Update, 4/10: On Sunday, the Bulls were officially knocked out of the playoffs after the Indiana Pacers’ 129-105 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Would you believe it if I told you that a former college coach is struggling to earn the trust and respect of his NBA players in his first year in the pros? No, really, it’s true!
Our beloved Fred (could there be any more suitably Midwestern name for this favorite son?) has seen a season of incredibly passive-aggressive pushback from his players this year. He’s now has arrived a point where his team is just obviously giving up in front of his eyes as the Bulls fade out of the playoff picture late in the season after losing three straight games to teams that have nothing to fight for: the Knicks (who beat the Bulls badly two nights in a row) and the Magic (whose scrappy group of young-uns should be an easy W for the All Star-laden Bulls).
Okay, they aren’t officially out of the playoffs yet. With ten games left in their season, Chicago is two games behind the Detroit Pistons for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. So, a little hope remains. But remember: The Bulls entered this season not with a goal of — fingers crossed — eking out a spot in the postseason; they entered with the now-unimaginable goal of winning a championship. This was the explicit goal when Bulls management fired the well-respected Tom Thibodeau and hired Hoiberg.
Where did it go wrong? Why the passive-agression and non-compliance from a group that, on paper, seems like a winning roster?
Much has been made of the major tonal shift from the screaming-till-he’s-red-in-the-face style of Thibs to the politely-scolding-till-he’s-still-as-white-as-ever-in-the-face style of Hoiberg. But the problem is not so much that Hoiberg is calm where Thibs was adamant. Yelling and screaming isn’t necessary to earn trust from players; just look at Brad Stevens in Boston whose resume, age, and profile share some features of Fred’s.
The issue is more that Hoiberg’s nice-guy approach appears to have fostered a locker-room culture where players don’t feel the need to hold one another accountable and, as a result of the pleasant non-confrontation, there is no motivation for a leader to take responsibility and turn things around. The leadership issue is magnified by the absence of Joakim Noah, who was oddly neutered by Hoiberg at the beginning of the season when Fred pulled him from the starting lineup against his will, perhaps in a bid to mirror the success the Warriors enjoyed by turning Andre Iguedala into a second-unit player and saving his resources till the postseason. When Noah went out for the season with a shoulder injury, the power vacuum only widened and by then Hoiberg was already seen as a “nice man” rather than a sterling leader and none of the players were empowered to step up and take Noah’s place.
All this isn’t to say that Hoiberg is not a good coach or that he can’t one day lead a team to a championship. But this year has shown that style is at least as important as substance when it comes to managing the wills and talents of professional athletes. It’s most likely going to take a totally new slate of players — ones who are inclined to buy into Hoiberg’s plan as well as his personality — if the Bulls are to make it back to contender status.