By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) When the Bulls jettisoned coach Tom Thibodeau with a scathing press release announcing his firing in May 2015, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf rued the breakdown of internal communication across departments, from ownership to management to the coaching staff to the players to behind-the-scenes staffers.
It was the belief of Reinsdorf and the organization’s influential figures that Thibodeau’s persona didn’t foster a building-wide unified culture, and they were right about that. There was nothing that could be done at that point to keep the interpersonal relationship ship from sinking.
In the aftermath of a national search that lasted four days and spanned two contiguous states, the Bulls touted new coach Fred Hoiberg’s ability to seamlessly connect with others as a primary reason for his hiring.
“A natural leader and a great communicator,” general manager Gar Forman said in what was literally the first sentence of his quote in the press release announcing Hoiberg as the new coach on June 2, 2015.
Now 19 months later, the Bulls’ communication problems are as pronounced as ever. The difference? The embarrassing episodes are playing out publicly for all to see and surrounding the realm of the players who are tasked with winning games on the court, instead of those who wear suits.
Before Hoiberg, much of the Bulls’ drama at least took place behind the scenes, with Thibodeau isolating himself more and more from management as that relationship deteriorated. The troubles could be brushed aside as the Bulls continued to win consistently and perform on the court.
Under Hoiberg, who’s 61-60 in his tenure, all it takes to find discord is sticking a microphone in front of two individuals and asking the same question to both.
The latest dark cloud surfaced Tuesday evening, before the short-handed Bulls fell 101-99 to the Wizards on the road to fall to 19-20 in what’s becoming a forgettable season on the court, save for star Jimmy Butler’s continued rise. Much-maligned point guard Rajon Rondo, who hadn’t played in the previous five games, held an 11-minute media session in which he calmly called out the Bulls’ handling of his role.
Rondo called his benching the most confusing episode of his 11-year NBA career, which is saying a lot considering the baggage he’s accumulated over the years. He clashed and nearly came to physical blows with Doc Rivers in Boston. Under Rick Carlisle in Dallas, Rondo bristled at his lack of freedom on the floor, and the Mavericks sent him home during a first-round playoff series after benching him because they thought it was best if he didn’t have a chance to be a negative influence around the team.
Contrary to what Hoiberg has claimed, Rondo said he’s had no productive or detailed discussion with his coach about his benching.
“Um, how can I say this?” Rondo told reporters. “No.”
The explanation Rondo did receive came from a staffer on the Bulls bench, who told him they were “saving me from myself,” Rondo said. He had been benched for poor play, with Hoiberg saying it was his decision alone, but Rondo wasn’t buying the little he was told.
“I thought it was (BS),” Rondo told reporters. “Save me from myself. I never heard that before in my life.”
At no point in this Rondo saga has anyone appeared to have a plan outside of the moment at hand. On Dec. 31, the night of his first full game benching, Rondo met with executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman. He called the meeting “OK” and added that there “wasn’t a clear-cut message.”
Rondo hasn’t talked to management since, according to reports, and with Butler and Dwyane Wade out Tuesday, Hoiberg used Rondo as the team’s sixth man. It’s anyone’s guess how much he’ll be used moving forward.
While this lack of communication from the Bulls can to a large degree be absolved in the context of dealing with an underperforming player who’s also stubborn in Rondo, this continues a trend for the Bulls that should be concerning. Perhaps more than anything in his one-and-a-half seasons, Hoiberg’s missteps have been in dealing with his players.
The Rondo mess marks the second straight year Hoiberg has encountered tumult with a proud veteran. Just a week into the 2015-’16 regular season, Hoiberg claimed that big man Joakim Noah had volunteered to come off the bench as Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic started. He hadn’t, and Noah made that clear to all. It set the stage for what became the most frustrating season of Noah’s career, and he never connected with Hoiberg.
In December 2015, Butler called Hoiberg out, saying he needed to “coach harder.” As the team’s best player and burgeoning leader, Butler could’ve easily told Hoiberg that behind closed doors. He didn’t.
At no point last season did Hoiberg get through to point guard Derrick Rose. That certainly has a lot to do with Rose, but Hoiberg must take some blame too. In one memorable example, Hoiberg conveyed that the Bulls needed Rose to push the pace more to become more successful, while Rose just minutes later proclaimed he was pushing the ball better than he ever had in his career.
In the present, the “save me from myself” comment that Rondo relayed has drawn raised eyebrows. After Tuesday’s game, Hoiberg indicated he wasn’t aware of that comment being made and sidestepped a question as to whether he would have a problem with an assistant speaking in such a manner to a player.
And Rondo isn’t the only veteran searching for answers. After Rondo was benched on Dec. 31, forward Taj Gibson — as respected as they come in an NBA locker room — sought an answer as to why.
“I don’t even know what happened to tell you the truth,” Gibson said Jan. 2. “I still don’t know what happened. I’m still waiting to see what’s happened.
“I asked. I haven’t gotten any word yet, so I’m still waiting”
After Tuesday’s loss at Washington in which Rondo played pretty well in his return, it was Gibson standing up for him.
“We’re a much better team with him on the court,” Gibson told the Tribune, a point that’s not backed up by statistical analysis.
Perhaps Rondo is controlling the narrative lately in this mess. If that’s the case, if the Bulls did have some sort of plan and believe they have properly conveyed it to Rondo, they could come out and say that. If they’re embarking on a youth movement to assess and evaluate who should be a part of the future, they could explain that to a fan base more than willing to embrace such an approach. The Bulls haven’t, so the distraction persists.
Paxson and Forman rarely, if ever, speak publicly during the season, and they’ve remained silent. That’s doing nothing to change the culture, and they’re the common denominator between past problems and those of today, even if they’re not directly involved.
Hoiberg has been questioned time after time about the Rondo situation, and at every turn he declines to divulge details. In what’s becoming a Hoiberg staple, whenever he’s pushed, asked to shine light on a situation and perhaps send a message to the masses, he evades the topic. Usually, he just gives a play-by-play recap of what already occurred instead of addressing the issue in the here and now.
That’s become an old trope and only fosters confusion, which at this point has become the theme and tagline of the Bulls’ season.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.