CHICAGO — Fred Hoiberg had to go.
On an afternoon in late September, the Chicago Bulls head coach was fulfilling his media obligations prior to a preseason practice. As Hoiberg answered questions about his team, his lead assistant, Jim Boylen, called the players into a huddle at the other end of the gym — beginning practice without Hoiberg.
Once Hoiberg noticed, he mumbled a goodbye and rushed over to join the rest of the team.
Fast forward two months and Boylen — the Bulls’ new head coach after Chicago fired Hoiberg on Monday morning — will now be running practices on a full-time basis.
None of this is to suggest Boylen staged a hostile takeover. In fact, Boylen and Hoiberg are friends, and the two spoke after the Bulls informed Hoiberg he had been fired. But that moment is one of many over the past 3½ years that exemplified the lack of a coherent vision for leadership of the franchise.
Lack of leadership, more than wins and losses, is the reason Bulls management felt a coaching change couldn’t wait.
“I think as a head coach you have to demand excellence in your players,” Bulls president of basketball operations John Paxson said Monday. “They will respond to that.”
When the Bulls parted ways with Tom Thibodeau and hired Hoiberg as the franchise’s 19th head coach in 2015, management planned to embrace a strategy featuring ball movement, shooting and spreading the floor. Pegged as an offensive guru, Hoiberg was supposed to be the missing piece that could steer the Bulls — a team largely devoid of shooters and led by Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol — to a deep playoff run. They finished 42-40 that season and missed the playoffs by two games.
Since then, the Bulls have whipsawed back and forth. They traded All-Stars Butler and Rose in the name of embracing a rebuild and pledged to become a younger and more athletic team. They briefly experimented with Dwyane Wade‘s and Rajon Rondo‘s fits.
Chicago went 41-41 and made the playoffs during the second season of Hoiberg’s tenure but was eliminated in the first round by the Boston Celtics after Rondo broke his thumb. Last season — with Butler, Rondo and Wade all gone — the team stumbled to a 27-55 record.
This season, it seemed Hoiberg finally had the players who fit his offensive philosophy, but injuries have limited Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine to a combined total of six games between them. The Bulls fired Hoiberg before he coached a single game this season with his complete roster.
“I disagree with that, that he didn’t get an opportunity to develop them,” Paxson said. “He did a good job with the individual players. But it’s about more than individual development.”
Boylen added: “I don’t think anybody’s saying here that Fred did a poor job. The franchise is moving on.”
Now, the Bulls must march on. Paxson said he isn’t yet setting his sights on a complete turnaround and a playoff run this season. He is confident, though, that Boylen will be the head coach of the Bulls through next season.
“They feel I’m the guy, and I’m excited about it,” Boylen said of the opportunity to be head coach. “And I feel I’m the guy for it. I don’t think anyone has a better vantage point of who this team is, what it was, what it can be than me.”
The Bulls are starting to get healthy. Markkanen returned last week after missing 23 games with a lateral right elbow sprain. Dunn and Portis should return to the floor by the end of the month.
Boylen said most immediately he is concerned with Chicago’s defensive rebounding, the team’s lack of effort in late-game situations and improving players’ physicality. He hopes to improve the Bulls’ transition defense and will move Markkanen back to the starting lineup beginning Tuesday in Indianapolis.
Bulls management called Boylen on Sunday night to inform him of the coaching change. Hoiberg arrived at the Bulls’ training facility on Monday morning prepared to lead the team’s practice.
Instead, Hoiberg was informed of his dismissal — something management wanted to do face to face — and Boylen called the team into a huddle.