CHICAGO -- After five years of following directions from Tom Thibodeau, how will this veteran Chicago Bulls group respond to new coach Fred Hoiberg? It will be one of the biggest questions hovering over the organization all season. If the first few days of training camp are any indication, it appears the players have adjusted well to the new regime. It's also evident from some of the players' responses that they're enjoying the new freedom Hoiberg and his staff have engendered.
"Obviously last year didn't go the way I wanted it to, but it's in the past," second-year small forward Doug McDermott said. "We got Coach Hoiberg and his staff who we all really love, and it's just been really fun every day, which is a huge difference."
McDermott, like all of his teammates, always showed respect toward Thibodeau in public. But it's been very clear in the first days of camp how much better everyone within the organization feels about the preseason environment. The players aren't going to go out of their way to rip Thibodeau after his departure, but it's not hard to read between the lines and understand what they're saying. While the group respected its old coach, it doesn't seem many players are shedding tears that he is gone.
"[Hoiberg] really cares about how our bodies are feeling," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said after Tuesday's first practice. "He was asking how today was. But I think more than anything he just wants us to focus in on everything mentally, take it all in, and come back and have an even better day [Wednesday]."
The optimism shown by player towards a new coach is common in all professional sports. While it's not always the case, the switch from a hard-charging coach to a more player-friendly coach is a regular occurrence in all professional sports leagues.
The difference, of course, in this case is that few coaches had the success Thibodeau did in his five years at the helm, compiling a 255-139 regular-season record. The knock on Thibodeau from his critics -- both inside and outside the organization -- was always that he worked his players too hard, didn't communicate well, and, most importantly, didn't win in the postseason when he did have a relatively healthy team.
Enter Hoiberg, a man who is adored by the Bulls' front office, and has already been praised by many players for his communication skills.
"It's still early, we've still got a long way to go, but it was a lot of talking," Bulls forward Taj Gibson, an ardent public defender of Thibodeau over the years, said when asked about the first day of the Hoiberg camp. "It was good to see a lot of coaches getting their opinions on things, and we were able to get a lot of feedback from each of the coaches, so it was pretty cool. It was only the first day, a lot of teaching today. Look forward to [Wednesday] and just try to finish out the day strong."
Privately, what irked many within the Bulls organization is they felt Thibodeau ran a dictatorship. His booming voice was the one heard throughout practices, and -- especially in the last year of his tenure -- his critics would say the door to his office was not always open so people within the organization could speak to him about various issues. He ran a tighter ship than most.
Those days appear to be over for the Bulls. Hoiberg's practices are noticeably different in several ways. First and foremost, at least in the past few days, they have been shorter. Wednesday's practice was about 90 minutes, and Thursday's practice was a little over an hour. That's a stark difference from the two-hour practices Thibodeau conducted over the years, especially in the earlier days of camp. The Bulls have also scrimmaged a lot during the first few days, something Thibodeau didn't like to do a lot during the season. We'll see if this is a trend Hoiberg continues throughout the regular season.
The other early difference is how many other people are in the gym during practices. Multiple college coaches have been allowed to watch Hoiberg's practices over the first two days of camp. Under Thibodeau, the only people usually allowed in the gym were front office executives.
For a younger player like McDermott -- a player who struggled to find a niche last season under Thibodeau -- it's clear he is enjoying the new approach provided by Hoiberg, a former NBA player himself. The pair had a pre-existing relationship dating back to McDermott's days as an Iowa high school hoops star, but it's obvious from the start of camp that many players like Hoiberg's easygoing demeanor.
"Obviously having a coach like Fred, who was a really good shooter, doesn't hurt," McDermott said. "Because he's always giving us advice and it's been great. He's just good for everyone's confidence, and everyone's feeling so much better out there."
To be fair to Thibodeau, the Bulls were saying the same warm and fuzzy things about their former coach when he took over for Vinny Del Negro before the 2010-11 season. They appreciated that structure Thibodeau's system provided. Front office people raved about the coaching Thibodeau was giving their team on a daily basis. Five years later, the relationship had run its course. Now it's up to Hoiberg to find a way to do the one thing Thibodeau and this team couldn't do over that span -- beat LeBron James in the playoffs.
The reality for the Bulls is that while they try to create a new identity under their new coach, they'll be judged on the same curve they've been judged on all along. In the short term, the difference within the organization is that everyone seems to like each other again. That's a step forward for the team, but unless it can get past James, it won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of trying to win championships.