51 Q: Is coach Fred Hoiberg the answer in Chicago?

2 Comments

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.

Phoenix Suns perfect 4-0 in bubble, growing, thinking playoffs

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

 

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.