Of late, I find myself pondering the many mysteries of NBA coaching.
Head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue, has just recently become the former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, after starting this season 0-6. Lue, if you recall, took over the position midway through the Cav’s infamous run to the championship in the 2015-16 season, after LeBron James and company turned on then head coach David Blatt. Not yet three full seasons removed from winning the title, and Lue finds himself out of the job as well. 0-6 and out of a job is a hell of a way to start a season.
Dwane Casey is one of the best, most respected coaches in the NBA. In fact, he won the Coach of the Year award last season by shepherding the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference. It was the 5th straight season the Raptors made the playoffs under Casey, they were the top of their division 4 out those 5 seasons, yet, even before Casey officially received his award, he was fired. He is now the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, a team that has jumped out to a surprising 4-2 start and currently sits 4th in the East. He is, undoubtedly, an excellent coach.
Fred Hoiberg has coached the Chicago Bulls for three full seasons. During the first season of his tenure, the Bulls finished with an above .500 record but found themselves barely outside the playoffs. In their second season with Hoiberg, the Bulls were an exactly .500 team and made the playoffs, losing in the first round to the Boston Celtics. Last season, the 3rd season of Fred, the Bulls tanked.
It’s interesting that two relatively successful head coaches have found themselves summarily dismissed after disappointing the expectations of their management, and Hoiberg continues to tick along. I’m not advocating that the Bulls fire him, I’m merely suggesting that in his 3 seasons with the team he has yet to disappoint management enough for that to happen. How long will that last?
Most Bulls observers consider this season to be very important for Fred Hoiberg and his future with the team. This was the season to play unadulterated Hoiball. He has the players for the scheme, there is no intention to tank. For the Bulls and Hoiberg, this is it.
Or is it?
Injuries have plagued the Bulls this young season, forcing a slow and disappointing start. Injuries are also a built in excuse for an organization to roll everything back for one more season. With as many rotation players out of the line up as the Bulls have had, and for as long as it takes them to recover, it’s hard not to see the front office and/or coaching staff pleading with fans for a mulligan season.
It’s also hard to evaluate Fred Hoiberg because no clear expectations have been set for him and this team. The one expectation that was set for this season was “to see improvement.” In what? Win total? Competent execution of the offense? Individual players stats? We don’t know. Improvement is a nebulous goal, one that can easily be achieved or missed depending on the whim of the evaluator.
I am skeptical that the Bulls front office will fire Hoiberg. There was a lot of pride wrapped up in the decision to make him the head coach. Things did not end well with previous Bulls head coach, Tom Thibodeau. It got ugly and personal between he and GarPax. Both sides were stubborn and prideful, and the hiring of Fred Hoiberg, a man whose coaching style was so dissimilar to that of Thibodeau’s, was a clear message from GarPax: It’s our way or the highway. Under our careful guidance, Fred will do what Thibs could not, and return this team to greatness. That’s the message that was sent around the league.
Before he was fired, the front office disparaged Thibodeau’s communication skills, and the lack of offensive output from his teams. They accused him of exhausting his players by keeping them in games for extended minutes, hinting, not so subtly, that Thibodeau was to blame for the devastating injuries to Derrick Rose. If Thibodeau was the gruff, defensively minded taskmaster, Hoiberg was to be the antithesis. Hoiberg was called a “players coach,” excellent at communicating. He was an offensive guru, capable of leading the Bulls into the bright new NBA where teams average 112 points a game.
It will be hard for GarPax to fire Hoiberg. It will mean that they have to admit they failed. Unless they can find a way to scapegoat Fred. If they ever become serious about firing Hoiberg, expect to see the blame for players not developing, for the win totals not being high enough, for the defense not being stout enough, to the communication not being clear enough, and “expectations” not being met, placed squarely at his feet. This front office makes damn sure they are never accountable for the failures of the Chicago Bulls.
But the more likely scenario is that the Bulls plead injuries and bring everyone back for the last season of Hoiberg’s contract. They will allow Fred to finish next season and ride off into the sunset. They’ll thank him for all the hard work he has done developing the young core. He will be praised for getting the Bulls ready to take the next step, but it will be time for the organization and Fred to part ways. The new coach will be announced, someone who will take the team to the “next level,” and the Hoiberg era will slip away, like a rivulet of rain joining an ocean.
There will always be a reason to fire a coach, even successful coaches are pushed out eventually, and Hoiberg can hardly be considered successful. Whether it’s this year, or more likely, next year, the Bulls will soon be in the market for a new head coach. Inevitably, Hoiberg’s successor will out stay their welcome as well, and a new coach will be hired. The dynamic is unchanging, like batteries for a TV remote: swap in-swap out. And that’s the conclusion I’ve come to; coaching in the NBA is an exercise in futility. Now I wonder if that’s how it will work for this front office? Swap in-swap out. A fresh set of batteries sounds nice.