Six years ago on a victorious night in Sacramento, Joakim Noah sat in front of his locker exuding happiness. It was Nov. 27, 2010. The Bulls had just finished off their annual circus road trip with a hard-fought win over the Sacramento Kings and Noah, the emotional leader of the Bulls, could barely contain his excitement.
"We definitely have the identity of our coach," Noah said. "I think he's probably the hungriest guy I've ever been around, in terms of coaching. I mean, this guy ever since the summer, the guy's in the gym all day. That's an understatement."
Noah was referring to his new head coach at the time, Tom Thibodeau. Bulls players were singing the praises of the longtime assistant who got his first head-coaching job in Chicago. The Bulls stumbled a bit out of the gate of that 2010-11 season, starting 9-8 after a Dec. 3 loss to the Boston Celtics, but ultimately turned things around and ended up winning 62 games and clinching the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Six years later, things have changed dramatically. Thibodeau was fired after the 2014-15 season in large part because of a broken relationship between Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson. In his place stepped former Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, a former Bulls player and close friend of Forman's picked to revamp the offense with an open, free-flowing system that pushes the pace.
The first eight weeks of Hoiberg's tenure have been a work in progress. The Bulls enter Wednesday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies (8 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN) having won three games in a row after losing three straight, something a Thibodeau-coached team didn't do until his third season with the Bulls.
At 14-8, Chicago's season is hardly a disappointment, but the Bulls have yet to find their identity under Hoiberg, whose team ranks among the NBA's least efficient teams offensively. They are averaging 98 points per 100 possessions, better than only the lottery-bound Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. And their true shooting percentage of 51.0 is near the bottom as well, only better than the Lakers (50.7), Detroit Pistons (50.1) and the Sixers (49.9).
As slow and methodical as it was sometimes, Thibodeau's offense still ranked 10th in the league in offensive efficiency last season.
Ironically, the Bulls under Hoiberg are actually better on defense statistically than they were last season under Thibodeau, widely considered one of the best defensive minds in the game. The Bulls are allowing 96.8 points per 100 possessions, third-best in the NBA, almost five points fewer than their 101.5 average last season, which was good for 11th.
Bulls players are admittedly still trying to find out who they are under the new Hoiberg-led regime. After five years of doing things the Thibodeau way, the adjustment process to Hoiberg's style has been more difficult than many would have expected.
"It's huge when you lose a coach like Thibs," Derrick Rose said. "But coach Fred, he has all our respect. And we're trying to play as best we can for him and give him nothing but respect. He's been great, a great guy, and he's trying to figure out things too."
More freedom, less production
Things have gotten tough at times for the Bulls, who have been maddeningly inconsistent. For every impressive win over an NBA power such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, there are confounding letdowns: a 25-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets, an overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home in which they were shut out in the extra period. But their three-game losing streak last week was the toughest. They were outplayed in the fourth quarter of each game, with the low point coming in a 103-101 loss to the Phoenix Suns, who erased a 17-point Bulls lead with a 42-point fourth quarter.
After saying before the season that the Bulls would be an "exciting" team, Hoiberg has struggled to get his group to play the way he wants every game. In the process, the Bulls have lost the swagger that comes with playing with the intensity that defined them over the previous five seasons.
"We just get out-toughed sometimes," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler recently. "You can call it being soft, whatever you want to call it. I think that's why [we're inconsistent]. Some nights we're the tougher team. The nights that we're not the tougher team we lose."
That was not the case for the first four years of Thibodeau's tenure. The Bulls prided themselves on going out and punching teams in the mouth. Thibodeau, known for his defensive schemes, helped instill a toughness and belief within his young group. In Thibodeau's final season, that hard-working mentality seemed to disappear at times. The relationship between Thibodeau and many of his players started to fray and helped lead to his messy divorce with the organization.
When Hoiberg was officially introduced in June 2015, he was sold as a new-age offensive tactician whose system would fit nicely into the modern NBA. The feeling within the organization was that between the defensive principles that Thibodeau taught this group and the offensive intuition that Hoiberg brought with him, the Bulls were set up to try to overcome the postseason hurdle that LeBron James created for years.
That free-flowing, high-scoring offense under Hoiberg has yet to take shape through 22 games.
"We just get out-toughed sometimes. You can call it being soft, whatever you want to call it. I think that's why [we're inconsistent]. Some nights we're the tougher team. The nights that we're not the tougher team we lose."Jimmy Butler
Hoiberg has talked from Day 1 about picking up the pace offensively, and the Bulls have done that. They rank eighth in the NBA with 99.86 possessions per 48 minutes, up from last season when they were better than just three teams in pace. On the flip side, the pace might be up, but the offensive efficiency is not. Aside from being the third-worst team in offensive efficiency, the Bulls rank shockingly low in effective field goal percentage (47.0, 29th).
After years of listening to Thibodeau bark out a play call on almost every offensive set, the Bulls don't seem to know what to do with all the freedom the new system provides. The Bulls have either been too slow getting the ball up the floor or too impatient to find a rhythm within the offense over the first eight weeks of the season.
