Grantland’s Zach Lowe published a short interview with Chicago Bulls rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg, who offered this nugget about the decision to play center Joakim Noah off of the team’s bench, to work alongside Taj Gibson, as Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic took to the starting lineup:On Wednesday,
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How was the conversation when you told Joakim he officially wasn’t going to start?
Jo actually came to me and talked to me about that. He said, basically, “I’ve always played well with Taj.” He said he thought Niko and Pau played very well together, so let’s go that route. It was actually Jo that started the whole conversation. He came to me. That says a lot about him.
The league-wide reaction was what you’d expect. Noah is just about universally beloved, a seeming underdog despite two All-Star selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award, and the idea that he would ask his new coach to tear him away from the starting lineup that he’s known for years seemed like the ultimate in selflessness.
Except for the part where, according to Noah, that’s not how the conversation went at all.
When asked whether he told new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg he wanted to come off the bench, Noah responded quickly.
“No,” he said.
When pressed before the Bulls loss to Detroit on Friday, Hoiberg slightly demurred to the Fred Hoiberg that talked to Lowe on Wednesday evening:
“Did he specifically say I want to come off the bench? No. Nobody wants to come off the bench, but it’s the decision that we came up with,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been great. He’s been as enthusiastic as anybody over there on the bench when he’s not in the game, and he’s always going to bring it when he’s on the floor, so no, things are fine.”
It is true that nothing in Hoiberg’s quote to Lowe literally reads as, “Joakim came up with the idea, and initiated a meeting to propose it.” Our best guess is likely the right guess: Hoiberg met with Noah, who already knew what was coming, and Joakim took a glass half-full approach in accepting what could be best for the team.
“Could be.” The Bulls are 2-1 after barely beating an injured Cleveland team at home, downing a hapless Nets squad, and losing to Detroit in a rather unsavory showing. Hoiberg’s offense, in the early going, is stuck at 20th in points per possession and Noah is a big part of that – he’s missed three of four shots on the year and all six free throws. Joakim has managed 18 rebounds and eight assists in 52 minutes thus far, but he’s turning the ball over on nearly half of the possessions he’s used up.
Noah admits that his pairing with center Pau Gasol just wasn’t working out, telling the media that “the truth is, I think I’m more effective playing the 5 over the 4” on Friday, which is true.
Still, Joakim admitting that he’s better off at center isn’t quite the same as pointing out that he’s better at reserve center. Most Bulls observers assumed it would be a coin flip as to whether or not Gasol or Noah would start the season on the pine, and most also assumed that either would be paired with a defensive or offense-first counterpart to balance the lineup out.
Instead, Hoiberg started Gasol alongside second-year scorer Nikola Mirotic, and despite a shaky start from Gasol in his first game both have thrived thus far.
Noah and Gibson, however, have struggled. Both are turning the ball over far too much, and Gibson (who is still recovering from major offseason ankle surgery) is fouling quite a bit.
Of course, it’s early. And it’s important to note that these check-ins aren’t coming in shifts: Gasol is playing alongside Gibson, Noah shares the court with Mirotic, and that Hoiberg admitted that he’s not married to any lineup in his discussion with Lowe. He’s to be commended for mixing it up, as most college-to-NBA coaches struggle initially with the idea that a basketball team can be constructed with a competent ten man rotation. That’s not a shot at the NCAAs, it’s just that most college teams have lacking depth.
These Bulls were always going to be an experiment, but it was a little surprising to see Hoiberg (this early) overinflate a subject that didn’t really need an “aw, shucks”-storyline.
No, Joakim Noah – a proud man in a contract year – did not want to come off the bench. Because he’s Joakim Noah, though, he’s going to work his tail off regardless of when called upon, without raising a stink.
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