If we’re judging solely on his first week with the team, Fred Hoiberg is already the best Chicago Bulls coach since Phil Jackson.
Not since the ‘Zen Master’ himself debuted in the fall of 1989 has a Bulls head coach started their inaugural season in Chicago 3-1.
The promising start has reaffirmed optimistic Bulls fans’ conviction that the Fred Hoiberg Bulls will be better than the Tom Thibodeau Bulls, even though most of that optimism was sparked by the simple fact there’s a new coach in town – not necessarily a better one.
The optimism is only amplified when you consider Hoiberg is a former Bull, has possibly the best nickname in sports, and is young and good-looking.
It’s a proven fact: Young, good-looking coaches are automatically more exciting than old and average-looking ones.
It’ll take longer than one week to pass full judgment on Hoiberg’s capability, but we’ve already seen at least a few noticeable changes – good and bad – in how the Bulls play basketball.
Some aspects, like the Bulls’ lofty attendance numbers at the United Center, figure to be the same. After leading the NBA in average attendance during Thibodeau’s final season, the Bulls are once again tops in the league through Hoiberg’s first two home games.
Other than that, we’ll just have to wait and see. But for now, here’s a few things we like – and one thing we’re keeping our eye on – about the Fred Hoiberg Bulls.
Doug McDermott (And Tony Snell)
The Bulls are arguably the deepest team in the NBA, and Hoiberg has wasted no time using the depth to his advantage. The rookie coach has played at least 10 players in each of the first four games, and all ten have logged 15+ minutes.
One of those players is 2014 first round pick, Doug McDermott. The Dougie-Hoiberg connection, of course, goes all the way back to Ames, IA where both starred as basketball players at Ames High School growing up. Hoiberg stayed home and went on to play at Iowa State University, the same school where McDermott’s dad coached before leaving to coach Doug at Creighton.
It’s difficult for NBA teams to succeed without production from their first round draft picks, and if one man is going to get the most out of Doug McDermott in Chicago, it’s Fred Hoiberg.
More importantly, any young player needs to have a consistent role and the freedom to make mistakes if they’re going to truly develop. Early on, Hoiberg is giving that to both McDermott and Tony Snell – the Bulls’ first round pick in 2013.
Jimmy Butler Is Playing MVP-Level Basketball
Forgot Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic.
Jimmy Butler is the flame that heats the coal of this new look, up-tempo Chicago Bulls team. Just look at these numbers through the first four games for Jimmy Buckets:
• 1st in the NBA in minutes played.
• 1st in the NBA in total steals.
• 2nd in the NBA in total made free throws.
• 5th in the NBA in total points scored.
• 2 turnovers in 146 minutes played. (Rose and Mirotic have 12 apiece)
• 4 total fouls in his first four games. (In one of those four games, he was guarding Lebron James)
Clearly, we saw Jimmy Butler do most of his growing under Tom Thibodeau. But if the early returns are any indication, Butler appears headed to the next level with Hoiberg.
Nikola Mirotic The Starter
One of the biggest knocks against Thibodeau was his unabashed stubborn nature when it came to handling Nikola Mirotic (and rookies in general). Mirotic’s lack of defensive prowess consistently put him in Thibs’ doghouse despite his ability to jumpstart the offense. Had he gotten consistent minutes all season, he might have had a better shot at winning Rookie of the Year.
But under Fred Hoiberg, ‘Niko’ is a starter – averaging 18.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in 30 minutes of court time. For reference, Mirotic played 30 or more minutes in 15 games last season. In those 15 games, Niko had a positive +/- in 13 of them.
Niko has always had the talent. That’s why he was brought over from Barcelona to join the Bulls in 2014. But Hoiberg is showing confidence in Mirotic’s offensive ability we didn’t see with Thibodeau, and it’s paying off early on.
Transition Offense = Points
During the Tom Thibodeau era, the Bulls never ranked higher than 23rd of 30 in Pace Factor – which estimates how many offensive possessions a team has per 48 minutes. They always exhibited a half-court offense to compliment their suffocating half-court defense, and it caused the offense to go woefully anemic at times.
When starters were resting or injured, the Bulls offense was legitimately hard to watch.
Through four games, the Fred Hoiberg Bulls rank 18th in Pace and 18th in points per game. Neither of those will get it done as the season progresses – but it’s clear that the new system is in place, and this Bulls team can only get more comfortable in it.
Above all else, the higher pace of play has shown offensive improvements without sacrificing what Thibodeau brought on defense. The Bulls still rank amongst the league’s best in opponents points per game and defensive efficiency rating. Don’t expect that to continue, but the roster still has plenty of defensive capability – and a more pronounced offensive agenda.
More Spacing, Less Minutes For Pau Gasol
It’s easy to forget with last season’s disappointing finish and Thibodeau’s gossipy departure, but the Bulls’ oldest player of significance – Pau Gasol – was one of the more successful free agent signings in recent Chicago sports history.
In his first season with the Bulls, Gasol led the league in double-doubles and earned his first All-Star nomination since 2010-2011. He also played his most minutes since that season, no surprise considering Thibodeau’s knack for leaning on veterans.
Enter Hoiberg, who made the aforementioned move to start (fellow Spaniard) Nikola Mirotic next to Gasol this season. Besides reuniting the teammates from the EuroBasket 2015 tournament this summer, that does two things: 1) Create more offensive spacing than Gasol had with Joakim Noah, and 2) limit the minutes Gasol racks up in his 16th season.
Which is why, even with a 1-6 performance against Cleveland in the opener, Gasol has his best shooting percentage on two-point field goals (.524) since 2011.
And players like McDermott (.586), Mirotic (.464), Snell (.400) and Butler (.400) are consequentially taking advantage from three-point land.
As it stands, Gasol’s contract might be the best value in the NBA. He’s only making $7.5 million this season, and next year it slightly bumps to $7.8 million. That is an absolute steal.
By starting Mirotic and creating a more balanced frontcourt rotation, Hoiberg is ensuring the Bulls can reap the full benefits from Gasol’s contract in multiple ways.
The Backup Point Guard Situation
Unfortunately for Fred, becoming the Chicago Bulls head coach meant inheriting the medical saga of Derrick Rose at point guard.
And due to Rose’s slightly expensive (borderline illegal) contract, the Bulls haven’t been able to afford a quality or long-term backup at the position.
This season marks year two of Aaron Brooks in Chicago, who can get hot from deep but lacks the consistent facilitating ability necessary for any backup point guard – let alone the one behind Rose.
Obviously, Rose being able to play more than 51 games for the first time since 2010-2011 will be a huge determinant in the success of Fred Hoiberg’s first season. Regardless, solidifying the backup point guard situation will be one of Hoiberg’s greater challenges – and the one I’m most interested in watching him attack.
Assuming Rose avoids a major setback all season, it’ll be about finding the right spots for Brooks and E’twaun Moore to relieve him and keep the offense relatively humming. If Rose does suffer a significant injury, it’ll be about picking a guy to run the show and putting him in a position to succeed.
Either way, it’s on Hoiberg to maximize the roster’s lack of point guard depth through his uptempo system.
Good luck Freddy.