Bulls made one key mistake in Hoiberg hire

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NBC Sports

Bulls made one key mistake in Hoiberg hire

Fred Hoiberg, it turns out, is not the next Brad Stevens.

In June 2015, the Chicago Bulls took a gamble by hiring Hoiberg away from Iowa State to replace Tom Thibodeau, despite Hoiberg having zero coaching experience in the NBA domain. After a 10-year career in the NBA and four years in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office, Hoiberg enjoyed a respectable five seasons coaching at his alma mater, Iowa State, where he compiled a 115-56 record as a head coach. 

But Hoiberg never sat on an NBA bench as an assistant or head coach before receiving a five-year, $25 million commitment from the Bulls’ front office. The college coach was hired about a month after Oklahoma City pried Billy Donovan away from the Florida Gators and two years after Stevens stunningly left Butler to take a six-year deal from the Boston Celtics.

“I think the big thing for me is I have always run an NBA-type system,” Hoiberg said at his introductory press conference. “I’m not coming into this [having] never experienced NBA basketball.”

As it turns out, Hoiberg couldn’t capture the college-to-pro magic that Stevens sprinkled all over the Boston organization, nor did he fall into a roster with two MVPs in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Part of Hoiberg’s appeal was that he was the anti-Thibodeau. 

“Two opposite ends of the spectrum. Fred [Hoiberg] and Thibs couldn’t be more different, personality-wise,” said a league source with knowledge of the situation. But that lack of fiery disposition and experience ended up likely being his downfall.

Hoiberg struggled to implement his “pace-and-space” brand of basketball and get his players to change. From Day 1 in Chicago, Hoiberg pointed to his college resume, showing that, in his last season at Iowa State, he had the second-fastest pace of play in the NCAA. He talked about how much he used the pick-and-roll in the college game and how he liked to space the floor with the 3-ball.

But in the NBA, none of that really translated. 

Hoiberg inherited a team full of veterans hoping to reach the NBA Finals after LeBron James left Miami. But the post-Thibodeau era didn’t go well as the locker room spun further and further into disarray. By December of their first season together, Jimmy Butler called out Hoiberg and told reporters that the Bulls “probably have to be coached a lot harder.” Shortly after the Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks and Joakim Noah followed Rose to New York in the summer of 2016, Butler admitted to NBC Sports that he didn’t think “everybody was on the same page.” 

The drama didn’t end when Rose and Noah left town. After two middling seasons with Hoiberg at the helm, the Bulls traded Butler to the Timberwolves on the night of the 2017 draft and signaled a change in the direction of their franchise, netting Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the first-round pick that turned into Lauri Markkanen. Butler later told ESPN’s Sam Alipour that “it was either gonna be me or the Fred Hoiberg route. And rightfully so, they took Fred. Good for them.” Last season, after Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic in a preseason practice and broke his face, Mirotic demanded a trade and he too was moved, this time to New Orleans for a first-round pick.

Hoiberg’s win percentage declined each of his four seasons (well, three and a quarter) as the team floundered as contenders and went into a rebuild. But even now, Hoiberg struggled to make his imprint. With an athletic team full of young legs this season, the Bulls rank 16th in pace this season, hardly the same speed of his Cyclones. What’s more, the team ranks 19th in 3-point attempt frequency and, according to Synergy tracking, 27th in pick-and-roll efficiency from ball-handlers. The result is the worst offense in the league.

Moving forward, the Bulls have turned the job over to assistant Jim Boylen, who executive VP Jim Paxson says will keep the job past this season. That said, things in the NBA can, and often do, change at the drop of a dime. If Paxson and general manager Gar Forman decide after the year that Boylen isn't the answer, they would be wise to avoid dipping back into the college coaching waters to find Hoiberg’s replacement. Tom Izzo, Jay Wright and John Beilein have been connected to NBA gigs recently, but Hoiberg, Tim Floyd (remember him, Bulls fans?), John Calipari and Rick Pitino have proven that the big leagues are a different animal. Yes, Stevens has been the rare exception, but Hoiberg is the rule.

