CHICAGO (AP) — Fred Hoiberg looked at Chicago and saw a deep and talented roster with a chance to contend for a championship — an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
The long-rumored pairing of Hoiberg and the Chicago Bulls became official on Tuesday when the former NBA guard and executive left Iowa State to become the 19th coach in franchise history, replacing the fired Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls are hoping a new voice is just what they need to contend for a title after a season that began with soaring expectations ended in disappointment. Chicago struggled to win 50 games during a difficult regular season and bowed out to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I love this roster,” Hoiberg said. “I love the versatility of the players, the different lineups that we’re going to be able to play. You can play small, you can play big. You’ve got lineups that I think can really get out and play with pace. You’ve got a great group of veteran players that know how to play. I think Tom Thibodeau is an excellent, excellent basketball coach, and I think he instilled a lot of unbelievable qualities in this team that hopefully I can build on.”
Hoiberg went 115-56 at Iowa State and led the Cyclones to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and back-to-back Big 12 tournament titles. He had open-heart surgery in April, his second such procedure in the past 13 years or so. But he insisted he would not do the job if it endangered his health.
He takes over a team that fought through injuries and never seemed to click the way they expected. The effort that carried the Bulls in previous seasons was not there. Tensions between their coach and management mounted and Thibodeau was fired last week. Gone was the team’s most successful coach since Phil Jackson, a man who had led Chicago to a 255-139 record and playoff appearances all five seasons even though Derrick Rose suffered season-ending injuries to each knee.
The Bulls said at the time that they would begin a search. But it was no secret who they were eyeing.
General manager Gar Forman said he and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf met casually with Hoiberg last week. Talks began and they finalized the deal Monday night.
“We didn’t know it would move this quickly,” Forman said.
Hoiberg, who played for Chicago, called the Bulls’ job “an unbelievable opportunity” and thanked their management, along with his Iowa State players and athletic director Jamie Pollard.
Forman praised Hoiberg’s leadership and communication and said the Bulls “have great respect for who he is as a person.”
With Hoiberg, the gap between the front office and the coach’s office should be bridged. He played at Iowa State when Forman was an assistant there to Tim Floyd and is a former Bull who has known vice president of basketball operations John Paxson for years.
Most important, the first-time NBA coach inherits a team that expects to win. That wasn’t the case the last time the Bulls went the Iowa State route to replace a high profile coach.
Floyd posted a 49-190 record after the Bulls parted with Jackson and broke up the dynasty, but the circumstances are different this time.
The Bulls don’t have the cap room to add a major free agent. So barring a trade, the roster will look largely the same and they will be counting on improvement from within.
“We have a belief system in the core, and I think our young guys have a lot of potential to continue to grow and get better,” Forman said. “That’s going to be a big part of what we need to do the next several years.”
It will also be Hoiberg’s job to get the most out of a team that boasts a former MVP in Rose and a first-time All-Star poised to land a maximum contract in Jimmy Butler. Gasol is coming off one of his best seasons, but he turns 35 next month.
It’s still not clear if Rose can consistently play at an elite level. There appeared to be some tension between him and Butler in the final game, with Butler dominating the ball.
Hoiberg believes a fast-paced offense based on ball movement with Rose attacking will create opportunities. He envisions the Bulls playing off each other and taking advantage of mismatches.
But can they dethrone The King?
The Bulls have lost four times in six seasons to James, whether he was with the Cavaliers or the Miami Heat. He has done to them what Michael Jordan did to the Knicks and Pacers in the 1990s.
“That’s something that I don’t think I can answer right now — how are we going to get by him?” Hoiberg said. “But as we study film throughout the summer and watch all the games, you have to try to beat the best, put a game plan together where you can accomplish that. That’ll be a big focus of what we do this offseason, not only compete against him but compete against everybody.”
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