On Saturday night the Bulls got back Lauri Markkanen after a nine-week absence from a sprained right elbow. Markkanen, 21, will be the key piece as the Bulls move forward in their rebuild, a 7-foot do-it-all forward who is built for today’s NBA.
Markkanen will be the one to lead the Bulls into the next chapter of their rebuild, and if the Bulls contend in the next few years it will be because of what Markkanen, the face of the franchise, was able to accomplish.
Fred Hoiberg won’t be a part of that future. The former Iowa State coach, who found myriad success coaching up and producing young talent at the collegiate level, won’t be the one to bring the Bulls into their newest era, whenever that may be.
The Bulls relieved Hoiberg of his coaching duties on Monday morning. There are multiple reasons to point to as to why Hoiberg was let go, but buried beneath it all is the fact that this day was eventually coming as soon as his relationship with Jimmy Butler began to deteriorate.
When Hoiberg was hired on June 2, 2015, Butler had just completed his first All-Star campaign. A month earlier he had been named the league’s Most Improved Player, and a month after the Bulls announced Hoiberg as their head coach Butler signed a five-year, $95 million extension.
It appeared to be a match made in heaven. Gar Forman and John Paxson had found a hidden gem in Butler, the 30th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, and subsequently got their head coach in Hoiberg to lead the team into the future.
The happy marriage lasted all of 25 games. Butler, in the wake of a 16-point loss to the New York Knicks, told reporters that players “probably have to be coached harder” by Hoiberg. At that point the Bulls were 15-10, but the season never fully recovered from there. Butler continued his All-Star play, while also struggling to share that leadership role with Joakim Noah and share the backcourt spotlight with the hometown hero Derrick Rose.
The Bulls missed the postseason that year, going 7-7 down the stretch that included two losses to the would-be 32-50 Knicks, and a 22-point loss to the eventual 35-win Orlando Magic.
In reality the Bulls’ rebuild began that offseason. So, too, did the countdown to Hoiberg's dismissal. It was masked in the head-scratching signings of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, stopgaps that the Bulls believed would help them remain competitive while also keeping their options open long-term; both contracts were two-year pacts.
This, of course, did Hoiberg no favors. The collegiate head coach who had earned his billing as one of top X’s and O’s guys in the game thanks to his pace and space offense, was suddenly looking at a backcourt of Butler, Wade and Rondo, three guys who needed the ball in their hands to be successful and between the three of them hadn’t once been truly effective 3-point shooters.
The results were hardly unexpected. The Bulls finished 21st in offensive efficiency, 28th in 3-pointers and 29th in 3-point attempts. Hoiberg’s sparkling offense on paper was relegated to Butler and Wade isolations, the bench contributed next to nothing – remember Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams? – and they never found consistency in the rotation.
Two events during that 2016-17 season should have spelled doom for Hoiberg. The first came on January 26 after the Bulls let a 10-point lead slip away at home to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade and Butler both lashed out at teammates after the game, with Wade telling reporters “I don’t know if they care enough,” and Butler adding that “we don’t play hard all the time” and “I want to play with guys that care.”
That night Rondo posted an Instagram picture of him with Celtics teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, writing that “my veterans would never go to the media” and that “if anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
At that point it was become clear that Hoiberg had lost the locker room. The Three Alphas experiment had gone completely haywire, and it was a minor miracle the team was able to respond from that self-inflicted adversity and win three of its next five games, eventually squeaking into the postseason before losing in six games to top-seeded Boston.
The truth was results didn’t matter by that point. It was becoming more and more clear as that season wore on that Butler wasn’t going to be – and almost couldn’t be – part of the team’s future. The wheels were in motion to eventually deal Butler, who that offseason would still be a hot commodity with two team-friendly years left on his deal.
Let’s not forget, too, that the Bulls dealt Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott before the trade deadline for Cameron Payne and expiring parts in Joffrey Louvergne and Anthony Morrow. If a .500 team in a weak East selling its biggest veteran presence (Gibson) and best 3-point shooter (McDermott) at the deadline wasn't a clear sign of things to come, what was?
So Hoiberg and the Bulls entered a rebuild. It was propped up as the franchise defining a direction, and on the surface the acquisitions of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen – and subtractions of Wade (bought out), Rondo (team option not picked up) and Butler – it looked like the Bulls were playing to Hoiberg’s strengths, getting him the pieces he needed to succeed. Hoiberg admitted as much at the introductory press conference for the three pieces of the Butler deal, saying “it’s an exciting time for me to be able to grow with these guys.”
Once again, perception was reality. The moment Hoiberg failed to connect with Butler the clock began ticking. What was branded as a learning year – it was a full-scale tank – where wins and losses weren’t going to be the barometer was really a waiting game. Roster turnover is part of a rebuild, and so too is coaching staff turnover.
To Hoiberg’s credit, he performed better with a roster full of players more suited to his skill set. The Bulls cracked the top-10 in 3-pointers made per game, assists per game and pace. The efficiency wasn’t there, though that’ll happen when Cam Payne and Cristiano Felicio are both playing 24 minutes each night.
As if Hoiberg’s fate hadn’t already been sealed, the Bulls’ ridiculous string of injuries early this season was the final nail in the coffin. Losing your starting point guard, power forward and sixth man before Thanksgiving would be tough on any team in the NBA, let alone the youngest team in the league.
Hoiberg was once thought to be the one to usher in a new era of Bulls basketball. He inherited a playoff team with leadership, talent and some up-and-coming young talent.
But once the Butler drama began – and perhaps there was no way he could have stopped that – and it was clear the Bulls were going in a different direction, it marked the beginning of the end. The Bulls were on a crash course for a full-scale rebuild, and after three-plus seasons of 115-155 basketball that same voice couldn't continue to lead that next charge.
Now they’ll turn to Jim Boylen, a highly respected man inside the Advocate Center who had done much of the heavy lifting the past three seasons on the coaching staff.
He’ll be asked to get the most out of this young group, a beginning point to his NBA head coaching career that perhaps would have allowed Hoiberg to find more success had he started there.