Pretend this is Fred Hoiberg’s first season as Bulls coach. The results, player development, and management of rotations are all the same.
How does the narrative surrounding the coach differ from what we’re subjected to today?
Our collective view of Hoiberg is distorted by his first two seasons as coach. He wasn’t good then, and still has obvious flaws now. But he was also dealt an imperfect hand.
Hoiberg was never going to be an intimidating presence. In hindsight, asking a rookie coach with zero NBA experience to command a veteran locker room was fraught with danger. His presence alone wasn’t going to shift agendas. Large egos could easily walk over the inexperienced coach, and did.
Hoiberg needs to own his role in the disappointment over the last two seasons. We should also be good enough to recognise things have changed.
The big names from yesteryear are gone. The pressure has been released. Managing a team full of young players with everything to prove is a much easier task than feigned hopes of title contention. For the first time in his NBA coaching career, Hoiberg has a team best suited to the way he wants to play, and they’re competing and playing for their coach.
He still has obvious and concerning weaknesses – something the fan base routinely enjoys pointing out – that may prevent him from ever reaching the upper echelon of the league’s coaches. Despite these faults, it’s also important to acknowledge the job he’s doing and how he’s managed several important issues this season.
The Mirotic-Portis fiasco
A physical altercation between two players resulting in one being rushed to hospital with a broken face is a perfect way to derail an already difficult rebuilding season. Questions of accountability and culture were raised (again), and the NBA world was mocking the Bulls.
The situation between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic looked untenable. It was a forgone conclusion that neither would share the floor together again, with Mirotic unlikely to resume his career with Chicago. A “me or him” situation was declared, and a divide was apparent.
Of course, none of that ever eventuated. In typical Bulls fashion, the reverse of what one would expect unfolded. Not only have Portis and Mirotic returned to the court, they’re both playing their best basketball of their careers. And they’re doing it whilst sharing playing time together.
From the outside looking in, grading Hoiberg on how he handled a tenuous relationship between his reserve big men is difficult to do without being within the four walls of Bulls headquarters.
Really, the only way to approach this is by looking at the results of the situation, and they’re hard to argue against.
From a rotational perspective, the easy decision for Hoiberg would’ve been to separate both as much as possible. He could’ve chosen Cristiano Felicio at backup center and one of Mirotic or Portis as backup power forward whilst sitting the other. He didn’t. The coach made the difficult decision of playing the two together, risking personal issues boiling over into in-game possessions.
By playing both together, Hoiberg has tested the professionalism of his forwards. Both have responded, and the team is prospering when the duo share the court.
Both Mirotic and Portis have moved on from the altercation. Neither has let it erode the dynamics of the locker room. The pair may never again talk to one another off the court, but any personal issues they may harbor towards one another hasn’t affected production on the court. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.
All parties deserve credit for how they’ve handled events post the initial side-show, including the coach.
A major gripe most coaches run into is their rotations and how they structure 5-man units. Despite his weaknesses, Hoiberg has largely made the right rotational decisions this season.
The log jam up front was bound to be an issue, with five players on the roster worthy of minutes. Hoiberg’s job was made easier when Portis and Mirotic effectively ruled themselves out of early-season games. However, as each have returned, Hoiberg has chosen the correct path in assimilating both into the rotation.
The development of Markkanen is arguably the most important priority the Bulls have this season. Even after Portis and Mirotic returned, Hoiberg correctly kept the rookie forward at starting power forward. That doesn’t look like it will change. To their credit, Portis and Mirotic have accepted bench roles, something Hoiberg also deserves praise for.
How he’s deployed both in his rotation has also been a positive. At times, each have split minutes at power forward and center. Depending on who has the hot hand, that is the player Hoiberg has relied on in end-of-game situations, often with Markkanen by their side.
The point guard situation has also been handled in smoother fashion compared to last season. All three guards on the 2016-17 roster auditioned for starting point guard role. It never really settled. The situation has been more fluid this season. Jerian Grant was awarded starting duties after injuries derailed Kris Dunn’s preseason. Once Dunn was back and proving to be the better player, Hoiberg made the necessary adjustment. Both players have since prospered in their new roles.
Decisions around the fringe of the rotation have also been correct: Using Portis and Mirotic ahead of Felicio has proven to be the right move. Demoting Paul Zipser and replacing him with David Nwaba has been another solid move.
Hoiberg’s next rotation test will come when Zahc LaVine returns from injury. Given how he has handled the rest of the roster, fans should be confident that the coach will manage LaVine’s return correctly.
Young players are developing
Player development is arguably the most important aspect of year one of the rebuild. So far, results have been positive.
Kris Dunn has undoubtedly improved from an extremely poor rookie season. His confidence has grown with each passing game, and he’s slowing emerging as the Bulls’ long-term solution at point guard. Importantly, the mechanics of his jump shot look significantly altered, and results suggest it’s working.
The biggest development, though, is the arrival of rookie forward Lauri Markkanen. The Finnish big man has eclipsed expectations and has proven more ready-made than most predicted, but Hoiberg has also aided in the progression of the Bulls’ prized rookie.
The coach has used and exposed Markkanen in various ways; it hasn’t just been a reliance on 3-point attempts. The rookie has also been a post and midrange offensive hub on most possessions, working in isolation touches and operating within the confines of the team offense.
Markkanen has also experienced being used as the lead weapon in late-game offensive sets. Not many coaches would deploy such a tactic, even with a roster limited in options. Markkanen deserves recognition for being able to accept these roles, but so does the coach for constantly testing the boundaries.
Improvement hasn’t just been reserved for those acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade, either.
David Nwaba has emerged has a bonafide rotational player. Portis and Mirotic continue to play with confidence. Even veteran center Robin Lopez has added a 3-point shot to his game (even if seldom used).
Not everyone has made stride forward, though. The development of Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio has stalled. How much of that is due to coaching is subjective, but in a rebuilding scenario, players whose effectiveness is heavily dependent on those around them make it difficult to assign all of their struggles entirely on Hoiberg’s shoulders.
Largely, though, Hoiberg is extracting the talent from those on the roster who have the tools to improve. More than anything else, that has been he’s greatest success.