While the Chicago Bulls decision to fire Tom Thibodeau and replace him with Fred Hoiberg was years in the making, what happened with the Golden State Warriors over the last year had to be in the back of the Bulls' mind. Like Thibodeau, Mark Jackson was a prideful coach who fought constantly with front office about the direction of the franchise. No one would have blamed the Warriors for keeping Jackson after the Warriors lost in the playoffs, especially since they were without Andrew Bogut. Like in Chicago, the Golden State front office used the loss to justify what they already wanted to do.
The similarities between Steve Kerr and Hoiberg are striking. Both were NBA role players who carved out long careers for themselves as shooting specialists. Both known for their basketball IQ and ability to get along with teammates, they had no problem finding jobs in the industry after retirement. Kerr was general manager of the Phoenix Suns and a color commentator on TNT - Hoiberg was a front office executive for the Minnesota Timberwolves and the head coach at Iowa State. Kerr abandoned Jackson’s isolation-heavy approach and installed a modern offense built around spreading the floor and moving the ball while Hoiberg used a five-out offense based on similar principles to win big at Iowa State..
To be sure, they aren’t walking into the exact same situations and Thibodeau was much more widely regarded around the league than Jackson, a first-time head coach without any experience on the sidelines before taking over the Warriors job. It would certainly be unfair to expect Hoiberg to have the same initial success as Kerr, who took over a young team ready to take the next step which had an almost perfect bill of health in his first season. Nevertheless, there are lessons Hoiberg could learn from his counterpart’s near flawless debut.
Of all the moves Kerr made after taking over for Jackson, the most important was switching out David Lee for Draymond Green. Making the switch completely changed Golden State’s identity, as they went from featuring a more traditional two-post line-up with two lumbering big men to a four-out offense built around spreading the floor and attacking in space. On the other side of the ball, they went from trying to hide a limited big man who couldn’t protect the rim or move his feet on the perimeter to playing waves of long and athletic wing players who could switch every pick-and-roll and put continuous pressure on the other team’s offensive sets.
Replacing Lee for Green seems obvious in retrospect but it was one very few coaches would have made. Lee was the Warriors' highest paid player, a former All-Star, and a nightly double-double threat who was one of the owner’s favorite players on the team. While NBA teams are supposed to be meritocracies, most coaches let salary size and seniority dictate who gets playing time, if for no other reason than it makes it easier to control the locker room. No coach without the support of the front office and ownership would have been able to make a move as drastic as benching Lee.
The Warriors' best playoff run under Jackson came back in 2013, when an untimely injury to Lee forced him to slide Harrison Barnes to the PF position and they ran the 57-win Denver Nuggets out of the first round. However, once they signed Andre Iguodala to a max contract in the offseason, Jackson had little choice but to bench Barnes and keep Lee and Iguodala in the starting line-up. Kerr, on the other hand, had the freedom to think outside the box, benching his two highest paid veterans and putting two relatively unproven younger players in their place.
If Hoiberg is looking to make some adjustments in Chicago, power forward would be the obvious place to start. Pau Gasol wasn’t signing with the Bulls in the offseason if he wasn’t going to start so Thibodeau had little choice but to play a conventional line-up built around two big men that struggled to space the floor or create much ball movement. While Pau had huge individual numbers, it’s unclear how much his presence on the floor really helped the team, as their offensive rating was nearly identical with or without him (104.7 to 104.8) while their defensive rating improved when he was on the bench (101.7 to 100.9). You can’t blame him entirely for the regression of the Bulls defensive numbers but his advanced stats on that side of the ball aren’t pretty.
Asides from defending the post, which is becoming less and less valuable in the modern NBA, Pau was not contributing much on that side of the floor. And while he’s clearly a better player than Lee, he has many of the same holes in his game at this stage of his career - he needs the ball in his hands a lot, he’s not very valuable in terms of spacing the floor and attacking a close-out and he can’t be effective defensively outside of the paint. A team built around Pau at PF is not going to play great defense and is going to spend a lot of time in the half-court controlling tempo in order to enter the ball into the post.
There are a lot of improvements on the margins that Hoiberg could make in order to complement the duo of Joakim Noah and Pau upfront, but why bring in a spread coach known for his offensive sets if you aren’t going to let him run his system? The only thing that Hoiberg is more qualified than Thibodeau to do as an NBA head coach is to run a four-out offense with Nikola Mirotic at PF. While it was an awkward fit at times between the old-school coach who didn’t like to play young players and the European big man who wanted to hoist 3’s off the dribble, Mirotic showed flashes of star potential as a rookie.
At least on offense, switching out Mirotic for Pau could have many of the same effects as changing Lee for Green. If the defense has to attach to Mirotic at the three-point line, it should open a lot more driving lanes for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler while giving the Bulls lone remaining big men, whether it’s Pau, Noah or Taj Gibson, more room to operate in the paint. Playing two traditional big men for the majority of the game forced the Bulls into running a lot of complicated sets to generate offense in the halfcourt instead of the free-flowing basketball that was Hoiberg’s trademark at Iowa State.
At Iowa State, Hoiberg simplified the game and allowed his players to play on instincts. That was the key to their ability to integrate so many transfers seamlessly into the rotation - Hoiberg assembled a bunch of cast-offs each summer and had them playing with the continuity of groups that had spent their whole career together. The key was that everyone could shoot 3’s so the floor was wide open for guys like Royce White and Georges Niang to make simple decisions on a possession-by-possession basis - drive, shoot or pass.
That sort of attack could do wonders for the rest of the Bulls young players, the guys the franchise will need to depend on if they hope to take the next step in the playoffs. Tony Snell and Doug McDermott struggled to get minutes under Thibodeau and they have a chance for a fresh start with a coach who can look at them with new eyes. They are both three-point shooters who can put the ball on the floor so they should be able to succeed in a four-out spread offense.
The bottom line is there’s only so much a coach can change about a team stocked with veteran players. If the Bulls are playing Noah and Pau together for most of the game, their ceiling isn’t going to change whether or not Hoiberg or Thibodeau is on the sidelines. There’s no reason for Chicago to hire Hoiberg if they aren’t going to give him the authority to change the roles of guys on the team in order to fit his system. That’s the easiest way for a new coach to make a difference.