Fred Hoiberg has been living off of built-in excuses. Reasonable ones, even. Replacing Tom Thibodeau in 2015, he first led a proud and beaten veteran group wedded to its former leader was never going to be his. The Three Alphas experiment was destined to fail before it started. Then there was trading Jimmy Butler and resetting the franchise — and expectations — towards losing to the point of even purposefully trying to engineer losses.
If wins were all that could be used as a coaching benchmark, the Bulls front office has yet to give Hoiberg a realistic chance at succeeding. Brought in to redefine and modernize an antiquated offense, Hoiberg hasn’t until now been given a platform to carry out his vision. The collective result of the previous three seasons ultimately stops with management.
Now, though, entering year two of a rebuild and his fourth season as coach, suddenly the onus has shifted toward Hoiberg. Management has pushed a sentiment that a foundational core is in place that can operate an offense finally aligned with his philosophy.
We had a lot of discussions this summer about our roster and how we want to play. I think this roster could potentially be more conducive to how Fred wants to play. We kept using the word ‘versatility,’ but we have some versatile guys, so we can play smaller at times if we choose to. And that’s where Fred has had success in the past.
No one wants to sit through hapless basketball for another season, apparently certainly not management. To them, the talent is obvious. The offense — in theory — should be better. The lagging excuses have now followed the ghost of Thibodeau out the door, and there’s now even a circumstance in their favor now with the Eastern Conference being weaker than ever.
And so does it now fall onto Hoiberg and his staff to make up for wasted time by banking early season wins?
It really shouldn’t. As understandable as the lust for winning is, weighting the worth of a season purely on standings has always been oversimplified. This is especially true for a young team like the Bulls. It may be sacrilege to suggest as much when optimism should be at its highest, but the sole focus this season shouldn’t be winning and pushing toward the playoffs.
Instead of a final achievement there is a sequence events that must transpire. Before these young Bulls can take steps toward the postseason, they must first prove their production can equal potential.
It’s now only assumed sophomore forward Lauri Markkanen will blossom into an All-Star. His future frontcourt partner, Wendell Carter Jr., carries with him similar expectations. Earning new deals paying eight figures annually, Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine must leave rookie mistakes in the past. No player on the roster is more important than Kris Dunn.
How these players develop as individuals, and how they come together as a cohesive unit, is the only way to evaluate a coach in a rebuilding scenario, even if it only results in a 30-win season. Should Markkanen become an offensive focal point and LaVine and Parker find their own place within a team concept, that should be viewed as a success Similarly, if Dunn can develop into a floor leader and continue to work on his shooting mechanics, this growth should be attributed, in part, to Hoiberg and his coaching staff.
Sneaking into the playoffs should be a fine, and surprising, byproduct from the progression of the team’s players – development and winning are far from mutually exclusive concepts. If the team can push toward the postseason on the backs of their young players, they should. And if it doesn’t happen and the Bulls are once again in the lottery, so long as the key pieces in this rebuild are advancing their game, it’s all that truly matters.
The Bulls rightfully avoided speeding up the rebuild with veteran signings, planning instead for the future through internal growth. A similar logic should be applied to Hoiberg. Any additional pressure to win individual games, setting some kind of victories mandate on Hoiberg in order for him to return beyond this season, would be a mistake.
Management, at least publicly, is avoiding such an approach.
You’re not going to hear Gar and I talk about wins or anything like that, but the expectations for us are to see this team come together.
Opting to grade a coaching performance more on development than simply referring to the win column is less tangible measurable. Hopefully we’ll know it when we see it. It’s the only way to assess Hoiberg’s performance this season.