Look at the top of the NBA standings and you’ll find coaches who spent several years on an NBA bench as an assistant before getting their big shot -- Mike Budenholzer (16 seasons as assistant coach), Brett Brown (nine years), Mike Malone (10 years) and Dwane Casey (11 years before Minnesota head coach). Keep an eye on names like Dallas assistant Stephen Silas, Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, Memphis assistant Jerry Stackhouse, and Portland assistant David Vanterpool. 

One coach with Chicago ties is Adrian Griffin, who is currently Toronto’s lead assistant and served as Thibodeau’s assistant for five years. If the Bulls want someone with head coaching experience, current Philadelphia assistant Monty Williams, who recently worked on Team USA’s staff, makes a lot of sense.

Ironically, now that Hoiberg has that experience, he might be a candidate to replace Thibodeau again. A league source close to the situation told NBC Sports that Hoiberg could be a candidate to take over in Minnesota where he’d be reunited with owner Glen Taylor.

“Glen loves Fred,” the source told NBC Sports. 

Though Hoiberg spent just four seasons working in the Timberwolves’ front office, he made quite the impact on the organization. When Hoiberg announced he was taking the Iowa State job in 2010, the team published a press release that included a statement from Taylor, who called him “truly a class act and a wonderful person” and “one of my all-time favorite players [who] will always be a part of the Timberwolves family.”

Hoiberg’s next spot is unclear, but we do know he won’t see it through with the Bulls’ young core. From those on the outside looking in, it’s no coincidence that Hoiberg was let go on Monday, just after Markkanen’s return from injury on Saturday. With Markkanen back and the imminent return of Portis and Dunn, the Bulls have just one game in five days as they begin a three-game homestand. If there was a light pocket in the schedule to make a coaching change, this is it. 

With better health in hand, these are rosy circumstances for new coach Jim Boylen and the front office to turn things around and win some brownie points with the fanbase. 

“Teams,” said one league executive, “do this all the time.”

Fans also shouldn’t be surprised if Boylen, a long-time assistant with championship pedigree, becomes the long-term coach for the Bulls. While Hoiberg lacked any experience on an NBA bench, Boylen, like Thibodeau, is an NBA lifer. With the exception of four seasons as the University of Utah’s head coach, Boylen has been an NBA assistant coach since 1992.

If Boylen’s not the right candidate for the job, the Bulls shouldn’t go back to college. Go straight to an NBA bench.

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

The bubble has revived a lot of the NBA's best rivalries and helped flame some new ones but one thing that's been missing during the regular season restart is elevation. 

Everyone seems to be a little less bouncy since they've arrived at Disney World, and that shows in the number of dunks per NBA game in the bubble being down 25%. 

What's causing this deflation in elevation? The biggest factor is NBA players not having their legs quite yet. 

Another big factor is how teams are responding to certain opponents. 

Don't buy that? The Lakers led the NBA with 7.8 dunks per game before March 11, but the bubble environment has sapped that element of their attack -- down to just 4.7 per game.

And perhaps most notable, the Lakers finished with 0 dunks for the first time all season against the small-ball Houston Rockets. 

Seems like someone is changing their plan of attack. 

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

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NBC Sports

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

With no fans in the building and extraordinary measures in place to keep a global pandemic out, wonky stuff was bound to happen inside the Orlando bubble. 

But T.J. Warren turning into peak Kevin Durant? This is an entirely different idea.

The 26-year-old North Carolina State product set the Orlando bubble ablaze. In his first three games, the 6-foot-8 small forward scored 53, 34 and 32 points, respectively, while shooting a cumulative 65.3 percent. A popular pick to slide in the standings due to injuries, Warren’s Indiana Pacers have flipped the script and are 3-0 in the bubble.

