Hoiberg a wild card, and that's good for Bulls

ByBRADFORD DOOLITTLE via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
June 01, 2015, 9:49 PM

&#151; -- That didn't take long. Four days after the Chicago Bulls fired the second-most successful coach in team history, they appear to have found a replacement in Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg.

Hoiberg has big shoes to fill in taking over for Tom Thibodeau, who led a perpetually injury-ravaged team to five winning seasons, the best overall defensive efficiency mark in the league during his tenure and won a Coach of the Year award. Yet Thibodeau's time in Chicago ended in ignominious fashion, with a season-ending dud against Cleveland and a tersely-worded dismissal announcement from the team.

Given the swiftness of the search, it certainly seems that the Bulls had Hoiberg in mind as Thibodeau's replacement. It makes sense, given Hoiberg's numerous ties to Chicago. He was a player at Iowa State under former Bulls coach Tim Floyd when Chicago GM Gar Forman was a Cyclones assistant. He was a player on the Bulls when team president John Paxson was a broadcaster for the team. He worked in the front office of the Timberwolves when Bulls assistant Ed Pinckney held a similar job in Minnesota. At Iowa State, he replaced Greg McDermott as coach, the father of current Bull Doug McDermott.

All that really means is that if Thibodeau entered and exited the Bulls organization as something of an outsider, Hoiberg comes in as an insider. That might make for a more amiable atmosphere in the office, but it doesn't necessarily help Chicago take the always difficult step of going from very good to championship-level great.

Given the lack of financial flexibility on the Bulls' current roster, a change of coaches is their best bet to move the needle this summer. The Bulls have more than $60 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season and will have to shell out max-type money to retain restricted free agent-to-be Jimmy Butler.

Hoiberg is the latest prominent college coach to make the jump to the NBA. It's once-dreaded path has been smoothed over by the success of cutting edge types such as Boston's Brad Stevens, and was the path that Oklahoma City followed earlier in the offseason when the Thunder replaced Scott Brooks with Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Hoiberg is so polar opposite in personality from Thibodeau that the buzzword you keep encountering is "anti-Thibs." One NBA executive I spoke to raved about Hoiberg, calling him a "great guy with absolutely no ego." It's not a description you hear when it comes to the outgoing coach, though the defense-obsessed Thibodeau has plenty of supporters across the league.

The model the Bulls are seeking to follow is clearly that of the Golden State Warriors, who with a similar roster to last season jumped to 67 wins and a Western Conference championship in 2014-15. The key acquisition: A bright young coach who had never before run a team from the sidelines in Steve Kerr.

Hoiberg is similar to Kerr in a number of key ways. He favors up-tempo, free-flowing offensive basketball that is not only aesthetically pleasing to watch, but is friendly to those who delve in analytics. Like Kerr, Hoiberg has NBA front office experience, having worked his way up in Minnesota's front office after retiring as a player. Like Kerr, he's also a former Bulls player who was a knock-down 3-point shooter.

Whether Hoiberg is the right guy to get the Bulls over the top is an open question, but by all accounts he's a well-prepared student of the NBA game. Ultimately, he will be judged on his ability to run an offense that works at playoff time, without disrupting Chicago's lofty defensive standing. Let's drill down on a few specifics to see how that might work.


Hoiberg ran an up-tempo attack at Iowa State that featured NBA-style spacing, lots of 3-point shots and an absolute disdain of long 2-pointers. One executive who scouted Hoiberg extensively noted it was obvious that Hoiberg drew heavily on NBA tenets for his Cyclones playbook. It worked. Iowa State finished 11th or better in schedule-adjusted offensive efficiency his past three seasons in Ames, per kenpom.com stats research. The executive called his attack "a modern, NBA-style system that will translate perfectly."

At ISU, Hoiberg pushed his team to run and probe at all opportunities. However, his methods for flowing transition pushes into secondary fast-break action earned him a lot of attention on the coaching clinic circuit. In a nutshell, Hoiberg preaches for his big men to sprint the floor to the opposite rim, and his wings to run the alleys along the sideline to the corners. The point guard pushes the ball down the floor and if the initial break isn't there, the guard finds himself working on a flattened floor, with options allayed all along the baseline. Spacing is everything.

In Chicago, Hoiberg will almost certainly have to tweak his scheme to fit the roster, which isn't likely to undergo large-scale turnover. The Bulls have depth in big men. Veteran starters Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are joined by bench stalwarts Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. While Hoiberg isn't likely to thrust any particular style of play down anyone's throat, his system could entice the Bulls to explore the trade market. Noah is entering the last year of his contract and might interest a team looking for defensive anchor and secondary offensive playmaker.

Mirotic, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler might benefit most from Hoiberg's preferred style of play. Rose's quickness would be a boost in the open floor and in working the secondary break. The flattened floor simplifies the reads for Rose and if Hoiberg can keep the floor spaced with his wings, then he'd also have Mirotic as a dangerous trailing option to step into 3-pointers.

Butler emerged as a good enough shooter to work well in this approach. However, the Bulls might have to rely heavily on McDermott to make a leap from his tepid rookie season as Mike Dunleavy will be an unrestricted free agent. In Butler, Mirotic, McDermott, Tony Snell, Gasol and Gibson, Hoiberg will have plenty of shooters with which to space the floor for Rose. If Rose is healthy, you can expect his numbers to spike.


Hoiberg's offense was perennially well ahead of his defense at ISU. In Chicago, he's taking over a core that has been the league's best defensive team over the past decade. The Bulls fell off somewhat on defense during the 2014-15 regular season, but posted the best playoff defensive rating of any team.

Hoiberg's defensive system is heavily reliant on protecting the paint, and he likes to do so with versatile defenders who can run the floor and switch on screens. The approach bleeds over to the offensive end, as Hoiberg will pull guys off the offensive glass depending on the opponent and the situation.

Gibson is an excellent fit for Hoiberg's preferences on both ends of the floor. Gasol can still protect the rim, though he is taken advantage of in space. But a healthy Noah still carries a heavy defensive load, and if he is dealt, it would be tough for Chicago to remain elite on that end. Still, the trade off might be worth it.

It might behoove Hoiberg to seek some defensive continuity by retaining Bulls assistants Pinckney and Adrian Griffin. While defense was Thibodeau's baby, Pinckney and Griffin can surely help hold the fort on that end while Hoiberg fine tunes his new offensive attack.

The bottom line is that Hoiberg could do a great job and the Bulls could play an entirely different brand of hoops, and Chicago might end up right where they were under Thibodeau. It's also possible that Hoiberg's message won't translate to the pros because sometimes that just happens. But everything about Hoiberg not only points to NBA success, but in a style that will be anti-Thibs. That in itself may be the Bulls' best hope to finally get past LeBron James in the East.

Hoiberg is a wild card. In sports, uncertainty carries with it the strong lure of possibility. We had a good idea of what the Bulls would be with Tom Thibodeau. We're less certain about Fred Hoiberg. And that's a good thing.

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