By Adam Spinella
Breaking training camp this past October, prevailing wisdom said the Chicago Bulls would be different. The roster was created (intentionally or not) to go against the grain on offense and feature a gritty, rebound-centric attack. Nobody on earth knew where Chicago would get enough outside shooting to space the floor, and everybody knew the Bulls would pound the offensive glass as their most meaningful way of making up for what they lack.
Superstar-in-the-making Jimmy Butler was now flanked by an older version of himself: Dwyane Wade. The two form a talented two-headed attack on the wings, where even the best and most versatile defenders and schemes will struggle to keep them out of the paint. Like driving past a car wreck on the side of the highway, this Bulls offense would be a disaster with eyes glued to it all season, wanting to see just how each dent was created and each fire was put out. To date, the Bulls have performed admirably, stepping up in big games and adjusting their style to do whatever they must to win against upper-echelon opponents.
Hovering around .500, the results aren’t very inspiring. The morale is less so. And for Fred Hoiberg, the man in charge of orchestrating the strings to raise the level of play and morale, the Bulls’ stylistic identity couldn’t be farther away from what he’s intended.
Tension on the roster has hit an all-time high with superstars Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their teammates for their lack of commitment and consistency on the court. Embattled point guard Rajon Rondo fired back at the team’s two best players for how they’ve handled criticizing their teammates through the media. It was the ultimate “hello kettle, I’m pot” move, but is just the latest unraveling of the team’s chemistry.
Is Hoiberg to blame for the oncoming collapse in Chicago? How much responsibility falls upon the front office for placing the team in this predicament? Are the players really holding up their end of the bargain? That’s just scratching the surface. So many questions remain in the Windy City. Something needs to change, or this group will unravel completely.
Watching a college coach transition to the pros illuminates a very unique glimpse into the relationship between the coach and the general manager. A college coach essentially serves as both, bringing in the players they want to fit their desired style. As an NBA coach, the expectation is to make the most of the players given to you, while also pushing behind the scenes to get the players that fit their desired style.
Iowa State Hoiberg always had teams with a clear identity: spread the floor, lots of screens and dribble handoffs at a high speed. Transition is always the first, most prevalent attack. Launch threes, and play a stretch-4 at almost all times. Athletic rim protectors who can finish and offensive rebound. Big, physical point guards who can do damage on the blocks as well as while driving. Horns actions for multiple players, depending on who was the hot hand. On top of that, more shooting, more shooting, and then some more shooting.
Hoiberg gained success, and notoriety with this approach, continually reloading with transfers and players ready to fit in his system the moment they arrive on campus. Frankly, it’s that style that allowed him to become an NBA head coaching candidate for teams looking to revolutionize their offense. Hoiberg was a perfect fit for the NBA, and the NBA a perfect fit for him.
Last season (Hoiberg’s first with the Bulls) he began to plug pieces of his Iowa State building blocks into the skeleton of the team’s offense. He brought with him an extensive Pitch series, an early offense specialty that utilizes great spacing and misdirection ball movement to create driving lanes for simple reads. Lots of players get touches, multiple ball handlers are necessary on the court, and shooters provide the spacing necessary for the set to have any traction.
Joakim Noah, as a playmaking center, and Nikola Mirotic, as a stretch-4, were the pieces Hoiberg dreamed about when he took the Chicago job. Even Pau Gasol as a skilled passing big man was worth having for the headache of navigating where to balance him and Noah playing together. There was talent to play with on this roster, at least on the offensive end of the court. Those three, along with Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis, made up the strength of the first Hoiberg Bulls team: depth in the frontcourt.
Without compromising what brought him to the dance, Hoiberg instituted his modernly-spaced offense from the get-go. A goateed Coach Nick broke down the offense early in Hoiberg’s tenure, noting the fingerprints from Iowa State that are all over their sets and their speed. It appeared, at the very least, to be a slight improvement from the dark days of Tom Thibodeau’s approach.
