PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
Is Fred Hoiberg the answer in Chicago?
In the minds of a lot of fans and experts, the Chicago Bulls are the team best positioned to challenge to Cleveland for supremacy in the East.
You can credit Steve Kerr for that.
Or maybe you should blame him.
Last season, Kerr came into Golden State with no head coaching experience, following a respected coach who had won 51 games, put in a more up-tempo and motion-based offense, broke up the traditional starting lineup, kept the focus on the defensive end, and won a title.
This season, Fred Hoiberg comes into Chicago with no NBA head coaching experience, following a respected but headstrong coach who won 50 games, will install an up-tempo and more motion based offense, likely will change around the traditional front-court lineup, and is talking about keeping a defensive focus.
There are plenty of similarities.
Will that be enough to make the Chicago Bulls contenders?
Probably not. Because beyond the similarities, the Bulls have far more questions to answer than those Warriors did — specifically ones about age and what their key players have left in the tank. Plus, the Warriors were incredibly lucky on the injury front last season — is anyone willing to bet that happens with the Bulls?
Health of the players — specifically running them into the ground until they were tired and more injury prone — was the biggest sticking point between Tom Thibodeau and John Paxon, Gar Forman and the rest of Bulls management. In this case management was right. In an era where more and more studies are showing players perform better and their injury risk goes down with increased rest, Thibodeau coached from an old-school “if they’re healthy they can play” mentality. The result was Jimmy Butler playing a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game, followed by Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose all playing at least 30 minutes a game (and Mike Dunleavy was at 29.2.). We’d seen this Bulls movie before — they broke down physically and never fully recovered from their injuries. By the time the playoffs rolled around, they didn’t have the legs and health to truly threaten a banged-up Cavaliers squad.
We know this for sure — Hoiberg is going to rest guys. Minutes per game will go down, and there will be more nights off for guys who need it. Bulls players should be fresher come the playoffs.
The question is will that be enough to bring key guys back to near their peak form? Noah, Gasol, Taj Gibson, Kirk Heinrich, and Mike Dunleavy are all 30 or older, and while Rose is 27 there is some heavy mileage on those legs. Even with more rest, at the age of these players injuries are more likely. The bigger question becomes, is a little more rest going to return Rose and Noah close to the level of a former MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively?
That is the one key difference between Kerr’s and Hoiberg’s situations — Kerr took over a young team with guys like Klay Thomson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and others. Those players are early in their career, relatively healthy, and still taking big steps forward in levels of play each year. Kerr had a team primed to improve, to grow, if the right coach came along.
Hoiberg takes over a Bulls squad that has been a borderline contender for five years now. Even rested, how much more are Rose, Noah, Gasol or Gibson are going to improve? We know who and what they are.
That said, Hoiberg should be able to put guys in better positions to succeed. The Bulls are going to play faster — Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams loved to push the tempo then run drag or double drag screens early in the clock — and that can get guys in better matchup before the defense sets. Gasol and Noah can set a double-drag for Rose, with Noah rolling to the rim and Gasol popping out for a jumper, and you can imagine how that is hard to defend if Rose is his old self. His half court sets have a lot of weakside movement, which is a needed change. Younger players such as Tony Snell, Butler, promising rookie Bobby Portis, and even Nikola Mirotic could thrive off the bench in this system.
The one interesting fit will be Gasol. As we saw at EuroBasket this summer, he operates best in the post or the elbow, where thanks to his fundamentals he can score or beat teams who collapse on him with great passing. But Hoiberg’s system doesn’t run a lot of post ups. If Gasol is relegated more to the perimeter, does this become a situation more like Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers where they struggled to find a fit for Gasol? Probably not, Hoiberg will be flexible, and expect them to try at times to get Gasol the ball deep in the post early in the clock when he beats his defender down court. Still, Gasol’s fit is something to watch.
One thing to expect — Hoiberg to shake up the Noah-Gasol combo, pairing one with Mirotic and one with Gibson in the rotation (then trying to find a spot for Portis). That alone has the potential make the Bulls front court more dynamic. The Gasol/Noah pairing is a little too slow for what Hoiberg wants to run.
As for defense, I don’t expect a big drop off — as much as scheme, Thibodeau’s defense was built around out-working the other team, and that kind of mentality doesn’t instantly fade away. Hoiberg may tweak the system, but the Bulls defense should still be top 10.
Hoiberg is going to bring needed changes to Chicago — ones Thibodeau was too stubborn to implement (in part because of his feud with the front office).
Will it make the Bulls better? Maybe, Thibs is a good coach and Hoiberg is unproven; we’ll have to wait and see.
Will it have them fresher come the playoffs? Almost certainly.
In that sense, Hoiberg is the answer the Bulls have been looking for.
But that answer doesn’t automatically lead to contention for a title. This is still an aging Bulls roster with some Thibodeau-level miles on the key players, and no matter what Hoiberg does it’s hard to imagine him lifting this team up past a healthy Cavaliers team.
It’s going to be interesting to watch them try, however.