With Bulls' Patience Running Low, Fred Hoiberg's Lukewarm Tenure Comes to a Close

Fred Hoiberg is no longer the coach of the Chicago Bulls, which is neither a surprising development nor a fair adjudication of blame. This season’s Bulls are one of the worst teams in basketball because, under their current circumstances, they have one of the worst rosters. Lauri Markkanen only began his season on Saturday night. Kris Dunn, a functional point guard on a team with few others, has played in a single regular season game. Bobby Portis hasn’t been available since October 24. Denzel Valentine, who ranked second on the team in total minutes last year, is slated to miss this entire season as he recovers from ankle surgery. If it were not disruptive enough for the Bulls to be young and mismatched, they have also been made woefully incomplete. 

These are not grounds for firing. What could be is a lack of faith—in a coach who has had three-plus years to offer some compelling reason to stay on, but largely came up with a shrug. There was no public squabble or dispiriting loss that did Hoiberg in. His contract status was not a pressing concern and, if anything, the decision to eat the season-plus of guaranteed money remaining on his deal effectively captures the urgency Chicago has created for itself. The patience of the front office that hired Hoiberg simply ran out, his lukewarm tenure overwhelmed by a hot seat.

These were lost years. Hoiberg inherited another coach’s team and saw it reshaped first into one that didn’t fit his style of play and later stripped for parts entirely. One of his three full seasons as a head coach was an overt tanking effort, save a few weeks of strong play from Nikola Mirotić. There were times when Hoiberg, who had never before coached in the NBA, took the wrong tone or the wrong tact. But what, exactly, was Hoiberg hired to do? What alignment was he supposed to find in rosters that were falling apart or haphazardly constructed? If a front office were looking for a foolproof way to make its new coach look bad, rifling through four very different teams, none of which were all that amenable to his system, in as many seasons would be a hell of a start.

- Gary Dineen/Getty Images
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Hoiberg is excused in the sense that his failings as a coach were part of a much larger tapestry. It wasn’t his call to bring Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo onto the same team, nor was it exactly a premeditated part of the Bulls’ plans; Wade only became available in the first place because of a sudden and unexpected rift with the Heat. Chicago rolled with it, and thus the most talented team at Hoiberg’s disposal warped in reactionary fashion. It’s somewhat telling that the highlight of the Hoiberg era came from that incompatible team winning the first two games of a playoff series that they would lose in six. The Bulls wouldn’t return to the postseason during Hoiberg’s time in Chicago, and, frankly, even a healthy version of this team would still be years away.

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Those looking for error in Hoiberg’s schemes, rotations, and public comments can rather easily find them. Basketball might seem a simple game, but things in the NBA rarely are. There are entirely different power dynamics at play than in a college program. There are stars to cater to, executives to mind, and ranks of experienced professionals—each with their own talents and flaws and egos—awaiting instruction. Missteps were inevitable. Some growth, though, would be nice, and Hoiberg hasn’t proven to be all that dynamic. It’s fair to object that the Bulls never gave Hoiberg capable players suited to his system, but also fair to wonder why a coach would be so beholden to one to begin with. Great coaches make do, but Hoiberg never quite did. Assign blame where you will, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Hoiberg is the right coach for Chicago’s next step. There are no creative designs, clever implementations, or developmental success stories. Only a muddled run full of complications, resulting in on-court performance in the same win-percentage realm as Byron Scott and Randy Wittman.

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Chicago could have shuffled along for another few months if it wanted, but the front office clearly had made its determination. Once decided, the timing of this kind of move is a formality. The Bulls won’t likely find themselves in some materially different place come February or April, leaving little reason to retain Hoiberg once John Paxson and Gar Forman no longer saw fit to invest in his future. These formative years for Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. will be important. The continued development of Dunn and Zach LaVine could make a meaningful difference for the franchise. An organization might not have complete control of its course, but it does have a say in its steering. Hoiberg held a certain amount of responsibility in that regard, and he takes the fall because of it. 

The Bulls, meanwhile, carry on with yet another coach—one who will be expected to do better with the same roster under the same management.

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