Welcome to Warren-sanity. First, he shredded Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked defense, exploding for a career-high 20 field goals. For an encore, Warren compiled 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks against the Washington Wizards, the first player to reach that stat line this season, per Basketball Reference tracking. On Tuesday, he delivered yet again, pouring in another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

Warren has scored 119 points in three games. This is a hot streak that normally only belongs to Hall of Famers. And yet, Warren has never sniffed an All-Star Game. So how good is he? Is Warren a flash in the pan or is this the beginning of a Kawhi Leonard-type breakout? Let’s dive in and try to figure out what’s fluke and what’s for real.

While Warren is a known bucket-getter, a scoring spree of this magnitude has come out of nowhere. On Tuesday night, after being the story of the bubble, the Orlando Magic -- fighting for a non-Milwaukee matchup in the first round -- simply had no idea what to do with Warren. With Orlando’s defensive ace Jonathan Isaac lost to a torn ACL, the Magic assigned athletic marvel Aaron Gordon to Warren duties. It didn’t thaw Warren one bit.. Warren unleashed deep threes, seering basket cuts and soft floaters in the lane. By the time Warren went to the bench with 1:27 left in the first quarter, he’d scored 17 points in about 10 minutes of action, not missing a single shot from the floor or at the line. Indiana was up 40-18 and never looked back.

Before the bubble, Warren averaged 18.7 points per game, but he was a metronome in the purest sense. He had never scored at least 30 points in consecutive games in five-plus seasons in the NBA. His FiveThirtyEight list of statistical comps is a roll call of players who were borderline All-Stars at their peak -- names like Tim Thomas, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier  -- but never got invited to the ball.

But there’s reason to believe the Pacers have something more than that in Warren. 

For starters, Warren’s scoring abilities aren’t new. The Durham native averaged 24.9 points per game at NC State, earning 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year honors and showing enough talent to be the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But even then, Warren’s largest point total in any three games at the collegiate level was 107. He’s at 119 in the bubble entering Thursday night. 

So what unlocked this version of Warren -- that scores with the confidence and tools of Leonard and Durant? Is this another version of Linsanity?

Like Jeremy Lin, Warren has taken team adversity and flipped it into an opportunity. Linsanity only started when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were sidelined and the other three point guards couldn't run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of invention. When Lin was inserted into the starting lineup as a last resort, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak, all without Anthony and Stoudemire. 

With Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by injuries, and Victor Oladipo basically playing on one leg, the situation was ripe for an ambitious Pacer to fill the void. Enter Warren. Like Lin’s 12-game run before the All-Star break in which he averaged 22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Big Apple, Warren capitalized on the situation and he did it at a time when many players might have said, “eh, let’s pack it in for next season.”

Warren is one of 12 players to score at least 50 points in a game this season, but only the third to do it with a scoring average below 20 points per game, joining Houston’s Eric Gordon (14.5 points) and Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert (18.1). Warren’s sustainability is worth noting, especially when compared to those comparable players. Once a player drops 50, he instantly becomes the headline on the opponent’s scouting report, making encore performances harder to come by. In the game immediately following his 50-plus eruption, Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. LeVert scored 14 on 6-of-19 shooting. But Warren? He put up 34. And then another 32 just for good measure.

While the opportunities have helped, Warren’s also adding new elements to his game, particularly by expanding his range. A master of the mid-range area, the Warren has attempted 23 3-pointers in three games, matching his total for the entire month of February, in which he played nine games. 

Warren is a bit late to the 3-point party, but it’s better to be late than never. This is where Warren can realize his upside. Look at the careers of Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam and Chris Bosh. These are all mid-range mavens that literally took a step back, set up behind the arc and embraced the 3-point shot. 

Warren can unlock the same bag of tricks. The former Suns wing is shooting a toasty 48.7 percent on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet this season. Only C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul and Khris Middleton have been more efficient in that mid-range area, per Basketball-Reference. Those three marksmen have spent years terrorizing opponents from deep, with McCollum and Middleton competing in the 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend. 

