The Chicago Bulls have endured a wild week-plus since Jim Boylen became the new head coach on Dec. 3. Things started on a promising note, with a rugged loss at the Indiana Pacers and an upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Then the weekend arrived, and things went sideways. In their Saturday night matchup against the Boston Celtics, Boylen elected to bench the starters early in both halves. The first time came with the Bulls down 13-0 in the first quarter. Fine, that makes sense.
However, he pulled the same stunt three minutes into the third quarter, despite the game still being competitive. Boylen played the backups the rest of the game, only making one other substitution. The Bulls went on to lose 133-77 and were booed off the floor as the final buzzer sounded. It is the worst loss in franchise history and tied for worst home loss in NBA history.
Boylen stated postgame that he pulled the starters early to save them for practice the following day. The players had already endured hard, extended practices all week. The idea of another one following back-to-back games was their breaking point. Players began debating via group text rather or not they would show up at all.
Ultimately, everyone did show up. However, they held two long meetings instead. Both of them — one amongst themselves and another including the coaching staff — were held so that they could air their grievances and better chart their direction as a team.
Frankly, Boylen’s hard-charging style during this first week is unnecessary. This young, injury-stricken squad managed to compete in most of their games under predecessor Fred Hoiberg this season. 14 of their 24 games under Hoiberg were determined by single digits.
Also, despite the narrative that the front office is peddling, Hoiberg was respected by the players. Zach LaVine called Hoiberg “a great dude” and reached out to him after his firing. Also, with Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Bobby Portis all returning from injury, Robin Lopez openly wished Fred would have had the chance to coach the team at full strength.
Robin Lopez says Fred Hoiberg didn’t lose the locker room and wishes Hoiberg had a chance to coach a healthy team.
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) December 10, 2018
According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Hoiberg’s ousting was most likely due to a grudge held by general manager Gar Forman. Several years ago, Hoiberg once went above Forman to upper management when his players requested that the GM not be around the team as often. Apparently, Forman has held this grudge ever since and was waiting for the right moment to fire him.
The story is ironic considering Gar championed Hoiberg as Tom Thibodeau’s successor in 2015. Sadly, front office pettiness is par for the course in the Chicago Bulls organization. One would think that behavior is a fireable offense. Alas, Forman is “absolutely safe” in his job, John Paxson remains president of basketball operations, and Jim Boylen is the new head coach. That’s just the way it is.
As such, Boylen now has to build his culture full of spirit and energy. However, he is going about it terribly. As former head coach at the University of Utah, I guess he thought he could treat the second-youngest team in the NBA like college or high school kids.
However, you simply can not infantilize your team in the modern NBA. Boylen invokes Gregg Popovich so much in interviews to justify his actions. Oddly enough, he leaves out Pop’s understanding that part of a good culture is respect. You have to treat these adult players like adults.
Jim Boylen won’t become Gregg Popvich through two-hour practices, wind sprints, and constant berating. He would get closer to his goal if he respected his players and put them in positions to win. Fellow Popovich coaching tree leaves James Borrego, Mike Budenholzer, and Brett Brown seem to understand that.
Luckily for Boylen, the players actually want to make things work. Lopez and Markkanen advised their teammates against staging a mutiny, and LaVine and Justin Holiday led the player meetings. Both sides worked to understand each other, and Wendell Carter Jr. felt the meetings helped the team.
Monday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings certainly didn’t help the optics of the Bulls situation. Fans once again booed the team off the floor once the game ended. However, the team felt better about how things transpired compared to what went down on Saturday.
Coincidentally, the Kings are also a young team that is no stranger to controversy. They have also taken their fair share of lumps over the years. However, in their third year under head coach Dave Joerger, this 14-12 team is improving. Maybe the Bulls can reach that point soon if Jim Boylen and his players get on the same page.
The Chicago Bulls will now embark on a three-game road trip. Their first game takes them to Mexico City, where they are the designated home team against the Orlando Magic. That is followed by a date against Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs and a rematch with the Thunder.
After such as emotional week, a trip like this can make a team closer or just as easily create more rifts. We’ll see if Boylen’s Bulls take another step towards becoming contenders, or add another episode to the Chicago Bulls dramedy.