By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — One of the drawbacks of the rebuild-on-the-fly/remain-competitive approach that the Bulls have taken in the past couple years has been the precarious position the organization has placed second-year coach Fred Hoiberg in.
When the Bulls committed to Hoiberg with a five-year deal and $25 million in June 2015, they did so with the intention of him modernizing their offense with more pace, more space and more flair. At nearly every turn since then, their actions have contradicted the vision previously laid out for Hoiberg.
On Thursday, that continued when Chicago executed a five-player trade with Oklahoma City. The Bulls traded forward Taj Gibson, wing Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick for point guard Cameron Payne, big man Joffrey Lauvergne and wing Anthony Morrow. Amazingly, the Bulls managed to give up the two best players in the trade and throw a draft pick Oklahoma City’s way.
None of this makes Hoiberg’s job easier. Along with star Jimmy Butler, Gibson was the team’s most reliable player. His exit also takes away from Chicago’s biggest strength, which was bullying teams down low on the boards. McDermott was Chicago’s best outside shooter. Hoiberg now has five — count ’em, five — point guards on his roster, four of whom are awful at shooting.
Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman haven’t been inclined to acknowledge the difficult position they’ve placed Hoiberg in. It also remains up for debate how much they value Hoiberg’s opinion in personnel decisions. As Bulls management sat in its office Wednesday evening about 19 hours before the deadline, Hoiberg was asked how much input had been sought from him regarding potential deals. He declined to answer the question.
“Fred, we’re all on the same page that it’s a process in retooling this roster,” Forman said. “We knew and we talked about it a year ago — we had a heck of a run and then we moved Derrick (Rose) and Joakim (Noah) and some of the veterans are gone — that it was going to be a process. I think the roster is a process that’s going to take a couple years. We’ve started down that road, fitting the right players in. We think Cam’s a guy that’s got some push in him, can play up tempo and as we put the roster together, we think he can be a real fit.”
To date, it’s been hard to see the fit in any of the additions to the Bulls’ roster in the Hoiberg era. As the ball-dominant Butler has blossomed into a three-time All-Star and “top 10 or 12” player in the league, as Paxson noted, the Bulls haven’t surrounded him with shooting on offense — they’re last in the league in every major 3-point category — or capable wing defenders to lessen Butler’s burden on the other end.
The lack of fit with point guard Rajon Rondo, signed in free agency last July, is well-documented by now, as he fell entirely out of the rotation in late December before settling into his second-unit role. Dwyane Wade has been a quality presence off the court and productive when rested but is sometimes redundant with Butler on the floor. As the Bulls state their desire to push the ball, they entered Friday with the seventh-slowest pace in the league.
Even a move as minor as the Michael Carter-Williams/Tony Snell trade in October now reflects poorly on Bulls management. Carter-Williams has been abysmal offensively and exploited at times on defense by smaller, quicker point guards. Snell has been a reliable player for the Bucks, shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and providing capable defense.
After the latest trade that made Hoiberg’s job of winning more difficult this season, the Bulls did praise his growth in his second year, citing basketball decisions and off-court relationships.
“Fred’s a different personality,” Paxson said. “He’s more laid-back. And you know, a lot of our guys have actually responded to that. I can go back to training-camp practices where I thought he had a much better presence with our players. And you know, I’ve been on teams forever. You always have little hiccups with teams, coaches, players, those type of things. Those things are always going to happen. But Fred is growing and evolving. I think our players like him. I think they see him as someone who did play the game and knows what they’re going through. And I’ve seen growth in an area of him in games where he’s trying to manage matchups a little differently than he did last year. Look, you know, we’re one game below .500, we’ve got a very difficult schedule after the break. That will tell us a lot. But when you look long-term like we do, the development of these young guys is really important to us.”
The Bulls are 70-69 in Hoiberg’s two seasons and sit in seventh place in the East at 28-29 as they open the second half of the season. External speculation swirled earlier this season that Hoiberg was on the hot seat, though nothing internally or locally has suggested that to date. Paxson on Thursday expressed the belief that the jobs of himself, Forman and Hoiberg “are safe.”
The expectation is all three will remain in place when training camp opens next season, when more growth will be expected from Hoiberg as he leads what could well be a misfit roster once again.
“You can see it with the accountability with the team,” Forman said of Hoiberg. “I think you can see with some of the adjustments he makes in games with some of the matchups. With the way the team prepares, the way he deals with the team every day in practice. If you watch our practice sessions, there’s good energy. There’s accountability. The staff brings good energy, and they’re teaching. Those things are very important.’’
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.