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Nebraska Basketball

A Closer Look at Fred Hoiberg's NBA Years, and Why They Shouldn't be Discounted

April 7, 2019
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Fred Hoiberg’s seven-year contract with the Huskers is backloaded and filled with incentives to keep him as the school’s head coach for a long time. He’ll make $2.5 million in his first year and $3.5 in each of his last five, with a combined total of $2 million in “stay bonuses” spread out over the life of the contract. If he stays in Lincoln, the Huskers will make it worth his while. If he leaves to coach another Division I program, it’ll be expensive. But if he goes back to the NBA? That’s a different story.

The door to the NBA is closed for now, but it isn’t locked, nor should it be.

Nebraska’s new basketball coach—a man who comes with a reputation as one of the best offensive minds in basketball, a man who led the Chicago Bulls for three years and coached one of the greatest to ever play the game in the process (Dwyane Wade; sorry Paul Pierce)—is proud of what he did at the NBA level, and to write off his three-plus years in the league as a failure would be short-sighted. 

“There are some things we did that I’m proud of while we were there,” Hoiberg said Tuesday when he was introduced.

Hoiberg was fired by the Bulls 24 games into his fourth season. Hail Varsity spoke with several NBA insiders about his time in Chicago and the main theme that emanated from those talks is that Hoiberg’s chops as an NBA coach remain a mystery. If you believe he wasn’t given a fair shake, as many do, you can’t dismiss him yet.

Let’s walk through the timeline. 

In 2015—Hoiberg’s first season—the Bulls went 42-40 and missed the Playoffs. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah had been the nucleus of the Bulls for eight years but, as multiple insiders put it, players in the locker room were ready to go their separate ways. Hoiberg had aging big men in Noah and Pau Gasol who didn’t fit his pace-and-space system, a ball-dominant point guard who couldn’t be relied on from 3 any more than he could be to hold up over 82 games, and an emerging force in Jimmy Butler (in his fifth season during Hoiberg’s first) who was taking over the mantle of the team. 

Hoiberg, as those who have worked with him at both levels have raved, is the consummate professional. People like him because of that, and they like him a lot. He cares about what he says and how he says it and how it’s perceived. If that comes off as dry in a press conference, so be it. He has earned the nickname “The Mayor” for a reason. He’s the kind of man to get to know you by name. He values relationships and won’t stir the pot. 

When the Bulls began the 2015-16 season, Hoiberg did so with stretch-four Nikola Mirotic and Gasol as the starting frontcourt pairing. Noah, who had started 323 of the last 325 games he’d played in, was on the bench. Gasol and Noah absolutely wouldn’t work together in Hoiberg’s system and bringing Noah off the bench seemed the path of least resistance.

Hoiberg told then-Grantland writer Zach Lowe that decision was Noah’s, which the center later denied. It was done, a person with knowledge of the situation said, in an attempt to paint Noah as a team-first player. It backfired and the veteran checked out. This was all within the first week.

Rose was traded that offseason, Noah and Gasol walked in free agency, and the ancillary parts were changed out. Ten players in total who saw court time during Hoiberg’s first year left the Bulls.

The 2016-17 campaign became known as the year of three alphas. Instead of building a roster that suited Hoiberg’s vision, Chicago added Wade and Rondo to pair with Butler. Hoiberg had three ball-dominant guards who couldn’t space the floor but would sell tickets. 

No qualified player on that squad shot over 40 percent from the 3-point line but Hoiberg adjusted on the fly and the Bulls went 41-41 to earn the eight-seed in the East. They won nine of their last 13 games in the regular season and then took a 2-0 series lead over the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the opening round of the Playoffs. Rondo then broke his thumb and missed the last four, all Bulls losses to end the season. One person said if not for the thumb injury, the Bulls likely would have run back the same team the following season. Hoiberg might still be coaching in the United Center.

