December 11, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman could envision it years ago when he was an assistant coach at Iowa State and Fred Hoiberg was starring for the Cyclones.

He saw a player maximizing every ounce of his ability.

''He was a big-time worker, was a terrific teammate,'' Forman said. ''Probably one of the best, if not the best, teammates that I coached in the 17 years I coached in college. Was always working on his game, very conscientious, had a high basketball IQ. He wasn't the most talented guy, but got the most out of his talents.''

These days, it's Hoiberg's job to get the most out of the Bulls.

Chicago hired Hoiberg away from Iowa State in the offseason with an eye on opening the offense and preserving a veteran core that management thought former coach Tom Thibodeau wore out because of his hard-driving approach.

With a 12-8 record, the results have been mixed in the early going this season.

The Bulls are showing a maddening pattern of inconsistency and look more like a run-of-the-mill team than the Eastern Conference contenders they expect to be. Of course, it still is early.

The offense isn't humming the way they envisioned, be it because of injuries, underperforming players or possibly a system that doesn't quite mesh with the roster. They've struggled down the stretch in games, particularly the past few.

It doesn't help that Derrick Rose suffered an eye injury on the first day of practice and missed almost the entire preseason. The former MVP point guard's vision still is blurred and he's off to his worst start. That has only raised more doubts about whether he can approach the form that made him one of the league's most productive players before he suffered season-ending injuries to each knee.

''We've got to get more consistent,'' Hoiberg said. ''We show flashes. The biggest thing is consistency with our group as far as getting out and playing with pace. When we do play with pace, we're pretty darn good.''

But it's hard to know which team is going to show up on a given night.

Chicago has wins over championship contenders Cleveland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio along with losses to teams that didn't make the playoffs last season such as Phoenix and the improved Charlotte Hornets.

A recent three-game skid that saw the Bulls get outscored a combined 102-70 in the fourth quarter left Hoiberg and players questioning the team's killer instinct. That slide ended Thursday with an 83-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, a game where they made just enough plays down the stretch after blowing a 16-point lead in the second half.

''He's a positive guy, but he definitely tried to get a little more emotional,'' Pau Gasol said.

The laid-back Hoiberg seems on the surface to be the polar opposite of Thibodeau, whose firing after a clash with management ended one of the most successful five-year runs in franchise history. The Bulls made the playoffs each of those seasons even though Rose was injured for much of that time.

There's no guarantee they will get back there in the tight Eastern Conference, where parity has taken over. The Bulls are one of 10 teams with winning records. They simply can't afford too many letdowns, like they had during their recent skid.

The way Hoiberg handled it impressed forward Taj Gibson.

''He could just explode,'' Gibson said. ''Being in Chicago is tough. Fans expect a lot. He's been handling it pretty good. He gives guys room for error. He gives guys a lot of confidence.''

Rose also praised Hoiberg.

''It's huge when you lose a coach like Thibs,'' he said. ''Coach Fred, he has all our respect. We're trying to play as best as we can for him and give him nothing but respect. He's been great.''

When the Bulls hired Hoiberg, who played in Chicago and spent time in Minnesota's front office, the perception was that management got its ''yes'' man. After all, he went way back with Forman and John Paxson. And there were rumors all year that he would leave his alma mater and hometown university to replace Thibodeau.

''First and foremost, they didn't want a `yes' man,'' Hoiberg said. ''Second, I'm the furthest thing from a `yes' man.''

He is, in his own way, trying to put a stamp on this team. But it's taking time.

The Bulls rank 10th in the league in pace at 99.9 possessions per 48 minutes. But when it comes to efficiency - points per 100 possessions - only Philadelphia is worse than Chicago.

They need Rose to attack, to push the ball more consistently rather than walk it up the court. Hoiberg drove that message home in a meeting with his point guard before Thursday's game, with Rose saying he wants him to get the ball across halfcourt by the 21-second mark on the shot clock.

The inconsistencies aside, Hoiberg insisted he sees the team's potential and dismissed the notion that the system might not be an ideal fit for the personnel.

''It's about creating habits,'' he said. ''When we do get out and push pace, when we get the ball down the floor, we're pretty effective.''

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