Slowly the residue of those fingerprints wore off. Hoiberg began to run more true post-ups for Gasol. The lack of shooting prowess from Derrick Rose made the pitch series less effective, as defenses began to go underneath screens and leave Rose unguarded from three. Joakim Noah’s passing out of the pick-and-roll, or as a stand-still 4-man spacing the floor around post threats Gasol and Gibson, never materialized.
Gar Forman and John Paxson, the two higher-ups within this Bulls organization responsible for building the roster, had a great opportunity this summer to retool Hoiberg’s arsenal and create a roster that fit their head coach’s strengths. Noah’s contract was off the books. Gasol was off the books and looking to move on.
Gibson, Mirotic and Portis are and were capable frontcourt players, meaning the Bulls didn’t have to look at replacing Noah and Gasol from the outside. The organizational directive was to get “younger and more athletic” this summer. Drafting a playmaking wing in Denzel Valentine was a solid step in that direction, and Forman looked to follow suit in free agency.
Before free agency even opened, Chicago primed itself for a larger summer splash when they made the often-celebrated decision of trading Derrick Rose. Perennial injuries, issues with performance on a once-max contract and zero reliability held the former MVP back for much of the last half-decade. Chicago unloaded Rose on the cheap, getting in return a young point guard and a defensive-minded big man and rim protector (they also got Calderon, but dumped him on the Lakers to clear more cap space, as was always the plan). The frontcourt appeared set, and while not the strength of this team, it was solid and versatile enough to be a source of appeal to big name free agent point guards.
One slight issue: there weren’t any big name point guards on the market.
July 1st was a time of great optimism in Chicago. Cap space was enough to pursue a big name, and the roster would be fine if they got two starting-caliber players instead. Yet the plan to unload Rose this summer, while fruitful in its own right, left Chicago with a lack of options at the point. The market was bare, lacking the type of size and shooting prowess that Hoiberg craved. E’Twaun Moore received a hefty offer from the Pelicans that Chicago couldn’t match. Wing Arron Afflalo spurned early interest to join the ugly organization in Sacramento, the same organization Bulls fans are cheering for in 2017, owning the Kings’ first-rounder if they make the playoffs.
Chicago ultimately spurned any outside-the-box alternatives that existed in free agency. Tyler Johnson from Miami was a relative unknown, but might have fit the bill as an off-ball option. Jeremy Lin had the size and shooting, though his style of play and defensive liability weren’t attractive to the organization. Dion Waiters, Evan Turner, Matthew Dellavedova — interesting options that the Bulls never fully pursued.
Instead, Chicago threw two separate contracts to old, non-shooting guards that used to be rivals and approached the game in wildly different ways: Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Not exactly getting younger and more athletic, is it?
There stood Hoiberg, forced to push the buttons for a team with two non-shooting guards, a non-shooting center in Lopez and a superstar driver in Jimmy Butler who needed space to operate. How can Hoiberg fit this into his system? How can he devise any system around three players that are best with the ball in their hands, none of which are particularly valuable without it? Forman and Paxson failed to grease the wheels that Hoiberg wanted to spin.
Instead, the executives were overly focused on eradicating last year’s issues and not concerned with preventing future chemistry issues from arising. Last year’s Bulls had major issues: too many ball stops within the ball movement-centered system. Gasol wanting post-ups. Derrick Rose still thinking he’s the major playmaker, while Jimmy Butler was putting up alpha male numbers.
Forman managed to get rid of all those issues in the same offseason, a huge sign of promise for the future. The lack of planning with where to go for a replacement has created an environment and playing style even more toxic than Hoiberg’s first on the job.
To compound matters, Forman traded one of Hoiberg’s only reliable wing shooters in October, shipping Tony Snell off to Milwaukee for — you guessed it — another non-shooting point guard. Michael Carter-Williams’ rocky ride of a career has been poorly judged and cast off simply because he’s a poor shooter.
There are myriad ways that a non-shooter who dominates the ball can impact the offense for the better, but they all involve being placed in a situation to succeed. Chicago constructed a roster with four such players. All of a sudden, Hoiberg’s recipe for success was burst apart, cracking around the reality that in order to win, this roster needed to completely scrap a spread-and-shoot scheme.
