Fred Hoiberg says he believes he can lead the Chicago Bulls to a championship. The 43-year-old first-time NBA head coach comes into his rookie season as the Bulls coach with a quiet confidence he can make a difference in getting his new team over the postseason hump.
ESPN.com recently sat down with Hoiberg to discuss myriad issues, including the Derrick Rose–Jimmy Butler relationship, the differences between himself and former coach Tom Thibodeau, the comparisons he sees between Michael Jordan and LeBron James and more.
Nick Friedell: Let me ask a question the whole city wants to know about — How is Derrick doing?
Fred Hoiberg: Derrick’s doing great. It was good to get him in the building and it started with him a couple nights ago coming back into the arena, going out and getting shots with his teammates. [He] came in early that next morning and as a staff and a couple players, we got him caught up with everything that we put in on the offensive end. Talked to him a lot about defense, he’s still not able to do anything live, or contact at this point, but he is chomping at the bit to get back out there on the floor.
He came back into this with such high expectations. He was in great shape, had a great offseason. Didn’t really have to focus on rehab like he’s had to do in the past couple summers. So the unfortunate incident, to take an elbow from Taj Gibson, to break that orbital bone, was so disappointing for him. But he’s ready, just the big thing is getting him back in game shape before we push him back out on the floor.
Friedell: I’m sure you watched everybody give updates to the media about him over the last few years. Did you stand up there on that first day and say, “I can’t believe this is me, right away?”
Hoiberg: No, I didn’t. It was such a freak injury. You knew it was serious right away. He went down and you could tell he was in a ton of pain. He was holding [his face]. I thought he broke his nose the way he went down. But it was a continued evaluation, and he just got cracked right in the perfect spot to break that orbital bone. I played with Reggie Miller (in Indiana) [and he] had the exact same injury. The biggest thing when he was coming back, I think Reggie wore the sunglasses where Derrick got fitted for the mask, was the confidence to come back and know that bone is fully healed where he could take another blow, and the confidence to go out and play your game. I know it took Reggie a little time before he could do that and I’m sure the same thing will happen with Derrick.
Friedell: Do you think it will be more mental or physical for Rose in climbing that hurdle to get back off this injury?
Hoiberg: I think the biggest thing is mentally with this injury because there’s nothing structurally wrong with his body. He took a blow to the face and unfortunately broke a bone that you have to have complete inactivity throughout the recovery process. But as soon as that bone is healed — and he’s getting close to that point — he should be able to resume normal activity. Again, that’s the confidence of getting back there and getting back in game shape. It’s amazing how quickly you lose that, from remembering days back as a player. You sprain your ankle, you can ride a bike, you can get [on] a treadmill, but nothing compares to getting out there in between those lines in a game setting with the fans, with the atmosphere. So that’s the thing for Derrick, is getting over that mental hurdle and then getting himself right getting his body back to where it needs to be to play in an NBA game.
Friedell: To that point, do you think he’ll be out there on opening night [Oct. 27 against the Cleveland Cavaliers]?
Hoiberg: I hope so. It’s still too early to tell I think, as far as opening night is concerned. I know Derrick wants to be out there, but it’s a long season, it’s an 82-game season. If we don’t feel that he’s quite ready yet, whether it’s mentally, physically, we’ll be cautious with it. But I know that there’s nothing that he would like more than to be out there on opening night.
Friedell: I’m sure you’ve seen the numbers given when Derrick gets rest versus when he plays a lot of games in a row. Are there any restrictions on him minutes-wise? Or do you plan on sitting him, maybe on the back end of a back-to-back?
Hoiberg: There’s no restrictions. Again, he had a great offseason. When I went out to see him in L.A. after the summer league he looked great. He looked explosive. Watching all the games from a year ago, watching how he finished in the playoffs, I thought he had his explosiveness back. He was getting in the lane, making plays for himself and others. So he came into this [season] with no minutes restrictions, anything like that. We’ll be a little bit careful. Again, it’s a long season. We’ve got depth, we’ve got a lot of guys who can go out there and get minutes. We’ve got good veterans so we’ll be a little careful with it, but no, there’s no restrictions on Derrick right now.
Friedell: There’s been so much talk about your offensive system, how would you describe what you want your guys to do on a nightly basis?
Hoiberg: I think the big thing is just getting out and playing with great pace. And when we’ve done that in the preseason we’ve been very effective. When we walk it up and when we get scored on, we’re fouling too much right now and we have to take it out of the net after a free throw, our pace isn’t nearly as effective when you’re coming down against a set defense. We’d like to flow into an action if our primary break isn’t there. We’ve got several secondary actions that we will flow into. It’s getting comfortable; making sure we space the floor properly.
