Bulls Fire Fred Hoiberg, Promote Jim Boylen

Hoiberg was 115-155 in four seasons in Chicago.

Cody Westerlund
December 03, 2018 - 9:01 am
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports

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(670 The Score) A union between the Bulls and Fred Hoiberg that began with the glowing romance of offensive innovation fueling championship dreams ended in an unceremonious breakup Monday.

Owners of a 5-19 record that's the second-worst in the NBA, the Bulls fired Hoiberg, ending his tenure in Chicago in its fourth season. The team made the announcement in a press release Monday morning in which it simultaneously announced associate head coach Jim Boylen had been promoted to the head coach position. The Bulls didn't give Boylen the "interim" label in announcing the move.

Boylen is under contract through the 2019-'20 season at just less than $1 million annually, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported. It wasn't immediately clear if he'll move forward under his current deal or negotiate an extension with the team. If an extension isn't reached, Boylen will nonetheless have a chance to earn one.

Hoiberg finished with a 115-155 record in his three-plus seasons leading the Bulls, good for a .426 winning percentage. The Bulls made the playoffs just once in his tenure, squeaking in as the eighth seed in 2016-’17 before being eliminated in the first round.

"Decisions like this one are never easy to make, however I felt this was the right choice for our organization at this time," executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said in a statement. "After a thorough evaluation, I elected to make this move with the overall development of our team in mind. As a team, I believe it is imperative that we make unfaltering strides in the right direction and build the right habits to help put our players in the best position to evolve not only now but into the future. I want to thank Fred for his dedication and efforts, as well as for his enduring commitment to our team."

After a successful five-year reign at his alma mater of Iowa State, Hoiberg was officially hired by the Bulls on June 2, 2015. He entered the NBA coaching ranks being hailed for his space-and-pace system and his offensive acumen, praise backed by Warriors coach Steve Kerr later admitting that he stole plays from Hoiberg to use for his championship teams.

The trouble was Hoiberg’s vision never consistently blended with the personnel he had, nor did his message become ingrained in Bulls culture. In Hoiberg’s three full seasons as coach, the Bulls ranked 23rd, 20th and 28th in offensive rating, respectively. That dreary trend continued amid this trying season, as the Bulls were dead last in the league in offensive rating through Sunday night. Save for 2017-’18, Chicago never played particularly fast under Hoiberg either, ranking in the bottom half of the league in pace.

Hoiberg’s rookie NBA coaching season of 2015-‘16 was marked by locker room dysfunction. In the first week of the season, Hoiberg relayed a false tale that veteran big man Joakim Noah volunteered to come off the bench. Having only said he’d do what’s best for the team, Noah was irked.

Hoiberg implored point guard Derrick Rose to push the ball, to no avail. The Bulls ranked 16th in pace. In a season-long crusade, All-Star wing Jimmy Butler appointed himself the team’s leader. The problem was few listened to Butler, other than when he infamously called out Hoiberg, whom he said needed to “coach harder.”

The season ended with the Bulls finishing 42-40 and missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. After it concluded, Paxson stressed the need for Hoiberg to determine “what he wants to be as a head coach” and for him and his staff to hold their players more accountable.

Hoiberg’s desire for quick ball movement never meshed with Butler’s preference for methodical, probing and at-times isolation-heavy attacks. That much was reinforced in 2016-’17, which featured the addition of established veteran guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, who coined the “Three Alphas” moniker to describe the trio.

The nickname didn’t mean much on the floor but was symbolic of the scene that played out off the court. A season that featured Hoiberg constantly turning over the point guard duties amid struggles from many may be most remembered for a late January loss. After the Bulls collapsed late amid a barrage of 3-pointers from the Hawks, Wade and Butler torched the effort of their younger teammates. A day later, Rondo returned the verbal fire at them in an incendiary Instagram post.

Hoiberg was a bystander in that drama. He was a central figure in directing the Bulls to a strong finish late, helping them rally to a 41-41 finish that set up a first-round series against the top-seeded Celtics. Chicago pulled a stunner in winning the first two games in Boston, only to lose four straight after Rondo was sidelined with a broken thumb.

Again, Paxson sent Hoiberg into the offseason with some stinging public criticism.

“Fred’s challenge this offseason is to find ways to be a better leader,” Paxson said early that May.

In a departure from the norm given that it’s a player’s league, the relatively young coach in Hoiberg outlasted the star in Butler in Chicago. The Bulls traded Butler to the Timberwolves on draft night in June 2017, receiving in return Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. The blockbuster deal signaled the start of a rebuild and tasked Hoiberg with a new priority in place of winning games: player development.

The Bulls accomplished a fair measure of that in going 27-55 in 2017-’18, a campaign in which then-rookie Lauri Markkanen broke out and Dunn showed progress. The season began with Hoiberg helping the Bulls navigate a headline-grabbing incident in which Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic in training camp. The results were broken bones in Mirotic’s face and hard feelings that never went away, but Hoiberg kept the Bulls together.

Their problem was a lack of established talent. Ironically, it was arguably Hoiberg’s least stressful season despite the Bulls descending toward the basement of the Eastern Conference.

While stopping short of talking playoffs, the Bulls had higher hopes entering this 2018-’19 season. With his ACL rehab behind him, LaVine had a full, healthy offseason of training and came back with the vengeance and improved efficiency the organization hoped to see.

The primary trouble has been a rash of injuries. Markkanen suffered a severe right elbow sprain in the first week of training camp, which has sidelined him for 23 games before he returned to make his season debut in a loss Saturday night. Dunn played one game before suffering an MCL sprain that continues to keep him out. Bobby Portis played four games before suffering the same injury that Dunn has. Both are expected to return in a week or two.

That adversity left Hoiberg with a difficult hand, relying heavily on a rotation made up of players just out of the G League or who had previously been relegated there for stretches.

It remains to be seen what’s next for the 46-year-old Hoiberg, whose competitive fire still burns. His coaching stock has taken a hit on the NBA scene, but he still garners strong respect within the Timberwolves organization. Hoiberg worked in Minnesota’s front office from 2006-’10, and the franchise could part ways with Tom Thibodeau eventually after prolonged tensions.

Hoiberg will likely garner interest from some high-major programs if he considered going back to the college ranks, but he had a disdain for the recruiting scene when he left Iowa State in 2015.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.