We have entered a new era in Chicago Bulls basketball and it is led by Fred Hoiberg — a former player and coach with 10 years of NBA playing experience (four spent with the Bulls), front office experience with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and more importantly five seasons spent as the lead man at Iowa State. He turned an Iowa State program into repeat NCAA tournament representatives with two conference tournament championships to his credit.
Hoiberg achieved these accomplishments in large part due to his prowess on the offensive side of the ball, an area in which the Bulls struggled under Thibodeau. Under Thibs, the Bulls finished tied for 19th, 18th, tied for 30th, 30th, and 15th in points per game over five seasons. Yes, there were injuries that plagued Bulls’ seasons which affected the team’s points per game. Regardless, it was obvious Thibodeau took pride in addressing defense first.
Thibodeau also took pride in everything he did. He instilled a work ethic that called for no mistakes, a motor that never stops, and established an idea that every game matters. As a fan, who wouldn’t want that in their favorite team’s head coach? A hard nosed, no nonsense kind of guy who forces his players to go 100% all the time to win as many games as possible.
It results in an enjoyable product for the viewer, as the Bulls under Thibodeau reached the playoffs in every season and finished with the best record in the East twice in his first two years. The downside of Thibs’ impressive run with the Bulls is zero NBA Finals appearances to show for it.
Demanding so much from players eventually takes its toll. There was a fine line younger, more inexperienced players had to walk in order to get playing time under Tom Thibodeau. Over recent seasons players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic for the early part of 2014, and E’twaun Moore struggled to find time on the court. Even when they did it was difficult for them to stay there. Thibodeau had a short leash for certain guys and relied on others to play heavy minutes.
When I say heavy minutes, I mean on a historic level. Jimmy Butler averaged 38.7 minutes per game in back to back seasons. At times, Butler would never take a breather and play all 48 minutes in some contests. Luol Deng under Thibodeau logged even more than Butler, as he averaged 39, 39 and 38.7 minutes per game in his last three seasons with the Bulls. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol also played heavy minutes during their respective experiences with Thibs. You get the idea. In an NBA season it is important for players to make it to the postseason healthy, and sometimes its fine to be on the short end of a match up if it means saving their legs.
Enter Fred Hoiberg. It was as if a giant storm cloud hovering and following the Bulls for five seasons suddenly vanished and all the players and staff members joined hands, dancing like 19th century Native Americans hoping the mean white men would leave and never come back. Now, I’m not saying Thibodeau is General Custer, but they are similar in the way of their work. Its my way or the highway (or trail, for the history folk).
Hoiberg has already shown his hand in the way he coaches this deep Bulls team. He is taking advantage of his depth by playing several guys more than Thibodeau would. Hoiberg even sent out 10 different players in the first quarter of the 97-95 opening night win over Cleveland (the trophy is ours).
Having a rotation of more than seven or eight players pays dividends for a team that projects to play into late April, May and so on. Having depth is great, but players need to be able to perform. With Hoiberg, younger players who find themselves on the court can play with more confidence versus fear. Playing scared will lead to players making themselves comfortable on the bench, and unfortunately that was the case for several under Thibodeau.
Hoiberg creates an atmosphere around his team that suits the players. Its as if players don’t mind coming into work everyday compared to the dread of yet another two hour punishment practice filled with sprints and drills because of a loss the night before.
What cannot be argued is the success coach Thibodeau had over his five seasons with the Bulls. That mentality led to one of the best regular season runs over a five year span in Bulls’ history. Thibs’ teachings of tough defense, specifically benefiting players like Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and Joakim Noah, translate over to a head coach who’s specialty is offense.
The work ethic established over Thibodeau’s reign does not dissipate from the players over night. The Bulls’ current roster is constructed almost identical to last year, and they were a couple wins away from beating a dismantled Cavalier team to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Their overall downfall was the lack of offense.
The difference this season is Fred Hoiberg.
Will this Bulls team be different than others in the past? They were considered favorites to win the NBA Finals on several occasions. The core group of players are still there and paired with an offensive minded head coach. Add in the teachings of Thibodeau over five seasons in which they established a winning culture and dedicated work ethic. Suddenly, the idea of an NBA Championship in Chicago does not seem too far-fetched.
Who knows, maybe the unrelenting pressure Thibodeau put on his players will bring about a greater appreciation for Hoiberg’s philosophy. Maybe it was a good thing the core of the Bulls lived through such a demanding culture.
Maybe this is the year they win it all.