[I’m] a big fan of Tom Thibodeau. He did a lot of great things for this team, but there’s differences [between what we want to do]. There’s differences in the way we’re playing, and it’s about trying to get those habits to where we want to get out and play every possession. Right now we’re getting there, we’re getting to that point, but it’s not 100 percent of the time.
Friedell: You brought up Thibs. What do you think is the biggest difference between you and Tom?
Hoiberg: Well, when you look at all coaches, no two are the same. He did great things here in the five years that he was the coach of the Chicago Bulls. And a lot of things that we’ve tried to keep on that they did that we really liked. But as a staff, we’ve got a couple that were on Tom’s staff, that have been here. That we tried to keep consistent as far as terminology is concerned, as far as different things that they did, trying to keep that consistent.
As far as differences, it’s a good question. Tom had a lot of set plays that he came down into that were effective. We come down and try to get into a flow offense where there’s not a lot of calls. But we do have quick hitters to get certain guys the ball in specific spots on the floor. To try and take advantage of mismatches and that type of thing and Tom did a lot of that of those same things as well.
Friedell: What kind of challenge is it as a coach to come in and follow a guy like Thibs who had his own ways, had his own personality, and clearly had built up a following within the city here?
Hoiberg: I think the big thing is to try to build off all the good things that he did here. Just try to add as many things as we can to try to push this team to where we’re competing for championships. Tom, again, I think he did a wonderful job here and we’re trying to build off of that.
Friedell; So much was made in the summer about Jimmy and Derrick: whether they are buddies off the floor, if they can co-exist on the floor. From what you’ve seen in the last few months, what do you make of their relationship?
Hoiberg: I think they’ve got a very good relationship and that’s from sitting down and talking to both of them individually, talking to them together. There’s no issue there. I think those two would be the first to tell you that everything that’s been reported out there is not true. I think it could be one of the most dynamic, best backcourts in the league. I think those two play very well off each other. With Derrick’s ability to push the ball down the floor and Jimmy’s ability to run, we should be able to get a lot of points attacking the defense before it gets set with those two guys on the floor. So I’m excited, once Derrick gets healthy to be able to see what we can do with those two guys on the floor together.
Friedell: We’ve talked about Jimmy — you’ve seen his progression from afar, now you’ve seen it up close for a while. How much better do you think he can become this season?
Hoiberg: He’s another guy, when you talk about an offseason workout and hear guys [talking] about adding to their games. Jimmy was [working out] three times a day minimum working on different elements. He hired a full-time trainer to make sure that he was getting up — he’d get up at five in the morning for his first workout and then work out twice more during the day. So with Jimmy, it’s not by accident that he is where he is today. A lot of work has been put into that and it certainly paid off for him.
Friedell: Can you commit to a starting lineup at this point?
Hoiberg: With a couple preseason games [left] we’re not quite to that point. We tried a bigger lineup [against Detroit on Oct. 14] with [Nikola] Mirotic at the three, with [Joakim] Noah at the four, and with Pau [Gasol] at the five. I thought Pau and Jo played very good minutes together at times. There’s also a lot of times for us where we’ll play Mirotic at the four with Pau or Joakim. There’s times where Doug [McDermott] can maybe slide over. Taj Gibson getting him back healthy now, has been really good since he’s been practicing with us. Our rookie, Bobby Portis, has been a very pleasant surprise. First of all, that he was there at [pick No.] 22 in the draft, and the things that he’s done in the preseason. So that’s going to be a big part of our job — figuring out the rotations. Certain nights it might be different guys and everybody’s going to have to sacrifice for that if we want to get where we’re competing for that championship.
Friedell: Joakim looked so up and down last season. Are you confident that he can be that guy you lean on defensively over the long stretch of a season from what you’ve seen in camp?
Hoiberg: Yeah, I [am]. Jo took a scary fall in our game against the [Denver] Nuggets on Oct. 8 out in Boulder, Colorado. To see him bounce up from that was great because it was pretty nasty. It was right in front of our bench when he went down on that leg. But to see him get up and continue to work through it … He had a little bit of swelling in there so we had a cautious approach with it to keep him out a couple of those games. But Jo is another guy that had a great offseason and I anticipate a good year from him.
Friedell: For the most part, aside from Bobby Portis, this is the same roster. What makes you confident that you can take this team and mold it and get them over that hump that they haven’t been able to get over the last few years?
