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Envisioning the Chicago Bulls Under Fred Hoiberg

Wherever you land on the Tom Thibodeau saga, it’s looking more and more like his coaching tenure with the Bulls is close to ending in Chicago. And one of the biggest names brought up as his replacement is Fred Hoiberg, currently coaching at Iowa State.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the man who reports all the news before it happens, told the Spiegel and Goff Show:

The job will be Fred Hoiberg’s if he wants it. There’s not going to be any competition for him. Now, it’s conceivable that Fred Hoiberg decides to stay at Iowa State, but if they make a change and Tom Thibodeau is out, Fred Hoiberg is really the only candidate for this job from the Bulls’ perspective. But that doesn’t guarantee that he’s going to do it. I know he has already had to give it thought because it’s real.

There are still questions to answer, such as whether he wants the job at all, but it certainly seemed worth probing into what the Bulls would look like with him running the show.

There’s an odd sort of association with Hoiberg’s name that has more to do with his current status than anything else. The last time the Bulls went in the direction of Iowa State, they landed Tim Floyd, and during his slightly over three-year run, the Bulls were 49-190. But apart from his current occupation, Hoiberg has little in common with Floyd.

I’m not an expert on college basketball, but I know people who are. Randy Sherman is a colleague and fellow writer at BBALLBREAKDOWN.com. He doesn’t just know college ball, but college coaching as well, so I sought out his opinion. Writing isn’t his career. For his “day job,” he’s the owner and founder of Radius Athletics, which is a basketball coaching consulting firm.

Sherman consults with basketball coaches at all levels on game strategy, practice planning, Xs & Os and coaching mentorship. In other words, understanding and helping coaches is literally his business. So, he seemed like a good man to talk about this with. As such, I asked him some questions about Hoiberg, and how he would fit in with the Bulls.

The thing most Bulls fans will want to know: Is Hoiberg’s offense fun to watch? The offense under Thibodeau has been … shall we say … not fun. 

For fans of free-flowing uptempo basketball (and really, who isn’t?), Fred Hoiberg’s offense is entertaining. There’s almost no “false action” in Hoiberg’s offense. In layman’s terms, his team gets right to the business of scoring. He runs a very efficient offense. Iowa State has ranked no lower than No. 11 (and as high as sixth) in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency per kenpom.com. An immediate upgrade in the watchability of the Bulls on the offensive end is imminent if Hoiberg is hired.

(I don’t know about the rest of you, but this sounds preferable to watching someone hold the ball for four seconds and then trying to force a pass into the paint that bounces off someone’s foot or just passing it to someone else who holds the ball for four seconds.)

Watch how the ball hops on these two plays and compare that with your scarred memories of the Thibodeau offense:

I read that 40 percent of Iowa State’s offense comes off three-point attempts, yet still shot 36.2 percent from deep. What does he do to create so many looks?

Two main ways: His “fist” action uses screen the screener action where a shooter sets a cross screen for a post player and then receives a down screen for a shot. But the main way is spacing around pick-and-rolls. The penetration created by the pick-and-roll allows for kick-outs to open shooters. Hoiberg almost always has a shooter spaced on the weak side from the ball screen. 

(Off the cuff, I can see Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic feasting in this kind of system. All three are capable three-point shooters on the catch-and-shoot, and Derrick Rose is great at getting the ball to the weak side shooter on the pick-and-roll.)

Imagine, for instance, Jimmy Butler and Mirotic running these plays:

I understand he likes to use a lot of screens, especially drag screens, to generate early offense. Last year the Bulls were last in effective field goal percentage in the 18-22 second range of the shot clock. How can Hoiberg help with that?

Drag screens are ball screens set in transition for a ball handler. The defense is put into screening action before they’re truly set. Early offense is a Hoiberg staple. Hoiberg has been a big proponent of the reduction of the college shot clock, mainly because of his team’s tempo and disdain for false motion. It’s rare to see Hoiberg’s teams use more than 20 seconds of the shot clock.

For this project, I re-watched Iowa State’s loss at Oklahoma from the Big 12 season. This was one of the highest scoring NCAA games of the year. (OU won the game 94-83.) I recall that after the game, college analysts were lauding the NBA experience of Hoiberg and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger as to why the game had such great scoring and flow. Iowa State was consistently getting good shots from drag screen action within the first 10 seconds of the possession and often sooner.

Here’s an example of a set with a drag screen.

drag screen

Here’s a series of plays Sherman provided to demonstrate the Cyclones’ early offense. You have to prefer this to the Bulls’ “slow-broke” offense, right?:

Hoiberg talks about bigs going to their “room” a lot. What does that mean and how does he use his bigs?

Often, Iowa State doesn’t have a player on the low block at all. Hoiberg calls the short corner area two to three feet off the baseline and behind the defense the post player’s “room.” The purpose of the ball screen is to get a player in the paint attacking the defense. With post players “in their room” behind the defense, post defenders have to decide to either help up or sink back. I would say true back to the basket post players would be devalued in Hoiberg’s system and springy and rangy baseline athletes would become prioritized. 

