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Can Fred Hoiberg Get the Bulls Over the Top?

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

When Fred Hoiberg was hired to take over for Tom Thibodeau as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, he agreed to step in and take over the team Thibs left behind and try to put his own personal touch on things. Now that free agency is underway and the Bulls’ roster has been rounded out a bit, one thing has become very clear: Hoiberg is quite literally taking over the team that Thibs left behind.

The Bulls have signed Jimmy Butler (as expected), Mike Dunleavy (which isn’t a big shock) and Aaron Brooks (which is a big shock), and with the addition of first-round draft pick Bobby Portis, the roster now stands at 14. (E’Twaun Moore‘s contract is non-guaranteed until 7/25 and Cameron Bairstow‘s contract is partially guaranteed, but both players will likely be on the roster.) There are rumors that they’re looking at reserve point guard Donald Sloan, but outside of that you can expect that the roster is fairly set moving forward, unless there’s a surprise trade.

I won’t go too far into “why didn’t they do this” or “why can’t that trade this guy,” because we don’t know what kind of conversations they’ve had with other GMs and agents. It’s possible they had other moves set as a priority but the market just wasn’t favorable for what they wanted to do.

Would I like to see one of their expendable big men traded for a wing player? Of course. Would I prefer a point guard that isn’t Brooks or Kirk Hinrich to back up Derrick Rose (and likely start at least 30 or so games)? Of course. But the fact is, this is the team they’re rolling with going into the 2015-2016 season.

The unintended result, of course, is that the front office is putting unnecessary pressure on their new coach and themselves.

Hoiberg is going to be bringing in his own offense, and that should be fun to watch. With a team that was built to score points behind Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol with the outside shooting of Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, you’d think that Hoiberg being an offensive coach would be a major advantage.

The down side is that Hoiberg isn’t a defensive mastermind, and he’s going to need help on that end. This likely falls on new assistant coach Jim Boylen (not Jim Boylan), who came over from the ultra-successful Spurs organization. The Bulls didn’t exactly surround Hoiberg with top-notch assistants otherwise; they moved Randy Brown from the front office to the sidelines, brought back Pete Myers and retained Mike Wilhelm.

So let’s recap; the Bulls fired Thibodeau and replaced him with Hoiberg, who gets one veteran assistant and three organizational guys on the sidelines with him. He gets pretty much the exact same roster that won 50 games last season and lost to the Cavaliers in six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Doesn’t this kind of seem like they’re setting him up for failure?

Forget, for a second, that in most cases a brand new coach in his first season in the big boy chair in the NBA don’t have the kind of success that Steve Kerr had with the Warriors this year (or Thibs had with the Bulls in 2010-2011, for that fact). Let’s key in on the fact that Gasol is a year older, and who knows how much he has left in him at 35 years old?

Joakim Noah‘s knee is bone-on-bone at this point, and it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s going to be able to rebound from a bad season. Even if he can, what kind of usefulness will he bring in the Hoiberg offense that’ll call for the big men to be able to stand on the baseline and hit jumpers to draw the defenders out and clear the lane for Rose and Butler? It would be an absolute must for him to regain the confidence in his mid-range jumper, which completely disappeared last season.

Then there’s Rose and his injury history. I’ll be the first to get in line and say that I’ve felt all along that his first healthy season was going to be a trial, with him taking most of the year to shake the rust off after sitting out two full seasons. I think a lot of the on-court problems, such as poor decision-making, poor shot selection, flat jumpers and missed layups will start to subside after a regular offseason worth of training and workouts for Rose.

That said, Rose is always one wrong step away from being done for the year.

I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. I know the nature of Rose’s injuries were freak, and that the cleanup on his meniscus should make a re-injury fairly unlikely. I’m merely trying to state the obvious, which is that Rose actually ended up healthy for the playoffs for the first time since his MVP season, and they still weren’t good enough. What makes anyone think they will be now, even if things break right again?

Hoiberg was going to be compared to Thibodeau along the way no matter what, but giving him the exact same roster only further invites those comparisons. There are a large segment of fans that thought firing Thibodeau was an awful, even egregious, move. I think most objective observers would agree that Thibodeau wasn’t the problem with the Bulls, but he had his hand in what was the overall problem with the team. It was time for a change.

But still, many fans and even some in the media will use any perceived failings of Hoiberg as a chance to compare. What if this team wins only 48 games? What if Gasol, Noah or Butler get hurt, despite reduced workload? What if the defense is as putrid as it’s ever been, and the uptick in offense isn’t offsetting the issues? There are all kinds of scenarios that’ll cause criticism to be dumped on the rookie head coach.

The Bulls’ front office hasn’t done a bad job putting this roster together, per se. They’ve had some good draft picks, although we’ll probably never know what percentage credit the front office gets for, say, Butler, versus the percentage credit that goes to the Thibodeau coaching staff. They’ve had some quality signings too, like Gasol.

But this front office also drafted LaMarcus Aldridge and traded him for Tyrus Thomas. They drafted James Johnson and Marquis Teague in the first round (the latter against the coaching staff’s plea to take Draymond Green) and traded six total draft picks for the opportunity to draft McDermott. They signed Carlos Boozer, Ben Wallace and the corpse of Rip Hamilton. They gave away Kyle Korver for nothing, Tyson Chandler for J.R. Smith, then Smith for second-round draft picks.

Over the 12 seasons since John Paxson took over for Jerry Krause, the Bulls are 530-438, which is good for an average record of 45-37. They’ve made the playoffs in 10 of those 12 seasons, and lost in the first round six times. They’ve won five total playoff series, and a grand total of one single game in the Eastern Conference Finals. If this team fails yet again, any finger pointing at the new coach also reflects hard at the front office.

That’s the problem you have when you just hired your fourth head coach. How many front office executives get to hire a fifth head coach, I wonder?

Maybe I’m way off base in some of these assumptions. Maybe the Bulls are good enough, under the instruction of an offense-first coach like Hoiberg, to beat a potentially healthy Cleveland Cavaliers team in the playoffs. I won’t tell you that I know for sure that they aren’t, because I don’t.

But if they aren’t, the Bulls will have no one left to blame.

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