The 2015-16 Bulls are in the throes of mediocrity. Lackluster performances from stars and role players alike has defined a season that can’t end fast enough. The biggest difference from last season to this one? Former head coach Tom Thibodeau consistently found ways to get more with less while Fred Hoiberg continuously finds ways to get less with more. Can Hoiberg, still in the midst of his inaugural season as an NBA head coach, become a first-rate leader? Perhaps that’s in the cards but early returns validate the feelings of many fans: Tom Thibodeau is missed badly around Chicago.
Tom Thibodeau spent five seasons in Chicago accumulating a stellar .647 regular season winning percentage–sixth best all time1 for coaches with five or more seasons on the bench–with a roster that outperformed its talent. Derrick Rose was a ghost for most of Thibodeau’s Chicago reign while Jimmy Butler blossomed after Bulls’ management had already tired of the gruff coach’s act. There was plenty of talent on the team these past few seasons–Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Kyle Korver, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and uh… Carlos Boozer–but the superstar centerpiece from Chicago’s South Side spent too much time on the sidelines. Thibodeau’s ability to get the most out of people like D.J. Augustin, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik and Nate Robinson speaks volumes about the coach’s coaching prowess. But that tough leadership led to zero championship rings, no NBA Finals’ appearances and just one Conference Finals’ showing. Why? Circumstance. The Bulls ran into LeBron James in three of those five playoff runs and played the other two–opposing the Sixers and Wizards–without the services of their MVP point guard. Tom Thibodeau never offered up excuses but, nevertheless, wasn’t well-equipped to break through the Eastern Conference brackets.
A good management-coach working relationship is important in professional sports. The balancing act between building for the future and winning in the now only works when there is mutual respect. Without a doubt, that esteem flew out the window in Tom Thibodeau’s last few seasons in Chicago. In short, GarPax didn’t fully control the team because they hired a talented coach that wasn’t interested in the politics of basketball or long-term strategy.
Bulls’ brass had been eyeing Fred Hoiberg for years. John Paxson and Gar Forman know him well; Hoiberg spent four seasons sharpshooting for the Bulls in the early 2000s. He fit their latest vision for the club’s top coaching job. Thibodeau made decisions to win the next game while GarPax needed someone who would coach with the big picture in mind. Think about the playoffs not the regular season. Focus on the future not the now. Hoiberg, a friendly face and former NBA front office staffer, would make their lives easier–the exact wrong reason to change coaches.
I have mixed feelings about John Paxson’s time in the Bulls’ front office. He knows how to draft. Derrick Rose over Michael Beasley in 2008 wasn’t a slam dunk selection and, despite Rose’s rash of injuries, it remains the right choice. Through the years Paxson has drafted other talented ball players like Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Ben Gordon. His track record isn’t perfect–Paxson once sent now All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to Portland for Tyrus Thomas–but it’s pretty damn good. Without a doubt, Bulls’ scouting and drafting successes are to be lauded.
Paxson and Forman have fared less well in free agency striking out, summer-after-summer, on major free agents like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Troubles connecting with coaches (don’t forget about the Vinny Del Negro saga2) and challenges luring top free agents lead back to the same problem. Paxson’s ego is too big to let someone else be the most important person in the room. That self-importance is maddening for Bulls’ fans that care only about watching a team compete for a championship.
Fred Hoiberg is the Bulls’ present and near-term future. His coaching style and willingness to collaborate with his bosses mesh well with how John Paxson wants to build an organization. The team may eventually thrive under The Mayor’s leadership but, for now, Hoiberg’s on-court product looks messy and inconsistent. One thing is certain: Hoiberg is not a better coach than Tom Thibodeau. Almost certainly, the 2015-16 Bulls’ team would be better than a mediocre 26-20 with Thibs stomping down the United Center sidelines. That’s what matters to me and that’s what should count to the suits running the franchise.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports