The Chicago Bulls lost five more games in 2018-19 than they did the previous season. A campaign like that makes a fanbase question the direction of their franchise. However, John Paxson, executive vice president of basketball operations, relayed a message of optimism at his end-of-season press conference on Thursday.
In fact, Paxson is so pleased with the team’s trajectory, reports have surfaced that head coach Jim Boylen could receive a contract extension through 2022. On its face, this seems like a shrewd move. This young core needs continuity, and securing the coach long term would do just that.
However, matching Paxson’s and Boylen’s words with the actual results indicates that, without some changes on their part, this type of commitment could lead to a “lost era” of Chicago Bulls basketball.
Two key things could be the downfall of the GarPax-Boylen triumvirate. The first thing is their paternalist nature over the players. The other is their inability to fully optimize the talent on the roster.
Paxson and Boylen are dedicated to teaching the Bulls the “right way” to play the game.
“[Boylen’s] goal is to get them better as individuals,” Paxson said at Thursday’s press conference, “He really does view himself as a teacher, a guy that wants to connect with the players.”
There’s nothing wrong with coaches helping players learn new things about the game. However, Boylen has emphasized teaching his team the basics before adding anything advanced or substantive. That’s well and good at the collegiate level, where Boylen was a head man at Utah for four seasons.
However, these are grown, professional players. Only four of the 22 players that suited up for the Bulls were rookies. These guys aren’t stupid. Implying these “kids” need to be “taught” and micro-managed is frankly condescending.
But hey, with the Bulls committed to Boylen and the young core, maybe the talk of “spirit” and “toughness” and “teaching” will lead them to become a throwback-style playoff contender like the San Antonio Spurs or Indiana Pacers. In order to get there, though, the coaching staff will eventually have to tailor their offense to the players.
The roster, as constructed, is fine. It’s young and athletic and versatile and exciting to watch. Some development and a few smart additions could really push this team into the postseason.
However, the gameplan that Jim Boylen implemented this season severely undermines some of the players’ key skillsets. BBall Index ranks Jim Boylen in the ninth percentile in offensive talent optimization and the fifth percentile in defensive talent optimization compared to all NBA coaches since 2013-14.
Boylen went into detail in his two-part interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic about his philosophies on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he likes to force middle on pick-and-rolls and go under screens because teams shoot worse off the dribble than they do in catch-and-shoot situations. Offensively, his scheme is more “go-with-the-flow.” He wants his players to mainly attack the paint, kicking the ball out to shooters if need be.
It’s good that he has a plan. However, it’s one that opponents quickly figured out. Letting teams attack middle with no solid rim protector or consistent help defender leads to easy baskets. Also, teams may be less efficient on pull-up 3’s, but the average NBA team still scores 8.1 points per game off of them. The Bulls had the eighth-best defense in the NBA through Boylen’s first 13 games. That same defense was ranked 28th in the remaining 45 games.
Things never took off on offense outside of a small stretch following the Otto Porter trade. What is supposed to be an inside-out game turned out to be seemingly endless possessions of “pass the ball to a teammate and hope he can beat his man off the dribble.” Players were so geared towards constantly attacking the paint that they sometimes passed up open 3’s.
So if there are so many flaws in Boylen’s gameplan, what makes John Paxson so confident that he is the coach of the future? He indicated at the press conference that he wanted to build his team around versatility and stretching the floor. Those were already tenants in Fred Hoiberg’s “pace-and-space” offense. So why is The Mayor in Lincoln, Nebraska while Boylen is on the road to an extension in Chicago?
Honestly, it comes down to the coach’s willingness to also be coached. For years, Paxson and Forman have clashed with their head men. Each of Boylen’s predecessors eschewed most or all of the advice the duo attempted to impart.
For instance, Paxson grew impatient with Scott Skiles during a slump in 2007 and fired him. He clashed with Vinny Del Negro multiple times, even getting into an altercation with him over Joakim Noah’s minute allotments.
GarPax also didn’t get along with Tom Thibodeau during his successful early 2010’s run due to his hard-driving nature. Even the laid back Hoiberg rebuffed input from Gar Forman and relayed the players’ request that he be around less. This apparently led to his eventually ousting in December.
Most successful organizations hire personnel that they trust to get the job done then give them the freedom to do so. John Paxson and Gar Forman, however, prefer to be more hands-on with on-court affairs. After years of searching, they seem to have finally found someone willing to listen to them.
So here we are. The Bulls have taken a step back on the road to playoff glory. However, they have apparently found the coach they want to lead their young core for the foreseeable future. His gameplan fails to maximize the roster’s talent. However, his willingness to be molded by the higher-ups is bolstering his job security.
We’ll see if the continuity and synergy with the front office can advance the franchise back to contender status. Otherwise, we may be facing a “lost era” of Chicago Bulls basketball.