NEW YORK — Fred Hoiberg’s offense does not seem to fit his personality.
The 43-year-old first-year head coach of the Chicago Bulls appears to be one of the calmest people in the gym as he watches his team play. He doesn’t bark orders at his players and calmly delivers signals and instructions from the bench. Those calls create constant motion on the floor.
While Bulls officials have tried to downplay just how quickly Hoiberg’s squad would move up and down the floor since he was hired over the summer, the difference in pacing between Hoiberg’s methods — and those of his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau — are already noticeable.
Rose wasn’t complaining. Both he and his teammates seem to be enjoying the newfound freedom that comes while playing in the confines of a system that is based on pace and efficiency. One of the things that drove Bulls personnel crazy over the past few seasons was how slow they thought Thibodeau’s offense moved during games. The veteran coach would scream out orders on almost every possession, and feeling through parts of the league was that the Bulls’ offense was too predictable.
Hoiberg’s legacy isn’t going to be written after two games, especially after beating a poor Nets team, but the ideals for the change the Bulls were seeking for the offense are in place. Over the Bulls’ first two wins they are a combined 21-for-47 from beyond the arc — a 44.6 percent clip. They are averaging 102 possessions per 48 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, a number that would have been first in the NBA a season ago.
“This offense is more up-tempo,” Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. “Play earlier in the shot clock. We also tried to push it up last year. But maybe [the offense] is more spread out with Niko [Nikola Mirotic] playing more minutes better spacing overall. More freedom to operate. More outside shots for now. So far, I think it’s been working out well because we get a good balance [on] offense. A lot of players can contribute and score in double figures. But as long as we don’t forget our defensive end, we should be fine.”
Gasol’s point was valid against the Nets. The Bulls had six players in double figures, the ball movement was mostly solid and swingman Jimmy Butler was the team leader in minutes — at just 34. Even Hoiberg seemed pleased with the efficiency his team has shown early.
In fairness to Thibodeau, the Bulls finished 10th in offensive efficiency last season, but over the course of his five seasons the Bulls averaged 93 possessions per 48 minutes, the second slowest pace in the NBA over that span. A large part of the reason the Bulls played so slowly was because of the injuries they sustained during that stretch, especially to Rose, who underwent three knee surgeries in three years, but the ball movement the first couple of games with Hoiberg calling the shots is getting people’s attention.
“I think we’re a really unselfish team to a fault sometimes,” Butler said, acknowledging that this group is still learning the intricacies of the new system. “We’ll have a good shot and then we’ll give it up all because there’s so much space on the floor instead of just shooting the shot and try to create for somebody else. There’s been some turnovers sometimes.”
The question for the Bulls isn’t whether the new offense can maintain itself over time. This group is running so many more sets that it’s easy to think they will continue to score more than in the Thibodeau era. The quandary is, will there be too much of a focus on offense and not enough of one on defense — the side of the ball where Thibodeau thrived?
“We didn’t forget,” Rose said. “It’s just that it’s new to us. The coverages on middle pick-and-rolls are a little bit different than side pick-and-rolls. And how much he rotates guys this year. Sometimes you look up and you don’t know who’s in the game sometimes because he changes up the rotation so much. It’s all about making sure who’s on the floor as me being a point guard, making sure everybody comes together and be more vocal on the defensive end.”