The challenge Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg faces in forging his preferred offensive style of pace-and-space out of his roster’s newest parts – Rajon Rondo and still-not-official Dwyane Wade added to Jimmy Butler for 60 percent of the starting line-up – ranks no higher than second for the coming season.
Dealing with three strong-willed, even headstrong veteran players figures to test Hoiberg as much or more than any X’s or O’s.
The former NBA role player and Iowa State coach got tested enough last season by a passive-aggressive locker room, Butler’s clumsy grab at the team’s leadership reins and a little of the ol’ substitute-teacher syndrome in the wake of Tom Thibodeau’s five-successful seasons in Chicago.
Now Hoiberg has not one but three determined and occasionally stubborn stars, each accustomed to having the basketball in his hands and each secure enough in his NBA standing to air dislikes as well as likes. Butler called out the rookie head coach’s toughness last winter after a game in New York, and Rondo’s and Wade’s mere presence in Chicago for 2016-17 owes more to their ideas about and fit with management than their on-court performances.
Rondo was introduced to Chicago media Thursday afternoon and was asked more than once about his ability to play nice with others, or at least play nice for his coaches. The 30-year-old point guard, who led the NBA with 11.7 assists last season, is with his fourth team in the past 19 months, bumping from Boston to Dallas to Sacramento and generating friction of varying degrees with coaches Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens, Rick Carlisle and George Karl.
Each of those men is a Coach of the Year winner. Hoiberg had his hands full getting the Bulls, who had averaged 51 victories the five previous seasons, just to break .500 (42-40).
Rondo, a four-time All-Star who led Boston to two Finals and one championship (2008), replaces Derrick Rose in the Bulls’ backcourt. He steps into Rose’s recent history of injuries having missed 147 games himself over the past six seasons. But he said the right things Thursday at the Bulls’ practice facility.
For example: “I’m stubborn but intelligent. People look at it as a knock but I think that’s what makes me great.”
Of the new pecking order: “It’s Jimmy’s team. Jimmy, Wade and then whatever.”
And of Hoiberg: “He’s not a dominant coach. He likes giving his players input.”
That is the way of the new NBA, with the “or else” implied and understood in an era of power-wielding players. And Hoiberg surely learned a lot in his first Bulls season, as much in terms of what not to do as for the things that worked.
Karl, in an interview with host David Kaplan on Chicago’s ESPN 1000 even as Rondo was meeting with reporters, had one bit of advice for Hoiberg and his staff.
“All the Bulls’ coaching staff is going to have to do is spend some time communicating with him,” said Karl, whose 1 175 career victories with six NBA franchises didn’t spare him from being fired after Sacramento’s 33-49 finish last season. “That’s all he wants. I think he’s very coachable from the standpoint, if he feels there’s a democracy between the point guard and the head coach, I think he’ll be fine.”
For some players, it’s enough to give them the basic W’s – who, what, when, where. With Rondo, Karl made it sound as if the fifth one, why, is vital.
“He likes his opinion to be heard,” Karl said. “He’s a very smart player. I think he’s one of the most intelligent people and also basketball people. There’s book smart and street smart and basketball smart, and all types of different ‘smarts’ in my opinion. Rajon’s pretty intelligent all the way around.”
Karl said he expects Rondo’s contract situation – from the one-year, $9.5 million deal he played for in 2015-16 to the reported two-year, $28 million package with Chicago – to allow for greater focus and attitude from the 6-foot-1 playmaker. He lauded Rondo’s willingness to work, citing off-hour shooting practice that resulted in the best 3-point production of his 10 NBA seasons (62-of-170, 36.5 percent).
And given the Chicago audience, Karl agreed with Kaplan’s analogy to NFL Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, a talented but sometimes petulant performer.
“I know Doc and I had a conversation before we signed Rajon [last summer],” Karl said. “Doc said he thought Rajon and I would get along. I’m not saying Rajon and I had a perfect world. But we didn’t have a perfect team. And I thought we fought very hard together to figure out our team. We had a better record than we had the year before, it just wasn’t good enough to keep my job.”
Karl said his biggest gripes with Rondo stemmed his “lapses at the defensive end of the court.”
“He should be a great defensive player. But he takes too many possessions off at the defensive end of the court.”
Karl added: “It’s not going to be a season without confrontation. He doesn’t like losing. He likes teams to be held accountable. And he’s going to voice his opinion. But I’ve had more difficult players to coach than Rajon.”
Credit: Steve Aschburner