A year ago this week, Bulls star Jimmy Butler urged coach Fred Hoiberg to coach harder.
On Wednesday night after another listless loss dropped the Bulls to .500, Bulls guard Dwyane Wade essentially asked Hoiberg to coach smarter.
‘Tis the season for giving the young Bulls coach grief.
You wonder if all Hoiberg wants for Christmas is his old job back at Iowa State, where his strategy received far less scrutiny and players endorsed his message more than they ignored it. You suspect Hoiberg deserves better than to have the onus of another unsatisfying Bulls season fall mainly on his shoulders, which are slumping lately.
Nobody expects the Bulls to call a Christmas Eve news conference, as they have done in the past, and fire their head coach. But the past week has underscored the challenges Hoiberg has faced since arriving for his first NBA head-coaching gig in June 2015 looking like an innocent from Ames, Iowa. Hoiberg’s easy smile has been replaced by a mask of tension.
As if awful efforts in back-to-back losses to the Bucks were not indicting enough, Wade’s comments after the Wizards game amplified doubts about Hoiberg, even if that wasn’t the savvy veteran’s tone or intent. Even if the issues at the core of Wade’s non-threatening critique extended well beyond his coach’s control.
“It doesn’t matter if a guy knows who it’s going to,” Wade told reporters. “If the paint is packed because you’re running one action, it’s going to be tough. … Let’s call it what it is: We’re putting a lot of pressure on Jimmy in the fourth quarter to make a lot of plays because we’re running just one action. So (we have) to get more action, more body movement.”
Put another way: More coaching, better coaching.
“It has to come from us as players too,” added Wade, who also complimented the offensive sets early in the game. “Obviously, some of it is play-calling as well. Some of it is we have to get out the way, we have to move, we have to keep them honest.”
Honestly, the Bulls’ biggest problems don’t start with Hoiberg. Though many will use what Wade said as another excuse to expose Hoiberg as an NBA novice, the words should be interpreted as a plea for help from the Bulls front office responsible for this mess more than criticism of the head coach.
Perhaps nothing works in the fourth quarter besides Butler, and occasionally Wade, because too few options exist on the roster. Perhaps no designed plays work because the Bulls don’t have enough dynamic players to execute them. Lack of depth and offensive skill limit the Bulls down the stretch as much as Hoiberg’s imagination. It’s funny how the NBA teams with multiple explosive players on the floor in fourth quarters tend to have the most creative offensive sets. Imagine if Warriors coach Steve Kerr had to choose between Rajon Rondo and Doug McDermott in crunch time.
The Bulls could replace their bench with a stool given how few reserves they now trust. That happens when five years of drafting and developing players has become a study in futility. Breaking: That isn’t Hoiberg’s fault.
Since 2012, the last five first-round draft picks chosen or traded for by general manager Gar Forman have combined to start 77 NBA games for the Bulls. Point guard Marquis Teague now starts for BC Avtodor Saratov in Russia’s VTB United League. Guard Tony Snell, a model of inconsistency since going 20th overall in 2013, now lays bricks in for the Bucks after three seasons of meh in Chicago.
Rotation player McDermott, a key cog because of his 3-point shooting, still can justify how much the Bulls gave up to acquire him in the 2014 NBA draft but comes with limitations. Forward Bobby Portis reveals his shortcomings the longer he is on the court. And Denzel Valentine, the latest first-rounder, keeps reminding everybody how much athleticism still matters in the NBA. Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic has regressed from a guy once considered a core player to someone barely consistent enough to be trade bait.
Missing on draft picks isn’t how an NBA team puts its coach in position to look smart; it’s how a team puts its coach in position to get fired.
The Bulls fell into Wade signing with them as a free-agent. They pulled off a good trade with the Knicks, getting productive center Robin Lopez and promising point guard Jerian Grant for Derrick Rose. They also signed Rondo, who is shooting 38 percent after hitting 1-of-10 Wednesday and has been suspended once. They likely will keep treading water in the murky Eastern Conference into April, when suspense will surround whether they have earned the right to make a first-round playoff exit.
To change the season’s trajectory, the Bulls are in desperate need of a personnel move, or moves, that will give Hoiberg more appealing options than he has had while his team lost seven of its last 10 games after an 11-7 start. As Wade said, the Bulls need “more action” to get out of this rut.
In an organization struggling to find its way, that isn’t limited to the coach.