During that second season, Hoiberg had a growing Jimmy Butler problem. At the NBA level, it’s far better to be respected than liked. Butler—whom no one in the league has been able to figure out—is as headstrong as they come and became at odds with Hoiberg over his style. In December of 2015, Butler sparked controversy when he said he “believe[s] that we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times.” (Butler loved former Bull coach Tom Thibodeau who, from a personality standpoint, is the polar opposite of Hoiberg.) 

On Jan. 25, 2017, the Bulls held a 110-100 lead over the Atlanta Hawks with 3:02 to play in the game. Atlanta then closed on a 19-4 run to win and hand Chicago a sixth loss in 10 games. In the locker room after, Butler and Wade attacked the work ethic of the younger players on the team. Rondo stoked the fire a day later when he defended the youngsters on Instagram and called out Wade for taking practices off. Hoiberg was caught in the middle of a power struggle. Butler and Wade both liked and still like Hoiberg as a person, but multiple insiders said he did not have their respect as a coach yet. 

When the Bulls got hot near the end, it coincided with Hoiberg ceding control to Rondo and letting the enigmatic point guard run the show. Rondo, through the years, has clashed with coaches as well. He famously flamed out in Dallas after multiple confrontations with Rick Carlisle, who’s about as highly-regarded as there is in the league. Hoiberg and Rondo didn’t see eye-to-eye, but the young coach recognized he needed to let his guys do what they do best and it paid off. That earned Hoiberg some credibility.

The next offseason, the front office traded Butler to Minnesota for a package that became two-guard Zach LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and rookie forward Lauri Markkanen. LaVine was Butler’s antithesis and Markkanen was exactly the kind of player who could flourish in Hoiberg’s offense. With LaVine recovering from a torn ACL suffered the year before, Hoiberg reworked everything around Markkanen. 

The Arizona stretch forward set a Bulls record for 3-point makes in a rookie campaign (145) and was the first Bulls rookie since Elton Brand in 1999-2000 to put up at least 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. He was also the fastest player to hit 100 career 3s. People took notice. Hell, even Warrior head coach Steve Kerr spoke glowingly of his former teammate.

“It’s funny because we’re all judged based on wins and losses,” Kerr told The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson in January of 2018. “Is Fred that much better of a coach now than he was a year ago? No, he has different personnel. I know this is going come as a surprise, but if I didn’t have [Kevin] Durant, [Stephen] Curry and [Klay] Thompson, people wouldn’t say, ‘Man, you run a great offense.’ They would say, ‘Why can’t you coach?’ We’re all beholden to our talent.

“Fred is a guy I’ve admired for years. I’ve stolen plenty of stuff offensively from him. He’s a great coach. Until you get players in this league, nobody is going to laud you for your coaching efforts. I’m just glad to see that the puzzle is starting to fit as far as Fred’s vision and what the Bulls’ vision is.”

Hoiberg spent the entire offseason looking for ways to maximize Markkanen, tweaking his system to feature the sharp-shooter more. But Markkanen suffered a “high grade lateral sprain” to his right elbow in training camp and was sidelined for six to eight weeks. Markkanen didn’t make his season debut until Dec. 1. Hoiberg was let go on Dec. 3. He was a fall guy.

At the college ranks, Hoiberg can walk into a room and instantly command it. Husker Athletic Director Bill Moos lauded Hoiberg’s resume when he introduced him. Chicago didn’t work for a laundry list of reasons, some Hoiberg’s fault and some well outside of his control. His players were sad when he left the team. When news broke he had landed with the Huskers, many voiced their excitement. 

"I think it's great for him," LaVine said, per The Daily Herald. "I sent him a text to congratulate him. I think everybody knows how much we love Fred, how good of a person he is. He's a great basketball mind.”

Wade tweeted congrats. Former Bulls forward Bobby Portis tweeted about Hoiberg, too. If he wins at Nebraska, no one will be surprised.


Editor’s note: A previous version of this story listed LaVine as having suffered a torn ACL during his first year in Chicago. The injury happened while he was still in Minnesota before the Bulls traded for him.

 
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