Fred Hoiberg is still recruiting, only now Bulls have to believe in him

Former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg illustrated why Gar Forman and the Chicago Bulls brought him to the NBA, after the Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau.
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CHICAGO—A side door swung open at the Chicago Bulls’ still-gleaming West Side practice facility, and there was the team’s new coach, whom of course everyone saw coming. After a short walk the new guy took a seat at a table and laid down a piece of paper containing thank-you reminders. As for the most important message he had to send Tuesday, Fred Hoiberg required no cheat sheet. It was not long before he spoke about pace, about using more pick-and-roll than anyone in college basketball while at Iowa State, about simple drag screens in transition that open the lane for the point guard, about getting his shooting guard the ball on the run and on the attack, about employing bigs as playmakers and shooters and not just plodding space-eaters.

Hoiberg called players he’s never coached by their first names and assessed the relative strengths of their games in the context of the system he’d install. He asked his new boss, general manager Gar Forman, if he could talk about players from last year who are not certain to return. He apologized if he forgot anyone. If you didn’t know any better, you might think he had prepared for this moment for months.

“I love this roster,” Hoiberg said. “I absolutely love this roster.”

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There is no more meaningful and delicate duty for the new Bulls coach than to ensure the feeling is mutual. This wasn’t a college coach spewing jargon to compensate. This was a 10-year NBA veteran and a former NBA executive speaking his language and talking directly to a strong-willed core of proven All-Star talent who must buy into what a first-time head coach sells. They say a pro player needs maybe 10 minutes to figure out if a coach is for real, if he actually knows what he’s talking about; the 42-year-old Hoiberg spent part of Tuesday aiming to spare them the wait.

Forman, John Paxson and the rest of the Bulls’ braintrust wanted a communicator in this seat, a broker of ideas, a conciliator instead of an antagonist. They’re not blameless in the mess that created a need for one, it should be noted. But at any rate the former Iowa State coach indeed used this as an introductory news conference in a very literal sense. It was actually sort of funny: Hoiberg spent his first full day on the job doing one of things he was happy to leave behind in the college game: he was recruiting.

“You figure out how to build relationships with certain guys,” Hoiberg said. “It’s so important. You have to have that relationship and trust factor. Some of the players that we brought into Iowa State, that maybe had an issue with their previous spot or institution, we thrived with some of those players. A lot of it has to do with the trust level we build with them. I had a couple players that I was told, ‘Be careful here.’ Then I brought them in and built a relationship with them where when we knew when we went out on the floor, we were all in it together.”

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His intended audience was not a phalanx of cameras or writers clacking away at laptops, but Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and all the others in his charge now. But this is what Hoiberg does, perhaps better than many people realize. He creates connections that seem impossible by any known logic. It’s instructive in particular to look at the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room, circa 2003-04, and its thunderdome of personality. You had Kevin Garnett, one of the most domineering stars perhaps ever. You had the insuppressible Sam Cassell. You had the supremely self-assured Wally Szczerbiak. You had the polarizing Latrell Sprewell, though his past missteps belied the fact that he was a sharp, approachable guy.

Nevertheless, into that maw you threw Fred Hoiberg, native of Ames, Iowa, who didn’t average double-figure scoring even in his best NBA season. And Hoiberg navigated those mega-egos and established real friendships. “He had a great rapport with everyone,” said Szczerbiak, who is now a CBS College Sports Network analyst. “First of all, he’s a really fun guy. He can sit down and have dinner with anyone, and it’s a very stimulating conversation. We used to eat a lot on the road together, but we would hang out with all different guys. He gets along with pretty much everyone. That’s one thing you have to be able to do (in the NBA), you have to relate with guys coming from different backgrounds and different directions.”

Hoiberg is wired for an honest, straightforward approach—delivered in the most civil, levelheaded way—that Szczerbiak believes pro players value above all. He has a knack for assessing a player’s desires and motivation, then tapping into that to make said player feel like he is accomplishing everything he wants to accomplish. “That’s one thing Freddie is going to be good at,” Szczerbiak said. “He’s going to define roles for each individual guy and demand that they meet those roles and perform those roles.”

[]There is naturally the question of in-game coaching chops, and there, too, Hoiberg advertised for his strengths Tuesday, with a savvy, honest nod to his relative shortcomings.

When he was done with scouts of imminent Iowa State opposition, Hoiberg said, he watched and dissected NBA games, not more college fare. He brought, in his estimation, a pro-style offense to Ames, teeming with quick actions and pick-and-rolls and a keen eye for mismatches. On Tuesday, he sent a direct message to Rose about the pace he hoped to establish.

“It’ll be great for Derrick,” Hoiberg said. “Derrick is a guy at his best when he’s playing downhill.”

He tossed a bouquet at Butler, soon to be his max-contract two-guard.

“Jimmy is an attack player,” Hoiberg said. “It’s an ideal system for him.”

He equated Noah and Gasol to the Cyclones big men he implemented as open-floor playmakers, and on it went.

It surely was music to the ears of Bulls executives exasperated with Tom Thibodeau’s offense late this season. But mostly Hoiberg wanted his most important players to know how important he believes they are: Important enough that he already has a detailed, meticulous plan for how to deploy them. Perhaps they’ll even respect Hoiberg’s intent to hire a veteran assistant who can choreograph the defense; it is a new coach conceding that he doesn’t necessarily have all the answers.  

“I understand this league,” Hoiberg said, “I know what this league is all about, and that’s the guys. I’m here to do everything I can to help them and work with them.”

“A big part of coaching is the human element, getting guys to buy in, to play together, to play hard, accept roles and put them in the right system,” Forman said. “We have 100% confidence Fred is going to be able to do that.”

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Likewise, Bulls management will appreciate their new coach’s sympathetic view of their plight in personnel acquisition and cap management, with Hoiberg nodding to his four years in the Timberwolves’ front office. “I was in their shoes,” he said. And undoubtedly they will do cartwheels over Hoiberg’s insistence that he’ll pace players to prime them for a postseason run. No, the man they call The Mayor is not short on political instincts, and that should serve him well even if the former Bull has known his new bosses for years.

These coaching curtain-raisers are always about sending a message, and Hoiberg deftly struck the standard chords Tuesday, from self-deprecating shots at his own career to trash-talking fellow Ames native Doug McDermott’s high school team, to giving Thibodeau credit for the habits he instilled in the roster Hoiberg inherits. But this day primarily was about the team he’ll run and the belief he must draw out of it.

The Bulls roster should know enough about Hoiberg’s credentials to give him some benefit of the doubt, to consider him something less reductive than a college hire.

Hoiberg, with nearly every word, insured against the possibility they might not be so well informed.

“A lot of coaches don’t walk into this,” he said. “You don’t walk into a roster that has championship potential, that absolutely can compete at that level.”

His new boss, sitting to his right, called Hoiberg the perfect fit for this team. In some ways, it’s not up to an executive to decide that. So Fred Hoiberg spent Tuesday speaking most clearly and directly to the people who will.