Warren, on the other hand, used the 3-point shot only sparingly, entering the bubble averaging only three 3-point attempts per game, even though he was making a healthy 37.5 percent of them. The percentages were there, but the appetite wasn’t. 

If you’re looking for the next great 3-point shooter, this is the starting point. Find the guy who rules the mid-range game and convince him to move back a bit and get the extra point. Not only does it add more points to the team’s total, but it creates space for others. Now, when Warren parks himself beyond the arc, that’s one less help defender to collapse into the paint. Threes aren’t just good because they’re worth three points; they make 2s easier for others.

This is why Warren’s bubble performance doesn’t feel like a fluke. He was always a great shooter and a pure scorer. The question was whether he’d ever feel comfortable shooting from deep, and sometimes, a player just needs to be pushed to go there. Bosh wasn’t known as a stretch five until injuries and playoff urgency made it a necessity. In the same way, injuries to Sabonis, Brogdon, Lamb and Oladipo propelled Warren’s evolution.

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchannan deserve credit for taking a chance on Warren when the Suns dumped him for essentially nothing (cash considerations) in a three-team deal involving the Miami Heat. At the time, Warren was only an insurance plan on unrestricted free agents Bojan Bogdanovich and Thaddeus Young, both of whom ended up getting richer deals elsewhere. 

Warren’s scoring has gotten the headlines, but it’s the rest of his game in Orlando that offers the most intriguing long-term potential. Warren’s been much more active defensively in the bubble, tallying seven blocks and six steals in three games. Here’s the last time he’s tallied 13 combined steals and blocks over a three-game span: Never.

The blocks are especially uncharacteristic. In a 14-game stretch before the New Year, Warren registered one block total. Because of the way he defends, some of these might register as steals. Rather than meet shooters at the mountaintop, Warren uses his nifty hands to strip a player’s shot on the way up ala Andre Iguodala. These are basically stocks -- a steal and block hybrid. Whatever you want to call it, it often gets the desired result, a turnover.

While Warren is unlikely to continue to score at this level, a more well-rounded game with consistent 3-point ability would make him one of the best bargains in the NBA. The Pacers are on the hook for just $11.7 million next season and $12.7 million in 2020-21 for Warren  -- less than what the Chicago Bulls are paying Young over the same timespan. Three games doesn’t make a star player in this league, but considering Warren was already an elite jump-shooter inside the arc, it’s not unrealistic to think he can become a Middleton clone, albeit with less playmaking ability.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a big wing finds himself at the age of 26. Middleton wasn’t an All-Star until he was in his age-27 season. Danny Granger, another former Pacers wing, made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 25. Siakam turned 26 in April. Warren could simply be a late bloomer.

So where does this development leave the Pacers? Ultimately, they need superstars to break into championship contender status. Sabonis and Oladipo have the potential to get there, if they can keep their leg injuries at bay. Warren’s sudden change in status could change their ceiling whenever the 2020-21 season happens, including as a potential trade asset when the next disgruntled superstar comes on the trade market. And if Oladipo struggles to regain his form after tearing his quad tendon, Pacers could hand the keys to Warren and save the cash elsewhere. 

The good news is Indiana has time. The Pacers’ loaded lineup -- with Brogdon and Oladipo in the backcourt and Warren alongside Sabonis and Myles Turner -- has only played in six games this season, but the returns are promising, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points every 100 possessions. If I’m the Pacers, I sit tight this fall and see what they can do together next season and then evaluate the trade market at the deadline. 

Meanwhile, Warren continues to have his own Linsanity moment inside the bubble. The only thing that could make this Disney run more magical would be a dream matchup against the team that dumped him, the Phoenix Suns. 

And wouldn’t you know on Thursday, the Pacers are playing the Suns. In January, Warren scored 25 points in a revenge game win against his former team, but a closer look at the box score shows that Warren took zero 3-pointers in that game. Something tells me Warren won’t ignore the long ball again this time. The Suns better be ready. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.