By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Throughout his playing career that was marked by a key role in the Bulls’ first three-peat, John Paxson was known for his burning competitive desire.
Now the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, Paxson’s passion isn’t outwardly expressed in such a vivid manner, but he utilizes the same direct approach in his job.
Late Wednesday evening at the United Center, that took the form of an honest assessment of Fred Hoiberg, who oversaw a tumultuous 42-40 campaign in his rooking coaching season. While placing the disappointing season’s blame largely on the front office and lauding Hoibeg’s intellect, Paxson also made clear that Hoiberg must improve in multiple areas.
“I’ve seen a lot of young guys in this league come in and have tough first years or second years but through hard work, they become better players,” Paxson said. “The same can be said for coaches. Fred is going to have to work at it. He’s going to have to devote a lot of time and energy to determining what he wants to be as a head coach and how he wants his teams to play. And we have to give him the resources to do that. And we will. We’re confident spending with Fred and going forward, we’re going to turn that part around.”
The biggest question surrounding Hoiberg is his hold — or lack thereof — on the locker room. In the first week of the season, Hoiberg relayed a false tale that proud veteran big man Joakim Noah had volunteered to come off the bench. Having only said he’d do what’s best for the team, Noah was irked.
In December, All-star wing and self-appointed leader Jimmy Butler publicly called out Hoiberg after a loss, saying he needed to “coach harder” — comments that were set against the backdrop of the Bulls having fired successful taskmaster Tom Thibodeau seven months earlier. Hoiberg publicly downplayed the Butler-ignited drama. Emboldened by the saga, Butler’s leadership attempts grew more forceful, to the point that he received pushback from teammates.
Shortly after Butler’s comments, Paxson felt the need to step in and address the team himself. Knowing he was never on the same page as his team, Hoiberg has cited individual meetings and open dialogue this summer as one of his biggest offseason tasks.
“Obviously, that’s the big question,” veteran forward Mike Dunleavy said when asked how players could have more continuity with Hoiberg. “How do you carry out what the coaching staff is asking you to do in a better way? I guess the answer is straight up listen, execute, just be more dialed in. I thought we had some, just some slippage this year and some meandering around — things were done unpurposefully, just wasn’t things with a purpose. Hopefully this is a learning experience, a wake-up call for people. We got to be better. We got to be more tied in next year.”
Hoiberg’s preferred up-tempo, pace-and-space system never blossomed, as the Bulls finished 23rd in offensive efficiency and 21st in points per game. On one occasion in the first half of the season, Hoiberg made clear he wanted point guard Derrick Rose pushing the ball harder, faster in transition. In an interview a short time later, Rose expressed the belief that he was setting the pace just like his coach wanted him to.
As the calendar turned to late March and the Bulls’ playoff hopes faded, Hoiberg admitted his message wasn’t getting across to the players. It was a damning statement that reflected the depths of the Bulls’ troubles.
“I don’t think our chemistry, if that’s the right word, was great this year,” Paxson said. “I don’t. For whatever reason, the locker room wasn’t what you would like it to be. I do think going forward our vision of how to play, it’s what the league is getting to now. It’s more skilled basketball players, more pace up and down. We didn’t play that way this year for a lot of reasons. I think that’s where Fred and his staff have to really get down to detail and get our guys to play that way. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily a personnel issue. If you demand of people and hold accountable, I think you can get them to do things on the floor.”
Several times after the Bulls were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday evening, Hoiberg referenced some form of “looking in the mirror” when assessing the Bulls’ struggles and what can be done to fix them. Just a season into a five-year, $25-million deal, Hoiberg has the full support of his front office, with Paxson saying, “I’m very confident he’ll grow.”
It’s Hoiberg’s burden to do just that as he enters his second season in Chicago.
“We’re in this with Fred,” Paxson said. “I think the last few days Fred has an opportunity to express some things that are honest and candid about what he needs to do better. It’s our responsibility to help him along that way. And that’s looking at everything we do from top to bottom. We still believe Fred has a bright future.
“I’ve seen a lot of players come through this league and struggle, and they have really good careers. Some have great careers. Fred is a very bright guy. Every time we talk to him about basketball philosophy, we feel he’s on the right track mentally. We have to help him get to where that belief and vision and message translates to the court. Gar (Forman) and I have talked about this many times. He’s a great guy, he’s a hard worker, our players — even though you can say what you want, there was some controversy, whatever — our players respect that he’s played the game and is concerned about them. And I think we can all grow in that capacity.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.