Over the course of the next week, I will be providing a review and analysis of several head coaching candidates as well as providing my opinion of how they would fit in Denver. Today's breakdown is on Fred Hoiberg aka The Mayor.
Coach's Resume: Mark Jackson
Part 2 of a series on head coaching candidates for the Denver Nuggets. A close look at how Mark Jackson might fare as the Nuggets next head coach.
Hoiberg played 10 seasons in the NBA as a 3-point specialist before his career was cut short due to a heart ailment. He retired from the NBA in 2006 and joined the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office for several seasons before becoming the head coach at his Alma Matter, Iowa State, in 2010. He was named the Big 12 Co-Coach of the Year in 2012 when he helped the Cyclones win nine games more than they did the previous year, the largest season-to-season improvement in Big 12 history. Under Hoiberg, the Cyclones have won at least one game in the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons. The team is 95-39 over the last four seasons and are currently ranked 17th in both the AP and the Coaches poll.
Hoiberg has claimed that he watches more NBA basketball than college basketball, and the NBA influence is very recognizable when you watch the Cyclones play. His offensive sets are intricate, high motion actions that still allow for players to improvise, read and react. The sets are also designed to be free flowing and unlike many NCAA coaches, Hoiberg isn’t the type to bark out constant commands about where to be and what to do. His sideline demeanor is fairly quiet and stoic, allowing his players to figure things out based on the team’s core principles play-by-play, making adjustments within the feel of the game rather than micro-managing each possession.
His team plays an exciting brand of basketball that is fast paced and built around high efficiency shots at the rim and beyond the arc. Hoiberg has embraced the use of analytics, and has said that advanced stats have helped form the basis of his offensive and defensive schemes. His analytical mind also led him to exploit a market inefficiency in recruiting; the player transfer market (a la Jerry Tarkanian?). Hoiberg knew that Iowa State would struggle to recruit blue chip players but saw an opportunity to build around castoffs and late bloomers coming from junior colleges or smaller schools.
Although he is known mostly as an X’s and O’s coach, he is also well liked by just about everyone that knows him. This is best illustrated by his relationship with Royce White, the oft-maligned former Houston Rockets draft pick who suffers from anxiety and has a well publicized fear of flying. Although White struggled with off-court issues at the University of Minnesota, Hoiberg was able to develop a strong relationship with him at Iowa State and coached him throughout one very productive season. White doesn’t hesitate to heap praise upon his former coach, both as a basketball coach and as a person. He once said that he would, "follow coach (Hoiberg) into a Volcano with airplanes shooting out of it."
After one season at Iowa State, White was drafted in the first-round by the Houston Rockets and has had trouble connecting with another team or coach the way he was able to connect with Hoiberg. It is a testament to the coach that he was able to connect and utilize a player as talented as White seeing as how no other coach has been able to reach him since.
It’s easy to get excited about Hoiberg as a coaching prospect, especially if you are like me and put a premium on coaches who embrace both analytics and high motion, free-flowing offenses. One of my foundational beliefs about NBA basketball is that, although most things about the game remain constant, the league is constantly evolving. What worked in 1995 might not have worked in 2005 or 2015, and the best coaches are the ones who are constantly looking for new ways to take advantage of the subtle changes. Hoiberg appears to be a student of the game and somebody who is constantly evaluating his process and looking for new ways to improve.
His experience as an NBA player and in the Timberwolves’ front office gives him a unique perspective on the relationship between players, management and the coaching staff, a skill that is especially valuable given the relative youth and inexperience of Tim Connelly. Having a young guy in Hoiberg, who knows the pressure and constraints of management, might help create a nice chemistry and communication between management and coaching staff.
Several front office executives have spoken openly about his potential as an NBA head coach and he is mentioned frequently when a position becomes available. The Utah Jazz expressed interest last season as did Hoiberg’s previous employer, the Timberwolves. (General Manager Flip Saunders ultimately decided to go with another coach for the head coach position – himself.) His success working with castoffs and players like Royce White seem to indicate that he has the temperament, character and skill at working with players that have been overlooked. Maximizing the potential in undervalued players is an important skill, one the Spurs have perfected in their two-decade run under Greg Popovich. A quick Google search of quotes from former players of Hoiberg will return an endless list of praise and appreciation.
The fear is that college coaches don’t have a great track record in the NBA. The Nuggets are in a two-year slump and ownership might be tempted to go with a safer, more experienced pick. Selecting a coach like Alvin Gentry won’t expose Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelley to immediate criticism the way hiring an unproven coach like Hoiberg would. And while Hoiberg has a great track record with his players, the Nuggets roster just quit on Brian Shaw. Throwing a young, rookie coach into that locker room might be a recipe for disaster.
Then there is the issue of Hoiberg's interest in the Nuggets. He just signed an extension with Iowa State a few seasons ago with a clause that allows him out of his contract for only $500,000 if he were to leave for the NBA. But he is adored in Ames, Iowa. He was a star player there 20 years ago and his legend has only grown now that he has brought the program back to prominence. He has expressed strong interest in joining the NBA, but he is in a spot to be patient and might not want to gamble on Denver as his first, and perhaps only, shot at this level. Quite simply, the job might not interest him.
It is easy for me to sit here and say that the Nuggets should take a gamble on a young and promising coach, but I won't be the one held responsible if things don't work out. The decision to pull the trigger on someone like Hoiberg is much more difficult for the ones actually making the call.
Nonetheless, I believe very strongly that the league is moving in a certain direction where pace, space, movement and efficiency are king. Like Brad Stevens before him, Hoiberg has shown to be adaptable and ahead of the curve so far and is, by all accounts, constantly looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve. He may take some time to adjust and with the current state of the roster, it might be best to temper expectations in year one. But at just 42 years old, I believe it is worth the gamble that Hoiberg becomes a long-term solution at head coach for the Denver Nuggets. Of all the candidates being discussed, he might have the highest ceiling.
Ultimately, I think Hoiberg would be an excellent coach here in Denver.