great work ethic and still being sponges in wanting to learn.
NBA.com: What were the takeaways from the best and healthiest part of last season?
FH: We got a pretty good feel for what Kris Dunn can be. He really evolved into being a closer for our team. Lauri was closing games for us, taking big shots as a 20-year-old kid. Zach had the game against Minnesota.
What people fail to remember about Zach, he averaged over 22 points a game in February and really got into a pretty good rhythm. Then he had some knee soreness and wound up sitting for the rest of the year. But we had some flashes of what this can turn into.
NBA.com: Niko paid for his role in sparking that hot streak.
FH: Niko was great. He missed those first 23, and I thought our team handled that adverse situation about as well as anybody could, not letting it affect us in a negative way. We were able to move past it. You even saw the chemistry that Niko and Bobby played with when they were out there together.
NBA.com: How hard was it personally downshifting from a team that had gone to the playoffs to one that didn’t put a priority on winning?
FH: When the move was made on draft night, when those three kids came in, right away there was an excitement. Everyone had seen what Zach had done. He was a highlight reel and had those slam dunk championships. He plays the game with ease on the offensive end. His athletic tools and ability to get up and down the floor.
Kris, everybody absolutely loved coming out of the draft [in 2016]. Then he had an up-and-down rookie season. Helping him to get that swagger back that he had coming out of Providence took some work, but he was aching to put that work in.
Markkanen, I know the guys upstairs knew how good he was but I had no idea. I didn’t study him because we had the 15th pick. He comes over after a grueling summer — summer league, Eurobasket with all that pressure in front of his home fans — and he was exhausted. But then you saw every day, “Man, this kid is really good.” You’re thinking, we could probably put the ball in this kid’s hands. Then he goes up and dunks over a whole team and you say, “My God, this kid’s more athletic than we thought. He uses his feet, he’s got anticipation, he’s got toughness.” He showed a little more every day.
NBA.com: Was it difficult asking a proud veteran like Robin Lopez to put it in idle over the final 25 games?
FH: I think he understood. He’s been a part of a lot of different situations. He was great. He continued to lead. He continued to practice hard. He talked to the bigs as they came off the floor.
NBA.com: Was your own health challenged at all by the stress of this season? Your past issues related to your heart are widely known, and coaching an NBA team even in the best of times is a demanding job.
FH: After two open-heart surgeries, I do have to sometimes check myself. There are so many things you can over-concern yourself with in this business. Then you look back a week or two later and say, “My God, why did I put so much effort into that one stupid thing that happened?” You have to let go sometimes. My family is so important for me with that. You get some normalcy in your life.
[At night, lying in bed, Hoiberg can hear a valve in his heart every time it beats. He let a visitor listen, too, and sure enough… ]
If this ever affected me to the point where I had to throttle back, I would move on to something else. When I had my first surgery and they removed the diseased tissue from the aorta that had an aneurysm in it, they got rid of the problem. The valve deteriorated after they put a new valve in and they had to go in again, but the diseased tissue no longer was there. If it was a risk, I’d be doing something else.
But it’s a constant reminder. You think you’re going to get used to it, but you never really do. My wife will be lying next to me and she hears it.
NBA.com: When you look back on 2017-18, is it like “Casablanca” for you guys? As in, you’ll always have December?
FH: It was fun to see how much the work paid off. Everyone was putting so much into it to get out of that slump. You can say, we had something to build on there.
But whenever I talked to our team, before or after, it was all about competing on a nightly basis. Being consistent with their effort. I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled it. They were on time. They kept trying to get better. They worried about what they could control. I didn’t have to have even one of those conversations where I sat a guy down and said, “You’re not playing hard enough.” I did have a few conversations where I said, “You need to move the ball more.” [laughs]
NBA.com: Big difference, coaching relative kids after the so-called “three alphas” of Butler, Wade and Rondo? Jimmy seemed eager to stay here to win.
FH: Jimmy did so many things for this team. He was great to coach. You knew every night you were going to get an unbelievable effort. A guy who never backed down. Who never shied away from the big shot. And was going to defend at a high level every time he stepped on the floor. So Jimmy was missed in a lot of ways. But when you look at the young guys’ abilities, it’s exciting.
NBA.com: What do you make of having better job security now that the losses are mounting, compared to those .500 seasons?
FH: I don’t think any one of the 30 guys in our position pay attention to that. You can’t do your job if you do. You go in and try to improve as an individual, as a staff, as a team.
Our first year, Derrick Rose suffered an orbital fracture in the first workout. We had 10 rotation players who missed double-digit games. Two starters missed 50 or more [Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah]. Niko had that botched appendix surgery. The next year was a completely different team. Nobody predicted we’d be a playoff team but we were and had a good chance to beat Boston before Rondo got hurt.
NBA.com: When you’re not coaching veterans, is it a purer form, as far as installing “your” system vs. tailoring things to them?
FH: You always look for the best system, the best approach. The basics don’t change, but [in 2016-17] we had a lot more isolation players, so we ran more of those types of actions. This [past] year, more ball movement, player movement fit this group better. We had longer, harder practices as opposed to a veteran group as the year went on.
NBA.com: Since the end of the season, how much time have you put in on developmental activities and draft preparation?
FH: We’ve had a lot of guys in and gotten a lot of work in, in the early part of the offseason. We’re looking forward to working again after the draft with some new young players as part of the roster. It’s all about moving forward.
NBA.com: As you look back over the past year, with the script flipping to the point where the Bulls wanted to win by losing and maybe lost — some draft position, anyway — by winning, what goes through your mind?
FH: What was Donovan Mitchell [the Rookie of the Year finalist chosen by Utah]? The 13th pick? You just never know with the draft. You play hard, you get the culture established the way you want it and things take care of themselves.
What really would have been devastating would have been ending the season with negativity, with your team not playing hard, with your team disinterested. That’s something that would be a real cause for concern going into an offseason. But our guys felt good about themselves. Some were sacrificing in a big way and pulling for younger guys. They were playing hard, they were cheering for each other.
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