Why now? Bulls bewilder again with decision to fire Fred Hoiberg during injury-riddled season
The timing, not the decision, is what's at issue here
Fred Hoiberg didn't see this coming. He arrived at the Advocate Center on Monday morning expecting to run a practice at 11 a.m., per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. The Chicago Bulls have lost six straight games and 10 of their last 11, but Lauri Markkanen -- arguably their most important player -- hadn't played a minute this season until Saturday's 121-105 loss in Houston. Kris Dunn, their starting point guard, has appeared in one game. Bobby Portis, who looked outstanding in preseason, has been out since Oct. 24. According to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley, Hoiberg expected he'd have a chance to coach a healthy roster before being sent packing.
It is easy to reflexively defend coaches who lose their jobs, and I am not here to say the Bulls have made a mistake. Maybe Jim Boylen is exactly the coach they need as they try to climb up the standings over the next few years; maybe they will hire someone else who will fit better than Hoiberg. The timing, however, is confusing. Why even have Hoiberg run training camp if you don't have the patience to let him see the frontcourt of the future -- Markkanen and remarkable rookie Wendell Carter -- share the floor for more than 15 minutes?
Hoiberg's exit is an unfortunate microcosm of his entire perplexing tenure, in which Chicago never gave him the proper pieces to succeed. He arrived in 2015-16 on a five-year contract worth $25 million, and management sold him as the guy who would modernize the team after five seasons of the old-school Tom Thibodeau. In his first year, he had to deal with a dysfunctional locker room used to a completely different personality. Derrick Rose, trying to recapture his stardom, had a higher usage rate than Jimmy Butler. Management smartly moved Rose the following summer and promised fans that the Bulls would be younger and more athletic … and then signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, contradicting all of that and preventing Hoiberg from running an offense based on spacing and ball movement.
The ill-fated "three alphas" experiment gave way to a full-fledged rebuild, and Chicago is still in the early stages of the post-Butler era. Hoiberg hasn't definitively proven that he's a high-caliber NBA coach, but I wouldn't be shocked if he succeeded elsewhere. No reasonable person would call him the primary reason for the team's 115-155 record since he was hired. That, obviously, is the front office.
Late Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Hoiberg would be coaching for his job. This didn't necessarily mean the Bulls had to turn their 5-19 season around, but their young players had to show significant development. Regardless of what you think about the cards Hoiberg was dealt and the job he has done, this sounds more or less fair: If this year is about playing the young guys and building for the future, then Hoiberg's coaching staff should be expected to make them better players by the end than they were at the beginning. It is strange to pivot like this in the middle.
The weirdest part of this is that Chicago's season has actually been sort of encouraging when viewed through the lens of player development. Zach LaVine is still putting up monster numbers as he adjusts to being at the top of every opponent's scouting report. Carter has been nothing short of a revelation. Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison have been bright spots, too. When the Bulls are healthy, they might actually have a pretty decent bench, as far as rebuilding teams go.
Considering how badly the organization bungled the end of the Thibodeau era and how widely it was panned for the Butler trade, Chicago, back in action on Tuesday against Indiana (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), is not in that bad a place. There are several young players with potential on the roster, and the team hasn't traded away any future first-round picks. Even its most divisive move, signing Jabari Parker, came with no long-term risk: his salary next season is not guaranteed.
It is precisely this state of affairs, however, that makes this firing feel a bit unsavory. Hoiberg inherited a talented, but flawed and divided group. He tried to manage an untenable situation involving two guards everyone ignored on the perimeter. He tolerated a tanking season, watched two power forwards fight in practice and tried to steer this year's team as it endured endless injuries. Now, less than 48 hours after Markannen's return showed some light at the end of the tunnel, he is out. Tough business.
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