"It's a lot more loose this year on offense," Bulls forward Doug McDermott said. "I think that's a good thing for all of us, not just for me, those guys were with Thibs for five, six years so it's a little different for them. I feel like I can get in the offense a little more easy, me and [Nikola Mirotic], because we weren't around [the old system] as long, but some of these other guys might be having a hard time just because they're used to something for so long."
Every coach has growing pains in his first season, especially one coming directly from college, and Hoiberg is certainly still adjusting to the NBA game. Perhaps equally challenging for the Bulls is that those growing pains have coincided with a significant drop in production from two of their most important players: Rose and Noah.
Rose was the youngest NBA MVP in history during Thibodeau's first season. Now he looks like a shell of his old self after three serious knee surgeries, including a torn ACL in his left knee during the 2011-12 season. He's still working through the aftereffects of a fractured left orbital bone suffered during the first practice of training camp on Sept. 29.
Rose, who averaged 25.0 points per game and shot 44.5 percent from the field during his MVP season, is down to 12.9 points a game and on 36.7 percent shooting this season. He has been adamant that he still has the ability to be a great player, but the numbers tell a different story, at least for now.
During his MVP season, Rose shot 54 percent on shots eight feet or closer. Coming into Wednesday's game, that number is 37.4 percent. Prior to this season, Rose had never shot lower than 50 percent from the field on layups. This year, he is shooting just 43.3 percent.
Rose isn't the only Bull struggling to finish near the rim. Going into Wednesday's game, there were 178 players who had taken at least 50 field goal attempts from inside the restricted area. Of those players, Rose was last in the league at 40.6 percent. And Noah, two years removed from being an All-NBA first team center, was second to last in the league, shooting at a 41.2 percent clip. No other player in the league with at least 50 attempts is below 44 percent.
The difference between the fast transition Thibodeau experienced in his first season and the rocky start Hoiberg is experiencing in his can largely be traced to the rise and fall of Rose and Noah as elite players.
Noah was voted Defensive Player of the Year during the 2013-14 season and finished fourth in MVP voting, but he was never completely healthy after offseason surgery two summers ago. His offensive role changed with Rose and the addition of veteran Pau Gasol last season, but it was Hoiberg's decision to bring Noah off the bench -- and the way it was handled -- that seems to have stunted Noah's impact.
Noah, who will be a free agent after this season, was frustrated with being demoted and didn't like the initial story Hoiberg gave publicly that Noah actually asked to come off the bench. Noah has struggled to find a rhythm as a reserve playing about 20 minutes a night, but to this point hasn't rocked the boat.
But the Bulls' struggles at times this season go beyond the lack of production from Rose and Noah.
The decision to start an offensive-minded player like Mirotic in place of Noah hasn't paid off. Mirotic, the second-year forward with an inconsistent 3-point shot, was pulled from the starting lineup last week for Taj Gibson. Mirotic was supposed to play a big role in Hoiberg's system given that the front office always believed that he should have been playing more than Thibodeau allowed last season.
Along with McDermott and fellow young player Tony Snell, Mirotic was supposed to take his game to another level in Hoiberg's system, but he hasn't seized the opportunity. Mirotic is playing almost five more minutes a game this season, but his true shooting percentage (55.6 to 53.8) has dipped from an inconsistent rookie season, and as a guy counted on to create space, he's shooting just 34 percent on shots from 15-24 feet.
An argument could be made that Thibodeau, whose first team included Kyle Korver and young big man Omer Asik coming off the bench, had a deeper talent pool to choose from. But that dismisses the fact that both the front office and Hoiberg himself were singing the praises of this roster just a few months ago.
"I love this roster, I absolutely love this roster," Hoiberg said at his introductory news conference. "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 really think you can get out and play with pace. You've got a great group of veteran players that know how to play."
Mirotic and McDermott have shown flashes, but they haven't been consistent despite being given more minutes. Snell, who is shooting just 35.5 percent from the field, has played poorly throughout the season, although he is coming off his best performance of the season, scoring a season-high 16 points in a victory over the 76ers on Monday.
Hoiberg doesn't have much of a choice but to play Snell and McDermott more minutes than they've earned. Last season's starter, veteran Mike Dunleavy, has yet to play this season after back surgery, and his timetable to return is uncertain after a setback in rehab. Hoiberg has shown no desire to try rookie Bobby Portis in that role after Portis had a strong showing in the preseason.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Bulls have had only nine lineups play at least 20 minutes together this season. Of that group, the one that has the best offensive efficiency is Butler, Gasol, Kirk Hinrich, Mirotic and Snell, which came into Wednesday's game averaging 116.6 points per 100 possessions. For comparison's sake, the starting five for most of the season of Butler, Rose, Gasol, Mirotic and Snell averages 99.6 points per 100 possessions and the Bulls as a group are only averaging 98.0 points.
Growing pains or growing concern?