Adding Wade to this roster has changed their focal point of attack, running numerous post-ups to get Wade the ball on the inside. Sure, he started the season on a tear from three-point range. A look at his month-by-month splits show that Wade, shooting 21.1 percent from three in December and only 40 percent from the field in January, is cooling down.
With an attack centered around getting Wade the ball where he can score efficiently, this is now what the Bulls offense looks like — a far cry from what we saw the Bulls run last year. Starting Wade alongside bigs like Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez does very little to open up spacing for Wade near the basket, forcing him into contested fadeaways. Watch any Bulls game and you’ll see at least four or five shots like these.
God bless Fred Hoiberg for plugging and playing every conceivable rotation known to mankind to flank the Butler and Wade attack. He’s started Rajon Rondo, and benched Rondo for games at a time despite Rajon’s backlash. He’s started Jerian Grant as the best shooter next to Wade and Butler, and buried him on the depth chart as well. He’s taken a healthy Carter-Williams and supplanted all other lead guards with him, only to give MCW a surprising DNP on Tuesday after starting the last 12 games.
Each time he changes the rotation, Hoiberg’s response publicly and privately to lineups changes leave the benching victim scratching his head. With the mesh of talent on this roster, is Hoiberg really to blame for the revolving door at the point guard spot?
At the end of the day, his job is to put forth the best players on the roster to help the team win games. Even if the front office fails to give Hoiberg the players he wants or to give him high-quality players, he’s got to pick and develop the best players each night. When guys like Rondo, Carter-Williams and Grant all perform below the level of expectation, Hoiberg has to figure out the right course of action.
Starting Carter-Williams completely stifled the Dwyane Wade post-up attack, a huge reason why Wade’s field goal percentage has fallen off a cliff over the past six weeks. Whenever Wade backs down, he’ll see five defenders standing in the paint around him, often with MCW’s man going to double team Wade and force the ball out of his hands.
Sometimes Jimmy Butler doesn’t even trust Carter-Williams, a point guard, to make an entry pass to the post! The second clip showed Butler refusing to hit MCW, clearing him through to the opposite wing. It appears to be a selfish play by Butler, but when you see how teams play Carter-Williams when he’s looking to throw the ball into the post, the results are alarming.
The lack of shooting Carter-Williams provides these Bulls destroys any flow of their offense. Shooting 21.9 percent from three, teams all but ignore Carter-Williams when he doesn’t have the ball.
Sacramento coach Dave Joerger changed the Kings’ rotation on a simple baseline cut from Dwyane Wade. As he catches the ball in the clip below, Jimmy Butler is weak side with Carter-Williams at the top of the key. As Kosta Koufos goes to help on Wade and leave his man, conventional wisdom dictates that Arron Afflalo would need to “sink and fill” near the basket to take away a layup for Robin Lopez. But Afflalo stays home on Jimmy Butler, and Darren Collison sinks from the top of the key to tag Lopez.
Sure, Lopez commits a turnover when he could have had a dunk on this possession. The prevailing though from this possession is that opponents won’t even bat an eye when leaving Carter-Williams unattended on the perimeter. With a poor shooting Wade and two other posts that can’t shoot, it feels like the Bulls are playing four-on-five most possessions.
Carter-Williams is currently averaging 3.9 assists per 36 minutes. Again, this guy is a “point guard” whose own team won’t even allow to throw a post entry pass. As a non-shooter who doesn’t create for others, there’s close to nothing that MCW gives the Bulls on offense.
In response, Hoiberg has gone back to the well, bringing Jerian Grant in as the team’s starting point guard. Grant is a career 25 percent three-point shooter (barely an improvement from MCW). Grant has a reputation of being a bit better shooter, and at times has hit timely threes when teams double off him in the post. For every three that Grant makes, he also has a complete brick like this.
