Let’s repeat something that was said much earlier in the season: The main problem with the Chicago Bulls was not Fred Hoiberg, but the front office. Gar Forman and John Paxson were the poxes on the House of Chicago.
That remains true in the Windy City. The twists and turns of one season are not going to change that. No matter what happens over the next three weeks, Fred Hoiberg needs a much better and more talented roster if the Bulls are to be serious contenders in the Eastern Conference. That statement will not cease to be an accurate measurement of this franchise’s larger situation.
However, as much as Hoiberg needs time and resources in Chicago, he is beginning to look bad as the coach. Naturally, Wednesday night’s no-defense loss to the New York Knicks — in that the Bulls played no defense and did something indefensible — is a terrible look for Hoiberg.
What’s worse? Hoiberg is genuine beginning to give the appearance of a coach who merely says things because they’re part of a script. Even if he’s not sure he can back up his talk, Hoiberg feels compelled to utter statements from the coachspeak textbook. Instead of being real, Hoiberg seems to be following an owner’s manual. He’s reading from a text instead of feeling the mood in the locker room.
Here’s the central manifestation of this dynamic, which emerged after the Bulls’ unconvincing home win over a bad Sacramento team on Monday night:
Hoiberg: "I told the guys that has to be our last subpar game of the year."
The way this season has gone, I'm guessing they'll be another.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 22, 2016
Not only was there another… “another” happened the VERY NEXT GAME, also at home.
The Bulls’ defense didn’t show up in a 115-107 loss to the lowly Knicks. Getting torched by a good team will happen, but getting smoked by New York right after Hoiberg’s Monday declaration is a damning indictment of what’s happening in Chicago. This wasn’t the back end of a back-to-back. The Bulls had a day off and a chance to make sure their minds were right.
Yet, they got destroyed in the game’s middle two quarters to the tune of a 69-43 score. A 35-18 third-quarter no-show (gee, some halftime adjustments there, eh?) this late in the season sends the worst possible message about the messenger in the huddle with a suit and tie.
Remember, this week is essential for the Bulls. The schedule gets a lot tougher for Chicago after March 28, and with the Detroit Pistons piling up wins on their homestand — including a “saved from the jaws of defeat” escape against Milwaukee on Monday — the Bulls just don’t have much leverage. After this loss to the Knicks, they have even less.
Yet, the loss of leverage is no worse than the larger reality of Hoiberg making utterances which are instantly rendered meaningless.
It’s true that every NBA coach says the most basic things in a huddle, and that over the course of a season, a lot of boilerplate language trips lightly from the lips of virtually every coach and player, even the astute ones. There’s only so much that can be said, and most of the real motivation occurs behind the scenes. The relationship between coach and team is an organism which lives when the camera is off, not just when the camera is on.
After Wednesday night, it’s hard to shake the idea that the relationships being cultivated by Fred Hoiberg with his players does not stand on solid ground. Yes, this roster needs a shake-up heading into next season, but even though Hoiberg might deserve at least two more seasons after this one, it has to be acknowledged: a bad start — especially if not addressed by a front office willing to make a necessary overhaul — will not put a coach in position to succeed down the line.
This new chapter of the Chicago Bulls’ existence has been consumed by worry and alarmism, to an extent few could have foreseen before this seaason began.
The Chicago Bulls — battered and in need of a redo — might actually not suffer all that much if they fall to the draft lottery. Yet, missing the playoffs will still rate as a disaster for this organization. Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks doesn’t just raise questions about this season and the next; it brings the next half-decade of the organization into question.