This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Monday morning's NBA news shouldn't shock anyone: The Chicago Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg 24 games into his fourth season at the helm, while the team is currently 5-19 and last in league offensive rating.
Yes, Zach LaVine is playing at an extremely high-caliber offensively, and they signed another young scorer (Jabari Parker) this summer to bolster the attack. But, the young, underachieving Bulls were woefully inefficient on offense.
Take a step back and try to diagnose the issues, and the blame may fall off Hoiberg's shoulders.
The front office has assembled one of the league's youngest rosters: Justin Holiday is the only player over 24 to log 300 minutes on the season. The Bulls have also been oft-injured and routinely featured a bizarro collection of players that don't seem overly ideal next to each other.
Trying to assess Hoiberg's tenure is like judging a steak chef who doesn't have knives. It's difficult to get to the center of your craft when the tools don't match the artist. Whether Hoiberg failed in certain areas is almost irrelevant (it's pretty clear he has his shortcomings). Did the front office put him in a position to leverage his strengths?
That's where the blame gets spread.
Undoubtedly, Chicago had numerous flaws under Hoiberg's tutelage, regardless of the personnel decisions made by the front office. Transition defense seemed to be their biggest gaffe this year. Coaches know that these situations are as much about effort and communication as they are about ability, yet they also tend to be the fall guy when effort and communication are lacking.
Many of the scrambling snafus were less tactical than effort-based, but the lack of attention the issue got from an outside standpoint was concerning. Jim Boylan specifically mentioned the need to improve the team's efforts in transition during his introductory press conference. Seems like the entire organization, from top to bottom, has been critical of the old chief's efforts to fix those issues.
When you watch some of the lowlights, you have to admit this is a pretty embarrassing problem for a professional basketball team.
Chicago struggled with their defensive rebounding late in games, perhaps a product of Hoiberg's rotations. Nonetheless, a coach cannot go out there and grab the ball himself. At some point, the multi-millionaires have to find a way to get the ball in crunch time.
The Bulls constantly struggled during after timeout (ATO) situations under Hoiberg. This year, they rank 20th in league scoring frequency on ATO situations. Last year they were 16th, 23rd the year before and 22nd during Hoiberg's inaugural campaign. Each season, the Bulls were ranked lower in points per possession (PPP), signaling that Hoiberg rarely could dial up plays resulting in high-value threes or frequently arrange easy twos.
To play Devil's Advocate, is the efficiency of the shot more a product of Hoiberg's reluctance to draw up threes, or the lack of shooters on the roster? The Bulls have been in the bottom-third of league three-point percentage each of the last two seasons, (and are there again to start 2018-19).
Are the flaws with the roster or with Hoiberg?
Fred also had the misfortune of coaching through numerous injuries and trades. Second-year big Lauri Markkanen and rookie Wendell Carter only shared the court for 15 minutes this season, doing so on Sunday during Markkanen's return to the court.
Last season Zach LaVine missed three-quarters of the season with a torn ACL. An early-year blow-up between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis left the team short-handed. The organization dealt Mirotic, its most productive offensive player, at the trade deadline for salary filler and a first-round pick.
It re-signed Cristiano Felicio to a four-year deal akin P.J. Tucker's, then drafted big men in the top ten in subsequent drafts. It traded Tony Snell straight up for Michael Carter-Williams, just months after signing both Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. It sent Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a 2nd round pick (that later turned into Mitchell Robinson) to Oklahoma City for Cameron Payne.
Hoiberg was the one holding the pieces together, plugging the numerous holes his front office continued to open. Continuity was nearly non-existent. Only three players remain from his first season: Felicio, Portis and Justin Holiday.
The nice thing about seeing a coach transition from college to the professional ranks is it gives his preferred style a sturdier platform.
At the collegiate level, coaches are essentially the general managers as well, since they are in charge of recruiting and responsible for the roster's makeup. Hoiberg entered the NBA with a strong pedigree of offensive success at Iowa State, fused around the speed and versatility of forwards that can handle the ball, large guards that can operate in the post and shooting at nearly every position.
Future NBA players such as Monte Morris, Abdel Nader, Royce White and Georges Niang all brought a rare combination of skills that allowed Hoiberg to spread the floor. (White and Niang, who almost exclusively defended the 4, were the ultimate mismatch.)
Hoiberg's sets and early offense series, which bled over to the Bulls, were designed around leveraging those various mismatches and utilizing great spacing:
The Cyclones were top-two in Big Twelve 3-point attempts each of their five seasons under Hoiberg. They were first in the entire nation in makes and attempts during the 2012-13 season! Hoiberg never was shy about dialing up the deep ball—even with guys that aren't considered elite shooters at the NBA level like Niang, Nader or Morris.
That's where the disconnect begins.
Everything about Hoiberg's tenure at Iowa State indicated he'd be revolutionary with pace, the sets he'd run for a speedy and versatile lineup, and his affinity for the deep ball.
To this day, it still feels like we never got to see the coach that Fred Hoiberg wanted to be. His was first saddled with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol in the frontcourt. The next year, he was forced to try and balance Jimmy Butler next to Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade—two notorious non-shooters with alpha male personalities.
The best glimpse we may have seen came last season when the Bulls were sixth in attempted threes. Even then, the roster was in constant flux, with injured youngsters, a lack of veteran presence and no wonderful mismatch at the 4.
Conceptually, an NBA team should have brought Hoiberg in as an usher of the small-ball revolution. Instead, he sat idly by in Chicago, watching other teams realize its success while he jammed non-shooters and two post players at a time into his rotations. He was a round hole, and the Bulls roster a never-ending shuffle of different square pegs.
Ultimately, it's difficult to defend Hoiberg for the errors he made, the lack of a powerful personality to overcome organizational turmoil and his failure to create a culture that endured it.
But we can still wonder how different his results would have been with more synergy between roster and coach.
As for the Bulls, they'll reap what they've sown. Jim Boylen has the difficult task of cleaning up the culture. If John Paxson and Gar Forman have shown us anything, it's that they will cut any corner they can when the pressure is turned up.
There are plenty of young, talented pieces on this roster. Kudos to them for organizing it. Now it's up to them to make it work.
The results will either vindicate or vilify Hoiberg.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).