'It's a Mess': Hoiberg Firing Business as Usual for Directionless Bulls

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IDecember 4, 2018

Chicago Bulls' head coach Fred Hoiberg questions a call in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

Toward the end of Fred Hoiberg's second season as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, as the team uneasily straddled the line between rebuilding and not rebuilding, a longtime NBA coach offered the following assessment of Hoiberg's future with the organization.

"Hoiberg's safe for now, but you watch," the coach said in the midst of the 2016-17 season. "About a year or two left on his deal and they're losing, you'll see. Those guys aren't going anywhere and they know it."

Those guys would be president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, who made that quote come true Monday when they unexpectedly fired Hoiberg after a 5-19 start. Hoiberg had two years left on his contract; the Bulls have yet another head coach, Jim Boylen.

The ill-fated Dwyane Wade-Rajon Rondo experiment seems like another lifetime ago. The Bulls are now fully into rebuilding mode, and their handpicked golden boy, Hoiberg, couldn't last long enough to see it through.

It's a familiar story, just with a different name.

"Every coach there starts on the same page and then kind of quickly, there becomes a divide," a rival executive told Bleacher Report. "[Scott] Skiles, [Vinny] Del Negro, Thibs (Tom Thibodeau); I don't know where that comes from. It seems like that front office turns on their coaches pretty quickly. They kind of have those factions working against each other."

Clashes between management"GarPax," as jaded Bulls fans call themand coaches have been the norm in Chicago. Never was it more prevalent than with Thibodeau, who was sent packing in 2015 with one of the most harshly worded press releases in the history of coach firings. There was no such venom directed toward Hoiberg on Monday; after all, he was management's handpicked replacement for Thibodeau, and responsibility for the failure of the relationship rests not only with the guy who was fired, but also on those who are always doing the firing.

"It's a mess," a rival coach told B/R. "What direction are they going?"

After three years of massive, almost chaotic roster upheaval that sabotaged any chance Hoiberg had to prove whether he was NBA head coaching material, the Bulls have finally chosen a direction. Once they finally unloaded Jimmy Butler, GarPax signaled they were doubling down on a full-on rebuild centered around Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and whatever bounty arrives via their 2019 first-round pickwhich, almost certainly, will be in the lottery.

John Paxson and Gar Forman have cycled through five different head coaches in their time running the Bulls, and just hired their sixth in Jim Boylen.
John Paxson and Gar Forman have cycled through five different head coaches in their time running the Bulls, and just hired their sixth in Jim Boylen.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Also, they're going all-in with Boylen, whom Paxson said Monday is expected to be Hoiberg's permanent—not interimreplacement. The former Spurs assistant is highly regarded in league front office circles and would receive serious interest next summer if the Bulls decided to go in yet another direction.

Of course, Paxson and Forman made sure to set the new guy up for success, at least in the early going. The timing of the move coincided with the return of Markkanen from an elbow injury, while Dunn and Portis are also on the mend and expected to return soon. The team's return to health should help Boylen navigate an otherwise challenging situationwhile also conveniently justifying the decision to fire Hoiberg.

Here's something to consider, though: One of the only benefits of making a coaching change is to go through the process of a thorough search, exchange ideas with smart basketball people and learn something. If the Bulls truly are locked in on Boylen, they will have squandered the opportunity to experience this benefit over two consecutive coaching moves.

"Even before they fired Thibs, we all knew it was going to be Fred, and they only interviewed Fred," a league source said. "They're not taking advantage of the benefits of a search."

Which is ironic, considering the sheer volume of coaching moves in Chicago over the years. Paxson and Forman have hired and fired five head coaches, as pointed out by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Bill Cartwright, Skiles, Del Negro, Thibodeau and now Hoiberg.

"Most GMs get, like, three," the rival executive said.

As messy as things have gotten after the long-simmering breakup with Thibodeauand as long ago as it seems the Bulls were annually one of the toughest outs in the Eastern Conference playoffsthe situation for Boylen or whoever else enters the mix has potential.

With a promising young frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls may be an attractive destination for free agents no matter the coach.
With a promising young frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls may be an attractive destination for free agents no matter the coach.Tim Warner/Getty Images

Chicago has all of its future first-round picks and cap flexibility as far as the eye can see. The ill-fated (though short-term) signings of Wade and Rondo in 2016 notwithstanding, it has been the Bulls' front office's plan for some time now to mostly sit out these past few summers of cap-spike largesse and wait until it becomes a buyer's market again. That could yet prove to have been a prudent plan.

"They have young pieces," a league source said. "They'll get a lottery pick in a pretty good draft, and if you get the right coach who can attract free agents—in a city like Chicagoit's a pretty good situation."

But things will not truly change in Chicago until the longstanding rifts between front office and head coach subside. Allowing your coach to build a team with an identity, providing him with talent that fits that identity and getting out of the way would be a good place to start.

    

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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