Grant’s offensive upgrade over Carter-Williams is slight, though an upgrade nonetheless. Of course, we’re not even discussing the other end of the court which makes up the other half of this little game called basketball. Carter-Williams is a solid defender, and Grant is really struggling on that side of the court. He’s not quick enough to limit dribble penetration from opposing point guards, and Grant’s understanding of how and when to switch has left the Bulls exposed far too frequently.
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Recently, Hoiberg began to close the revolving door of point guards ever so slightly… by playing none of them. Both Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are more than capable ball handlers and creators. Wade could even serve as the de facto “big point guard” that appeals to Hoiberg, utilizing him in the post while shooters space the floor. According to NBA statistician John Schuhmann, Chicago’s lineups early into last week were performing at a much higher rate than when any of their point guards were on the floor.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) January 26, 2017
With Wade or Butler running the show, the amount of spacing in the middle of the floor due to one extra shooter makes the offense click like a television remote. Rondo and Jerian Grant will combine for about 30 minutes a night, while nearly 20 minutes are reserved for this hybrid group without a point guard. The offense moves much more smoothly with this group, and the spacing allows both Butler and Wade to thrive in one-on-one situations.
Wade and Butler play best around each other; both are such strong scoring threats that defenses key in on one and will often leave the other open. Hoiberg has added a nice action in early offense for both, getting Wade to play in a ball screen with Butler spaced on the strong side. Defenders are forced between keeping Wade out of the lane and leaving Butler open, or clamping down on Jimmy and hoping the rest of the defense can prevent D-Wade from scoring near the rim.
Both guards are so good at “re-penetrating” on drives, meaning one will drive to the rim first, pass to the other, and the second man drives again, causing the already collapsed defense to collapse further. Those opportunities create some of the best drive-and-kick lanes for the Bulls, and their offense looks great when Butler or Wade have someone to pass to on the perimeter.
Elfrid Payton is hiding on McBuckets as a one-dimensional shooter. But as Payton has to step towards the rim and help on Felicio, McDermott is left wide open from three. That’s the difference in playing McDermott on the wing instead of Rondo or Carter-Williams.
Shooters have a gravitational effect just by, well, existing. Their presence makes their defender worry about giving up an open three, so they’re more apt to be sucked away from the rim and leave passing or driving lanes open. Watch as DeMarcus Cousins, tasked with guarding Nikola Mirotic on the perimeter, abandons the rim too early on Butler’s baseline drive.
The gravitational pull of Mirotic opens a passing lane for Butler to hit Robin Lopez at the rim. Lopez isn’t a scoring threat in one-on-one situations, but he is a great screen-setter and has decent touch around the rim. Opening the restricted area for Lopez to finish will put Bulls faithful at ease that he’s more than just an interior defender.
As we’ve seen with Wade over the years, he’s great at playing without the ball due to timely backdoor cuts. Having spacing on the perimeter opens more cutting lanes for Wade, Butler and other shooters to dart towards the rim without the ball and not fear of sprinting directly into oncoming traffic. One fewer big man guarding the rim, and one fewer defender sagging off a non-shooter, give the Bulls just enough space to get a cheap bucket or two a year on such cuts.
The trickle-down effects of keeping all three point guards on the bench for stretches need not be ignored. The obvious defensive ramifications fall mostly on Dwyane Wade, now tasked with marking quick and explosive point guards. Data pulls from the NBA’s new SportsVU technology are up for interpretation in all areas except for one: guarding the opposing ball handler means more mileage while on the court. For a player with a history of injuries that’s well into his thirties, that trend is concerning for Wade.
Over the past two weeks, Chicago has been absolutely lit up by scoring point guards. Partially due to the increased time Wade or Butler spend guarding the ball handler, the Bulls struggle to keep these scoring guards out of the paint. There is no shortage of high-scoring point guards in this league: eleven of the fourteen other teams in the East have primary ball handlers averaging at least 15 points per game. Without more resistance against the ball, climbing in the standings or holding onto a playoff spot will be tricky.