Here are a couple of examples of a player staying in his room. Watch the player standing by the ref in the first play and the same guy in the second play. Tell me you can’t see Taj Gibson in that role:

As a big student of college ball, I’m guessing you’ve seen more Doug McDermott than most Bulls fans have, especially since he barely saw the court this year. Do you think Hoiberg would use him more and/or better than he was used this year? How does Hoiberg use his wings?

Of course I know of Doug McDermott! Hoiberg being hired by the Bulls would be the best thing to happen to McDermott’s professional career. I recall saying once to a coaching colleague that if every player played like McDermott, college basketball would be infinitely more entertaining. His movement away from the ball and ability to read defenders is lovely to watch. I’m not an avid NBA watcher, so I really cannot comment on why he hasn’t played much for Chicago to this point. I do believe that Hoiberg would find many ways to utilize McDermott. He’s the type of versatile and highly skilled player Hoiberg loves. 

In general, Hoiberg has a shooting wing (Naz Long) and more of a slashing wing (Bryce Dejean-Jones) on the floor together. He uses “Pistol” action and dribble handoffs for the slashers. He mainly spaces shooters opposite of high and wing ball screens. McDermott is adept at using pin downs and flare screens. He can read defenders and curl and catch-and-shoot off screens that don’t involve the ball. I see Hoiberg using this skill as a weapon. 

The best thing to happen to McDermott’s professional career? I could get used to that. And is there any world where you see  “shooting wing” and “slashing wing” and don’t think that Butler and McDermott can fill those roles?

Here are a couple of plays Sherman provided as examples of how Hoiberg uses his small forward:

Iowa State uses Georges Niang as “point forward.” In the first play, Iowa has to defend with a big player and Iowa State isolates with Niang. Hoiberg is very good at exploiting mismatches. Post player is “in his room” and gets the easy basket on penetration.

In the second play, Niang is point forward again. The true point guard, Monte Morris, can be seen at bottom of the screen. (No. 11) Niang goes into a dribble handoff. You can see him directing traffic to get the player he wants involved to prevent the switch. The dribble handoff serves as sort of a ball screen. A nice pocket pass goes back to Niang for the three. 

I can actually see Rose running either of these plays as well. One thing I really like about everything I see about Hoiberg is that you don’t have to rebuild the team around him. The parts are already there.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that Hoiberg’s teams are elite offenses at the college level without having elite players. Would his system allow for star-caliber players like Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to shine? 

Butler is becoming a player who can’t help but shine for whomever is coaching him. I would anticipate frequent dribble handoffs to Butler. Hoiberg loves to use dribble handoffs to generate mismatches that become isolations for a particular player. 

It’s with Rose that I see the most adjustments coming. Iowa State has had the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio for consecutive years – point guard Monte Morris. While Morris is a terrific player, this can be deceiving. For a point guard, Morris has a low usage rate (16.9 percent) due to Hoiberg’s point forward schemes.

Also, compared to the rest of the NCAA, Iowa State shoots the ball quicker. Thusly, Morris doesn’t have as many turnover opportunities as many others. It seems that in college basketball, the longer the possession the higher the likelihood of the next pass being a turnover becomes. And Iowa State doesn’t have long offensive possessions. I would anticipate a Bulls team with the ball in the hands of Rose less.

I think less reliance on Rose, given his injury history, isn’t a bad thing. I also think a creative coach like Hoiberg, given a player with Rose’s ability, would figure out a way to tweak the offense. But the idea of fewer turnovers after that debacle of a Milwaukee series sure sounds nice!

Most of the attention has been placed on his offense. But how is his defense? Are the Bulls looking at the next Mike D’Antoni or is Hoiberg a balanced coach? 

I wouldn’t describe Hoiberg as a “balanced coach.” He definitely tilts towards offense. His teams have struggled a bit with dirty work. UAB bounced them from the NCAA Tournament this year by dominating the rebounding battle and crashing the boards. “Finesse team” can be a damning label, but many would describe Iowa State as such. If Bulls management is wanting to hire the “anti-Thibs,” Hoiberg is it. This is, without a doubt, a coaching candidate that would be all about adding offense. 

Oh well. Better to be limited and fun than limited and boring. That said, I think the Bulls should probably still be a decent team on defense. Joakim Noah, Gibson and Butler are all players who pride themselves on their defense. If they retain some of the coaching staff that knows Thibs’s system, they’ll be decent enough  on the unsexy end. This won’t be the “Marc Trestman” to the Bears’ “Lovie Smith.”

Last question, and given how the whole Thibodeau drama has  played out, this is important. Does Hoiberg play well with others?

Hoiberg has an NBA head coach demeanor. Calm, collected and not a “screamer” if you will. I cannot see him being a source of conflict with anyone. His nickname is “The Mayor” because he’s so beloved by everyone in Ames, Iowa. He just has a professorial demeanor that’s poised. Very Brad Stevens-like in that regard. 

Wow! Chicago could upgrade its Mayor, too!!! Sounds like a plan!

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