How Bulls' Hoiberg ended up in the NBA's hottest seat

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Five NBA coaches were fired during the 2015-16 season.

A total of 12 teams, which equates to 40 percent of the league, began the 2016-17 campaign with coaches starting their first full season in town.

Four current coaches, furthermore, are only in Year 2 with their respective clubs.

Adding all those numbers up should help explain why there has been precious little chatter so far this season about coaches on the proverbial hot seat. That's a lot of new (or relatively new) faces in many, many places.

Such quiet in the NBA, mind you, is only ever going to be temporary. The last season to proceed from start to finish in which every team ‎employed only one coach, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau, was the 1970-71 campaign ... in a 17-team league.

History thus tells us that at least one coach is bound to lose his job between now and the April 12 curtain drop on the regular season.

The latest chatter on the coaching grapevine, meanwhile, tells us that the toastiest seat on the NBA map at present belongs, rightly or wrongly, to the Chicago Bulls' Fred Hoiberg.

The Bulls’ largely disappointing play in December, on the heels of a non-playoff season, has put Hoiberg under earlier-than-expected pressure, according to league sources.

Just to be clear: Hoiberg isn’t exactly alone in the crosshairs in Chicago. Thanks to a succession of underwhelming first-round draft picks and a roster construction that has been questioned from the moment it materialized over the summer, fan frustration with the front-office tag team of John Paxson and Gar Forman has never been more tangible, ‎rising steadily since Rajon Rondo and then Dwyane Wade were signed as the marquee additions to a roster already light on proven perimeter threats to space the floor.

Yet sources told ESPN.com this week that the Bulls have been increasingly assessing the coaching fit as well, sparked by an ongoing dip in the team’s level of play and consistency that began with an unraveling at home on Dec. 13 from 21 points up against the Minnesota Timberwolves and a certain Tom Thibodeau.

The greatest source of insulation that has protected Hoiberg to this point, sources say, is the fact that making a change now would require the Bulls to swallow significant guaranteed money on his five-year contract valued in the $25 million range.

But sources say the Bulls have been concerned with the team's responsiveness to its young coach ‎and Hoiberg's hold on a veteran roster in his second season since making the jump from Iowa State to the NBA in June 2015.

The Bulls, remember, jumped out to a hopeful 8-4 start. Through the end of November, Chicago sported a 10-7 record and the league's fourth-best scoring margin, behind only the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers.

But the 1-6 funk that began with the Timberwolves collapse left the Bulls, as of Monday morning, having been outscored by 5.8 points per game in December. That represented the league's largest drop in average scoring margin from month to month at minus-11.4, worse than the November-to-December slumping suffered by the Atlanta Hawks (minus-10.2 PPG) and the Los Angeles Lakers (minus-7.6 PPG).

Although Chicago has since mustered two wins this week, neither was especially reassuring. The Bulls outlasted the equally inconsistent Indiana Pacers on Monday night in a 90-85 grind, then escaped with a two-point win Wednesday night at home over lowly Brooklyn when Jimmy Butler -- playing the ball of his life since returning from the Rio Olympics -- sank the first buzzer-beater of his career in a brilliant 40-point, 11-rebound show.

The Bulls, though, had to erase a 97-90 deficit at home with less than three minutes to go to turn away the 8-23 Nets.

Hoiberg has a longtime admirer in Forman and was handpicked by the Bulls out of the college ranks well before the end of Thibodeau's reign, billed as the ideal candidate personality-wise to mesh with Chicago management after the successful but tense co-existence with Thibodeau for the duo known locally as GarPax.‎

The Bulls went 42-40 in Hoiberg's debut campaign, missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. The coaching staff was then shuffled coming into this season, as well as the roster, but the departures of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and corresponding arrivals of Wade, Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams haven't nudged the 16-16 Bulls any closer to the 50-win standard Thibs established.

Is the new coach really the chief culprit for those struggles? Fair question. Hoiberg sympathizers would undoubtedly say that the Bulls still don't have the sort of offensive options to carry out his desire to play a fast-paced, spread-the-floor game, which is obviously more about Paxson and Forman ‎than the guy on the bench.

Hoiberg, however, was billed by Forman on the way in as an offensive guru. Almost a season and a half post-Thibs, Chicago’s O is as isolation-heavy and predictable as ever.

Perhaps the Houdini act against Brooklyn was the start of something. Perhaps Hoiberg can keep scratching out wins, like the past two, to ease the pressure and hush talk about the heat that’s bubbling at bench level and upstairs, too.

Perhaps this will be that thoroughly abnormal NBA season ‎in which all 30 coaches last 82 games. Hoiberg, after all, is one of those four Year 2 coaches.

Yet as a calendar change looms, 2017 is bound to be no different than the past 40-odd years that preceded it when it comes to this old truism in basketball (and maybe every other professional sport):

The easiest change to make, when things aren't going as planned, is the coach.

Entering Friday’s play, LeBron James was averaging 38.5 minutes per game in the month of December, second in the league behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves' Zach LaVine (38.6 MPG).