Secondly, the Bulls need to replace the minutes from the point guards somewhere. Hoiberg’s inserted Paul Zipser into the lineup recently while Denzel Valentine buses back and forth to the D-League. Zipser has played surprisingly well and given Chicago a lift in recent days. Experiments with Mirotic at the 3 began earlier in the year and have fizzled with its apparent defensive ineptitude. Finding that extra piece on the wing to stretch defenses won’t happen internally, and it’s an area where having Tony Snell would go a long way for this roster.
Rajon Rondo is starting to settle into leading a bench unit of shooters around him. That’s always been the optimal usage for Rondo, a player written off far too prematurely by the rest of the league. Understanding how to employ Rondo’s skill is what’s necessary to get him to play up to his potential.
With two non-shooting bigs and a non-shooter in Wade, Rondo did indeed look useless. As soon as Rajon would give up the ball to another creator on the court, he’s stand in the corner all alone — just what defenses wanted him to do.
The newly formed second unit, with Mirotic as a stretch-4 and shooters like McDermott and Zipser also on the court, plays right to Rondo’s strengths. He can dominate the ball, being the sole creator and making shooters around him better. The lane is more open for him to drive, and the rest of the group seems content to let Rondo get them easy buckets — what he does best.
Standing in the middle of this second unit is a pick-and-roll finisher and rebound hoarder Cristiano Felicio. With the open spacing, Felicio not only can burst toward the rim off ball screens, but has become an insane offensive rebounding threat: he has an offensive rebounding rate of 15.7 percent, third in the league among all players to log at least 600 minutes this season.
The big man is a very mobile and athletic 6’10”, making him the ideal finisher in a pick-and-roll scheme. Hoiberg loves playing him alongside shooters, allowing Felicio to slam home alley oops and have space to collect and finish off the glass.
There’s no doubt Felicio’s offensive output has earned him a role on this team as a consistent member of the rotation. Defensively, there’s a lot of work that Felicio still needs to put in. His effort goes in and out on that end of the court, struggling against the pick-and-roll. Post scorers abuse Felicio on the block; the league has shifted toward using these back-to-the-basket scorers heavily off the bench. While the Bulls second unit attack has improved around Felicio at the 5 and Rondo at the point, their defense is falling by the wayside.
Bench unit aside, it’s clear the first unit clicks most when Wade and Butler are playing without being hindered by another point guard. That first unit badly needs another shooter on the wings — and taking one away from the bench unit will once again regress Rondo into the less-than-optimal role he started in. Herein lies the mess of the Bulls roster.
Point guard rotations are the glaring example of Chicago’s mismatched collection of talent, but by no means the only example. Hoiberg has plugged guys like Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic in and out of the rotation all season. Bobby Portis was tried at center, and failed to provide anything resembling rim protection (or defense at all, really). The Gibson-Lopez pairing in the starting rotation does little to alleviate spacing concerns, and that might be the next pair to be split. Why Hoiberg hasn’t tried already is a worthy question to ask.
Evaluating Hoiberg’s tenure as Bulls head coach isn’t easy, so I asked for the opinions of many other Bulls writers and NBA sources to discuss what Hoiberg does well as a coach and what he struggles with. The answers received were uninspiring, to say the least.
As far as what Hoiberg does well, no two answers were the same. Some like his calm demeanor, some see it as a point of weakness. Others will value his willingness to try any rotation, while contrarians blame him for being unable to find a lineup that works. He’s been called an underrated defensive coach, a rational leader that relates to younger players and a coach that’s great at getting shooters open looks.
In layman’s terms, as a coach, there’s nothing positive that stands out about how Hoiberg impacts his team. Nobody from the outside feels his mark on these Bulls — a team he never envisioned he’d be playing X’s and O’s chess with.
The negatives were fairly clear and nearly unanimous: Hoiberg isn’t a strong coach out of timeouts. Both in terms of roster usage for a big possession and play calling, the overall sentiment is that Hoiberg does very little to put his teams in a position to succeed down the stretch.
