The Chicago Bulls barely let Fred Hoiberg’s seat get hot. The fourth-year head coach was fired Monday morning and replaced by longtime assistant coach Jim Boylen, who will not be given the interim tag, but rather the chance to finish the year and earn the full-time job, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The timing of the decision is perplexing, even if it had seemed like Hoiberg’s job status had been in question for the past two seasons. Yes, the Bulls are 5–19 and one of the worst teams in the league. Yes, they had lost six games in a row and nine of their past 10. But Chicago didn’t play on Sunday, lost to a good Rockets team in its previous game, and, most importantly, had just added Lauri Markkanen (arguably the team’s best player) back into the lineup after his recovery from an elbow injury. Markkanen by himself wasn’t going to fix the entire Chicago roster, but he would have given Hoiberg and the team flashes of long-term promise amid an already lost season.
Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. and Markkanen are a combination of talent that could change a franchise. Add Zach LaVine to the mix and the Bulls boast an exciting young core that could be developed into the next young, up-and-coming team in the East. But Hoiberg got only one game to try to make that combination work. In some ways, he may not have deserved to see it through — the former Iowa State coach went 115–155 over three and a quarter seasons after replacing Tom Thibodeau in 2015. But in other ways, Hoiberg at least deserved an extended shot at trying to develop the Bulls’ possible stars amid the faulty roster that Gar Forman and John Paxson — the team’s two top front-office executives — have put together.
But that’s also why the timing is strange. The Bulls are not the Sixers, but they could one day be a version of Philly — led by 20-somethings and awaiting the arrival of another star via trade or free agency. It was in Chicago’s best interests to lose more games this season, which would increase the team’s odds of adding another high lottery pick. (Do we know whether Forman and Paxson have seen tape of Zion Williamson?)
It wasn’t hard to see this summer, though, that Bulls management was looking for a more competitive season when they threw $20 million at hometown kid Jabari Parker. The front office was probably expecting better than a 5–19 start. Instead, the Bulls couldn’t run out of the gate, and Parker showed that he was what we thought before the season: a talented offensive player with injury problems and an allergy to defense. And the rest of Paxson and Forman’s roster hadn’t been built for wins, either: We’re still waiting on Kris Dunn to display signs of life, lottery pick Denzel Valentine has not panned out, and neither has the addition of Cameron Payne.
Hoiberg was dealt a bad hand, but he also didn’t prove that he was much better than a replacement-level coach. A change was likely due at the end of the season. Hoiberg will be fine. He’ll likely have his choice of top college programs next year. The Bulls, meanwhile, have a long way to go before they are fringe competitors again. Boylen’s expectations for this season are unclear, and it may not matter who is on the Bulls sideline if the executives upstairs don’t make wise decisions or practice patience. Markkanen and Carter could be special; if Hoiberg wasn’t the right coach to usher them into stardom, then the Bulls better find that coach as soon as possible.