On this Son of Weekend Dime Friday, LeBron celebrates his 32nd birthday.

LaVine, by contrast, is 21.

But the heavy (and seemingly worrisome) workload James has shouldered this month is, according to Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue, actually by design.

By the design of James himself, in fact, in conjunction with longtime personal trainer Mike Mancias.

As part of ESPN Radio’s Christmas Day crew in Cleveland, host Marc Kestecher (at a certain sideline reporter's urging) had the opportunity to ask the coach about the formula used to determine James’ PT.

As Lue explained it: "At the end of January or early February, we gotta be able to back LeBron's minutes down. We’ve talked about that. For the first couple months [of the season], he said he wanted 38 minutes. Him and his trainer said it'd be great for him‎ and then, at the end of January/early February, we'll back him off. So right now, minutes-wise, everybody's where we [want them] to be.”

Houston has made no secret of its desire to add a quality big man in the wake of Clint Capela's injury. According to league sources, Sacramento's Kosta Koufos has emerged as a prime Rockets trade target. ‎... The latest signals continue to suggest that Suns guard Brandon Knight will be one of the bigger names to move between now and the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Knight played only nine minutes in the Suns' home win Thursday night over Toronto, less than 20-year-old rookie Tyler Ulis. ... Wolves center Nikola Pekovic acknowledged this week in his native Serbia that he's "more prepared for ending my career than returning" to the NBA. Minnesota is expected to pursue a medical retirement for Pekovic, 31, after Jan. 31, which will mark one full year since he last appeared in a game due to ankle woes. Pekovic has one year left on the five-year, $60 million deal he signed heading into the 2013-14 season and has been ‎running the storied Partizan Belgrade club back home as team president while away from the Wolves.

It's no coincidence that three players have been waived this week after a lengthy run in which each of the NBA's 450 roster spots have been filled.

One key trigger for this activity: Players with contracts that aren't fully guaranteed for this season have to be released by Jan. 7 and clear waivers by Jan. 9 for teams to avoid paying out the full value of those salaries.

And another: Open roster spots become more appealing as of Jan. 5 when teams can start signing players to 10-day contracts.

The guaranteed salary stuff was among the factors in the respective releases of Dallas' Jonathan Gibson, San Antonio's Nicolas Laprovittola and Chicago's R.J. Hunter in recent days. (It should be noted that, in Gibson's case, he was quickly replaced on the Mavericks' roster by NBA D-League scoring machine Pierre Jackson.)

The following is a list of the league's 38 remaining players who have to endure varying degrees of uneasiness until Jan. 7 passes and their respective 2016-17 salaries graduate to fully guaranteed -- although it should be obvious that some of these guys (such as JaVale McGee, DeAndre Liggins and the esteemed @mrvincecarter15) already know they have nothing to worry about:

Atlanta: Ryan Kelly and Mike Muscala

Brooklyn: Spencer Dinwiddie

Charlotte: Treveon Graham and Aaron Harrison

Chicago: Cristiano Felicio

Cleveland: DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae

Dallas: Dorian Finney-Smith and Pierre Jackson

Golden State: JaVale McGee

Houston: Bobby Brown and Kyle Wiltjer

Los Angeles Lakers: Thomas Robinson and Metta World Peace

Memphis: Vince Carter*, JaMychal Green* and Troy Williams

Miami: Rodney McGruder

Minnesota: John Lucas III

New Orleans: Reggie Williams

New York: Ron Baker

Oklahoma City: Semaj Christon and Jerami Grant

Orlando: Arinze Onuaku and Damjan Rudez

Philadelphia: Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell and Hollis Thompson

Phoenix: Derrick Jones Jr.

Portland: Tim Quarterman

Sacramento: Ty Lawson

San Antonio: Bryn Forbes

Toronto: Fred VanVleet

Utah: Jeff Withey

Washington: Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan and Daniel Ochefu

* -- The 2016-17 salaries of Memphis' Carter ($2 million to a full $4.26 million) and Green ($980,431) become fully guaranteed if neither player is waived by Sunday (Jan. 1).

Let's bring the last Son of Weekend Dime for 2016 to a close with some positivity for the Bulls.

We're referring specifically to Sacramento's rise to No. 8 in the West.

You can safely presume that the Bulls are rooting almost as hard for Sacramento to stay there as Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who yearns for a 1-versus-8 playoff matchup with Golden State after his time as a Warriors minority owner.

‎The Bulls, you see, will take possession of Sacramento's first-round pick in June if it falls between 11 and 30‎, as an offshoot of the January 2014 trade in which Chicago sent Luol Deng to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum and three first-round picks.

One of the future picks conveyed by Cleveland in that trade came from the Kings ‎in the June 2011 swap that sent Omri Casspi to the Cavs for J.J. Hickson.

The Bulls, though, need the pick to fall between 11 and 30 come June to ensure they get a first-rounder. If the pick lands from 1 to 10, Philadelphia has the right to swap first-rounders with Sacramento as part of the July 2015 Nik Stauskas trade, leaving Chicago with the Kings' 2017 second-rounder.