Hoiberg’s struggles in timeout situations and in the fourth quarter have been well documented in his eighteen months as an NBA head coach. To be fair, Hoiberg has had a few nice play calls in timeout situations, in particular leveraging the playmaking ability of Rajon Rondo to create for others.
Unlike the coaching wizards this league has in ATO situations, like Gregg Popovich and Brad Stevens, Hoiberg is a big fan of playing isolation basketball late in games. He puts the ball in the hands of his main playmaker, isolates or runs one initial ball screen, and lets that player go to work. There’s rarely any accounting for defenses that switch those actions to neutralize drives to the rim. Almost every play results in a contested mid-range jumper. Analytics darlings aren’t needed to illustrate how inefficient those types of shots are.
To make matters worse, Hoiberg’s teams have struggled to even inbound the ball in these situations. Turnovers, lack of secondary options and poor spacing have all reared their ugly head for the Bulls in these late game inbound sets. Sometimes there are too many players near the ball, clogging any passing lanes. Others all four Bulls players are on the other side of the court, causing the inbounder to have nowhere to throw the rock.
Stephen Noh of The Athletic has been breaking down Hoiberg’s dismal timeout strategy for over a year, and written extensively about his failures in these situations. Last season, as Noh noted at the time, the Bulls failed to score in seventeen consecutive ATO situations. That type of lack of execution, regardless of the variables at play, is a direct reflection of the coach.
Butler and Wade, the two leaders on the court who hastily chastise the players for their role in underperforming, are sensitive to the timeout failures their coach exhibits. Last Wednesday against the Hawks, the Bulls were down two with under a minute to go, possessing two timeouts. While Hoiberg asked Butler to come towards the sideline and call for a timeout, the superstar looked off his coach with disgust.
<blockquote class=”twitter-video” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Hoiberg told Butler to call timeout and Butler looked at him like he was crazy. Butler freelanced and scored on the next play. <a href=”https://t.co/F5rn95uLfa”>pic.twitter.com/F5rn95uLfa</a></p>— Stephen Noh (@hungarianjordan) <a href=”https://twitter.com/hungarianjordan/status/824642251833872389″>January 26, 2017</a></blockquote>
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Jimmy may have scored on the possession, but that’s hardly the point. Players cannot look off their coach in crunch time, or even doubt them for a second. No matter what the Bulls’ ceiling was this season with their roster, a lack of confidence in the man calling the shots lowers that ceiling. Butler may be completely justified here: with two timeouts remaining and fifty seconds left, the use of a timeout may not be the best strategy — even for a coach struggling to create high-quality shots out of timeouts. But this level of disregard is akin to an Army Lieutenant disobeying a General’s orders. That shit doesn’t fly.
To be frank, Butler and Wade both need to be held accountable for their role in crumbling the structure of the organization. Those two are hell-bent on being a two-man show on offense, jacking up contested mid-ranges and slowing the flow of ball movement completely, while rarely giving the necessary effort and focus on the defensive end to corral high quality opponents.
The longer this season goes on, the more it feels like two players desperately trying to keep a sinking team afloat. The more the Bulls scrap towards mediocrity and hang in the playoff picture, the more difficult it is to understand this team’s true identity. The more players Hoiberg shuffles in and out of the rotation searching for an answer, the more choppy the waters rocking this sinking team become. He can’t just stand there and do nothing; nor can Butler or Wade. Ideas for what to do, however, are not easy to come by.
Alas, we circle back to the aforementioned blame game — who are the responsible parties and what are the causes for the Bulls’ utter disarray as a franchise? Blame is a fickle concept to pin down absolutely in a world where human error is both a symptom and a cause of malaise. Stick it all on one man, and other guilty actors get off easy. Desire to spread the blame across all involved holds no one accountable.
At the end of the day, it’s possible for the front office to struggle at assembling a sensible blend of talent and the head coach to fail at employing it properly. The mesh of talent is so poor that the environment surrounding it starts to sprout toxicity. Shame on the players, especially the veterans, for allowing the toxicity seep into the pores of the team. Nobody should escape blame for the mess in Chicago.