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.