Gar Forman and John Paxson sat in front of the assembled media last week and discussed the process of replacing Tom Thibodeau with a straight face. The Bulls' two-headed braintrust talked about a potentially prolonged coaching search centered on finding the right fit for both the players and the organization as if the entire undertaking wasn't always hypothetical in the first place.
The Bulls' next coach was going to be Fred Hoiberg all along if he wanted the job. Chicago's front office might pride itself on secrecy, but this was about as unintentionally transparent as the franchise has ever been.
The Bulls' relationship with Hoiberg dates back to even before he joined the team as a sparsely used shooter off the bench in 1999. You can draw a direct line from the last time the Bulls hired a coach from Iowa State to the present: when Tim Floyd replaced Phil Jackson and ushered in the darkest period in team history, his old assistant with the Cyclones came with. That would be Forman, a man who would later buy a home off Hoiberg before rising within the organization to become general manager.
That isn't to say that Fred Hoiberg is the next Tim Floyd, because we sure as hell know Thibodeau wasn't Jackson. Still, there will be a temptation to reduce Hoiberg to nothing more than a puppet for the front office and an urge to turn "compliance" into a pejorative. It makes sense if you loathe the way the Bulls do business, at least until you remember the Warriors hired Steve Kerr in part because he was Joe Lacob's golf buddy.
In Kerr and the Warriors, the Bulls have their perfect model for what the Hoiberg era could represent. Like Thibodeau, Jackson turned a bad team into a very good one, was popular with his players and eventually burned all of his bridges with management. Like Hoiberg, Kerr had a preexisting relationship with the front office, was a former player who understood the importance of shooting and came with a system that emphasized playing fast.
No one is saying the Bulls are going to finish 67-15 next season, but it's worth pointing out that Golden State made that jump (up from 51 wins the previous year) with reserve guard Shaun Livingston as the only meaningful addition to the roster. It was about internal improvement and putting players in the position to succeed, which is what the Bulls are banking on Hoiberg to do.
What Hoiberg did at Iowa State can't be discounted. The program was at its low point under Gregg McDermott before Hoiberg took over. In the last five years, there aren't many college teams that turned it around as dramatically as ISU. Hoiberg annually produced some of the fastest and most prolific offenses in the country, leaning heavily on the three-pointer while abandoning traditional big men.
Part of that was because he could never get a legitimate center to Ames before Jameel McKay became eligible midway through last year, but it stands to reason that that 'system' was a key component of what made Hoiberg so appealing to the Bulls. What does it realistically mean for a Bulls' roster that's already nearly capped-out for next season? It begins with a potential change at the four.
If anyone is going to start Nikola Mirotic over Pau Gasol, it's Fred Hoiberg. Everything he's done up to this point as a head coach would indicate that. It won't be a painless move to make with a veteran as proud and productive as Gasol, and Mirotic's horrendous postseason certainly isn't going to make things any easier. But in the end, Mirotic is 10 years younger than Gasol and the Bulls learned the hard way how difficult it is to win when relying on Gasol as heavily as they did last season.
If Hoiberg fixes the offense, the spotlight will inevitably turn to the defense. Thibodeau, of course, had the defense finishing in the top five of efficiency his first four seasons here. The Bulls won a lot of regular season games with that style, but it's important to remember talent plays a big role, too.
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls had great defensive talents in the prime of their careers in Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Hoiberg might not have that luxury, not unless the front office can rediscover its golden touch in the draft. If the defense sinks, is it Hoiberg's fault or does the issue lie with management for not providing him with enough two-way players? Even the most optimistic Bulls fan would concede Noah and Gibson aren't as effective as they were two seasons ago.
It's what makes Noah and Gibson the two biggest question marks for the start of the Hoiberg era. Noah has one year left on his contract while Gibson is often considered to be the most likely big to be dealt, likely for another wing. While it sounds good in theory due to the Bulls' front court glut, Chicago knows how important interior defense is.
Given Gibson's contract (two years, $16 million remaining), his age, his rim protection and his ability to play both power forward or center while giving you something offensively, it seems like he's the type of player that is simply too valuable to give up. If you trade him, you need to immediately start looking for a player exactly like him. Ideally, Gasol won't have a problem with his minutes being cut (he seemed to complain about how much Thibs' played him) and the Bulls can keep the deepest front court in the NBA. If not, Gasol makes the most sense to trade.
Of course, that's all a problem for another day. Today is about realizing how far Thibodeau took the Bulls and where they can go from here. It will not be easy to improve a team that won as often as Thibodeau's Bulls, but at this point the process might matter as much as the results.
Which is to say: It's safe to say a lot of people in this city will hold the Thibodeau era in high-esteem, and that establishes an extremely high bar for Hoiberg to clear as a first-time NBA coach. What happens if the Bulls are 20-20 after their first 40 games? Just remember that's exactly what the Cavaliers were in their first 40 games under a first-time NBA head coach this season before turning it around and making the Finals.
It might take some time, but in a post-Thibodeau world, maybe every win and every loss doesn't matter. It's more about the big picture and finding the right components to eventually turn this team into a champion. I don't need to tell you that as long as LeBron is still playing, it'll be a tough task. Just remember that it was clear the old approach wasn't working.
I'll look back on the Thibodeau era with great memories. If you're bitter the Bulls didn't win a title in the last five years, maybe you should find a healthier way to spend your free time. Winning the title is incredibly difficult. What Thibodeau did was give us a compelling and engaging product to watch every season, and for that I'm thankful.
If the Bulls know what they're doing, the Hoiberg era shouldn't be all that different. The starters will play less, the offense will move faster and young players won't be tied to the bench. The defense might slip, too. There's always going to be a trade-off, but the Bulls are betting the positives of Hoiberg will outweigh everything that went into this team under Thibodeau.
It's time for a new era of Bulls basketball, and that should be exciting. The Bulls got the guy they wanted all along. At this point, you just hope they're as smart as they think they are.