Hoiberg: It is a group that’s had a lot of good moments together. Obviously, health is a huge part for any team, any team that plays professional sports. A big part of that is staying healthy. If we can do that, I’m confident that we will be there at the end of the year competing for championships. A lot of teams made great offseason acquisitions. I think the East made a lot of key moves where teams are getting better. So for us to be there, it’s all about buy in. If you can get guys to go out there and be together for 82 games, because we’re going to hit adversity. There’s no doubt about it. We’ve already hit some adversity. How do you respond to that? How do you react to it? Are you going to put your head between your legs or are you going to find a way to get better? I think this group with the veterans that we have will continue that upward climb as the season goes on and hopefully be playing our best when it matters most.
Friedell: We know injuries happen. Having said that, the Bulls have really struggled in the last few years against LeBron James. What can you do differently as you watch some of these tapes to help get this group past him?
Hoiberg: That’s a great question. LeBron, he’s the best player in the world. Just with everything he can do on the floor, his strength, size, he’s an extremely difficult matchup. You got to go out there and find a way. Is there a specific thing you got to do to go out and stop him? It’s not one thing. You got to try to mix things up and do the best job you can to give yourself a chance to win. Confidence I think plays a huge part in that. Again, to hopefully be in an opportunity of playing in the playoffs to where you’re playing your best basketball, you’re playing with confidence. If you could do that, you’re going to have a chance, but it’s a tough task. He’s the best player in the world. He’s obviously a very difficult matchup.
Friedell: Do you think it’s more mental for this group with him [given recent history]?
Hoiberg: Again, it’s a great question. I think any time you see a superstar, you look back in the years — I guess the one thing I could compare it to is playing that series against the Bulls when Michael [Jordan] was there. You look down to that end [and see him]. I was in a series, I didn’t play much, but I was in a series on that other bench that went seven games and Michael just completely took the game over late in that game. But again it’s a group that we got here where we’ve got so many veteran players in a lot of playoff series. You’ve got guys that have won championships. Now it’s about taking all those experiences that you’ve had, putting a game plan together and hopefully giving us a chance.
Friedell: Would you be comfortable using Joakim Noah off the bench?
Hoiberg: We’ll see what happens. We’ve got a few more games. My biggest thing, what I care about is, who are your guys that you trust the most to be in there at the end of the game? It doesn’t matter to me who starts it, it’s who ends it. And that’s the progression that you have throughout the course of the season where you figure all those things out because we do, we’ve got a lot of guys that have the ability to play a lot of minutes. Especially in our frontline. And it may not be the same guy every time, but by the end of the year you hope you have that five that you’re going to finish games with. Yeah, Jo will absolutely be one of those guys.
“It’s a team coming in that was built to compete for a championship so there’s a lot of pressure that is associated with that. But I’m confident. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t have the confidence to help this team compete for that championship.”
Friedell: You have the NBA background, but you’re coming from Iowa State. Do you think there is more pressure in the college game — or is there more pressure night to night in the pro game?
Hoiberg: There’s pressures in both. Any time you’re in a coaching position, there’s a lot of pressure. I had a lot of pressure, put a lot of pressure on myself at Iowa State because I’m from there and the passion that I have for that university, how much I care about everybody there. It was a lot of pressure. There’s a ton of pressure in this job, too. It’s a team coming in that was built to compete for a championship so there’s a lot of pressure that is associated with that. But I’m confident. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t have the confidence to help this team compete for that championship. Yeah, there’s pressure in both — I don’t know if I answered your question — but hopefully you prepare yourself well enough and you get the guys to believe in each other and a staff to be able to go out there and hopefully win a championship.
Friedell: So you wholeheartedly believe this team can win a championship this season?
Hoiberg: I think so, yeah. You have to shoot for it. That’s definitely the goal of this team is to go out there and compete for it. You look at all the teams that have won championships, if you believe, if you have the confidence, you’re playing the best basketball at that time, anything can happen.
Friedell: How do you want a Fred Hoiberg-coached NBA team to be defined?
Hoiberg: I want us to be a tough team. That’s a big thing. And that’s something these guys, it’s been instilled in them is a toughness, with Tom Thibodeau, and everything that he did. The other thing I want is I want to be an exciting team. I want to be a team that plays with pace. I want to be a team that regardless of what’s happening out there on the floor, we’re out there competing and playing the same way. We got to fight through adversity. But at the end of the day, yeah, you have to have that element of toughness if you want to win a championship.