Communication was one of Thibodeau's biggest keys at the beginning of his tenure. His players knew their roles and what was expected of them. That continuity built up over time. While Hoiberg and his players have stressed that they like the way they are practicing, the results haven't come on the court night in and night out.
Gibson said it took a while for the Bulls to find their way under Thibodeau as well.
"It didn't come quick," Gibson said. "But then he just started cracking the whip and everybody got in to follow suit. And then everybody just followed his lead and we just developed a killer mentality just following his lead. I think Fred's doing a good job. We just have to play harder for him."
Said Noah: "You don't want to be on a team when you feel like we're not giving max effort. But I think it's a little deeper than that. But we just got to stick together and find a way as a team. It's not about pointing fingers at anybody, it's about jelling as a unit. Not letting frustration get in the way, not letting adversity get in the way. It's a lot easier said than done. So I think that as a team we have to stick together through that adversity. I think sometimes we let that adversity get the best of us."
Whether Hoiberg is the long-term answer for this group remains to be seen. The Bulls may just be going through the growing pains that come with any new system. The Bulls front office remains confident that Hoiberg is the right man for the job, praising his teaching skills and demeanor.
Players have spoken about how Hoiberg has been more vocal and showed more emotion in the wake of the recent three-game losing skid, but it hasn't just been Hoiberg getting more involved. After years of taking orders and cues from Thibodeau, more stories are coming out of the locker room about how veteran players are letting teammates know how disappointed they are about the lack of a consistent effort.
"It was very vocal, to be honest," McDermott said, while discussing the mood in the locker room at halftime after the Bulls gave up 56 points to the lowly Sixers on Monday. "Jo was pretty heated and Pau [Gasol] actually talked up, saying we've got to step on teams' throats like this, you know, that aren't winning this year. Other teams see this film of us kind of lollygagging the first half and they're not scared of us. So we really wanted to change that around in the second half, and I thought we did a much better job."
It's also possible that this group of players just might not be good enough to play Hoiberg's style. Butler has been the only consistent two-way player all season. Gasol and Noah may very well be playing their final seasons in Chicago. Mirotic, McDermott and Snell have underwhelmed and have not taken advantage of more prominent roles. Gibson has been his usual reliable self, but is hardly a game-changing player.
Then there's Rose. While there's still some hope within the organization that his game will turn around once his double vision problems stemming from the fractured orbital subside, the more likely outcome is that his days as a superstar are over. Rose has another year left on a max contract that pays him over $20 million a season, and the Bulls know they won't be able to change the makeup of their roster until that deal expires.
Rose isn't all that concerned about the Bulls' uneven transition from Thibodeau to Hoiberg.
"It's still adjusting," Rose said. "It's still a part of the process of having a new system, having a new defensive system, having new strategies and all that. So [we're] just trying to figure things out and it's nothing to worry about to tell you the truth. I think we're going to be fine."
Asked whether he has the players to run his system properly, Hoiberg said: "It's about creating the habits. When we do get out and push the pace, when we get the ball down the floor we're pretty effective. We have to be consistent with it, we have to be more consistent with it."
Perhaps this group simply needs more time to connect on the floor. But the reaction even from within the organization to the unevenness over the first eight weeks of the Hoiberg era is telling. The Bulls' front office believed that this group could still contend for an NBA championship this season. Throughout their uneven start, many within the organization have pointed to the fact that the Bulls are still winning despite their struggles and that there should be more time and patience given before passing judgement.
This group was always going to be judged differently because this season was being viewed as championship or bust. Aside from his propensity for playing his best players heavy minutes, one of the biggest knocks on Thibodeau was that he struggled to win in the postseason -- he had a 23-28 playoff record in five seasons. While many of those losses can be blamed on injuries, specially to Rose, the Bulls never escaped the East finals, despite compiling a 255-139 regular season record.
Hoiberg's first season will be judged on how his group does in the postseason. At 14-8, the Bulls have one of the beter records in the league, but the numbers say this group is also among the league leaders in fool's gold. Hoiberg was brought in to upgrade an offense that the front office believed was not performing up to its potential. Up to this point, the new offense has been one of the worst in the league -- with essentially the same group of players.
Hoiberg walked into an incredibly difficult situation after all the success Thibodeau and the Bulls enjoyed over the past five seasons. There's still time for this group to right itself and find the offensive flow Hoiberg envisions, but the early warning signs haven't been hard to miss. The Bulls don't look like a team that is having fun playing together, much like they looked at the end of last season. There are more frustrated glances and exchanged words than there have been in a long time. In years past when a teammate hit the floor, the other four teammates on the court raced to pick him up. Now, a fallen Bulls player is lucky to have one teammate come to his aid.
The identity of the Bulls over the large part of Thibodeau's tenure was in their consistency. Will Hoiberg be able to crack the whip and get his team back into place when they fall out of line like his predecessor did over much of his time in Chicago?
"He cracks it," Gibson said of Hoiberg. "But he's just one of those guys -- he still gives guys a lot of chances. But as time goes on he's getting more harder and harder. I see it in him every day. He's a good coach, man. It's just going to take time."