Chicago Bulls fans are clamoring for Jim Boylen’s job, but there’s a problem with the logic that changing the coach will make a difference. It doesn’t.
There’s been an interesting shift in the landscape of Chicago Bulls fandom as the “Fire GarPax” chants and rants have shifted to “Fire Jim Boylen” over the last month. The Bulls now sit at 7-14 on a season that began with some big promises from the aforementioned front office, and Chicago fans are justifiably upset.
It’s time, as in every struggling franchise that had big hopes, to play the blame game, and Boylen is the proverbial head on the chopping block, but is that justified?
I understand I am in the minority here, even in discussions with other writers at PAE, in not being emotionally outraged at the head coach (who I’ve seen referred to as an “angry egg”), but I also have been following this league and studying it for quite a bit now.
I’m just as disappointed in our start as every other fan (though I still harbor hope we can turn it around with the talent on this roster), but here’s the dirty little secret about this whole “fire the coach” phenomenon that inevitably rears its ugly head when a team underachieves: The coach, quite simply, doesn’t matter.
I am not here to be a Boylen apologist, I think he’s just as stupid in some areas and adept in others as 87 percent of the head coaches in the NBA. In short, I think he’s average, as are a vast majority of NBA coaches, but the overwhelming evidence that I’ll try to present in this article will illustrate that even if he were somehow demonstrably below average, it simply wouldn’t matter.
In a fantastic article at The Oklahoman, Berry Tramel went back 50 years and took a look at head coaching changes that happened “mid-season.” Mid-season he defined as a firing after the first 10 games of the season and before the last 10 games. He was able to identify 152 instances where a head coach was replaced in this time frame. How many of these 152 head coach changes yielded better results than their predecessor? 37.
That means 24 percent of the time it worked by this writer’s fairly shaky definition, which are odds that no gambler would take. Though his definition of “success” may be a bit subjective, he mostly went by record, with some mentions of teams that still had losing records but were set up down the road to succeed or coaches that didn’t necessarily have a better win percentage but went on to have better careers than the coach they were replacing.
So even in those 37 instances, there are times when a team didn’t even make the playoffs that year or played just as well as before. If I were a statician in the NBA advising a team about a coaching change, I would adjust the likelihood of success down if this was my only data set.
But it isn’t.
In a 20-year study released earlier this year by Kip Wright, there was found to be an extremely powerful correlation between coach turnover and bad records. The study found that the average tenure for an NBA coach was the lowest ever among the major sports, at 2.4 seasons on average, and if you check the nifty graphs in the study linked above, you’ll see the correlation between turnover and bad records is stronger than in any other league.
The conclusion of the study was that “low win percentages often go hand in hand with a high coach turnover rate.” There’s some obvious correlation going on here, wherein winning teams don’t often fire their coaches (looking at you with some very curious side eye, David Blatt), but if we are saying a head coach is responsible for a team’s success more than the players are, this data would look much different. For one, the number of head coaching changes and average tenure of a coach would be much longer, because losing teams would find that miracle coach that would get them winning records.
And for two, the number of head coaching changes would not so strongly correlate to losing records, you would have more variance as awesome coaches turned franchises around.
However, I am a man of reason, so given these 20+ year data sets I am willing to admit (just like in any statistics) that there are outliers. So is Jim Boylen, an NBA coach for 27 years, endorsed by Gregg Popovich, and a college coach before that, really so atrociously bad he’s become a statistical outlier?
Boylen is not without his faults, but the two most credible complaints I have heard about that ol’ Angry Egg (I think he should just own it) is that the offense looks terrible and his rotations are out of whack. While the offense is definitely at the bottom of the league, their shot profile has been eerily similar to one of the league’s most dynamic offenses, the Houston Rockets.
That’s actually a really spot-on article from The Ringer linked in the previous sentence that I’d encourage Bulls fans to check out. On top of their above average shot profile for the modern NBA, the Bulls sit at 6th in the league at getting “wide open” shots (the closest defender 6 or more feet away, as defined by NBA.com). The fact that players are not hitting those shots is definitely not on the coach. Remember kids, the offense (and coach) get you in position to score the ball, actually putting the ball in the hoop is on the player.
The rotations are admittedly more tricky and I can’t really defend them as they’ve even had me scratching my head. However, he’s not the only coach in the league that plays and sits people with no rhyme or reason. I can tell you this in confidence because I play fantasy basketball in several leagues and even I, someone who follows minutes per game and usage rates daily, can’t tell you for certain who will play outside of the star players on an NBA team.
We also have to admit that without Otto Porter and mostly without Chandler Hutchison, the Bulls have nothing outside of 3-guard lineups, which is okay for 15-20 minutes a game but definitely not the whole game. However, a completely valid complaint is that he doesn’t stagger Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen enough, leaving the Bulls without bonafide scorers for stretches. It’s a pretty rough spot, but I agree he could do better and isn’t the best at managing this aspect of the game.
Again, just to reiterate, I am not saying Jim Boylen is not a “problem” or that he isn’t “bad,” I am just saying that it is simply a minor inconvenience if he is. I find him to be average, or at least on par with nearly 90% of coaches. The only four coaches I believe are above average and actually affect their franchises are Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, and Doc Rivers.
None of those guys is available. In a follow up, I will lay out what I believe is actually more pressingly wrong for the Bulls than their head coach, but there are four main problems in my opinion that far outweigh the head coach:
- Zach and Lauri’s bottom of the league inability to finish at the rim when they get there, even though they are taking a majority of the shots.
- Lauri’s total regression from his first two seasons and his inability to stay healthy, despite being lauded as an all-star as the roster was assembled.
- The team’s lack of rebounding, ranking in the bottom 8 teams of the league.
- The front office’s or medical staff’s inability to be transparent about injuries and sit players with nagging injuries. Unclear which one is more at fault here, but probably a bit of both.
I, probably the loneliest one, welcome back the “Fire GarPax” chants because this misplaced coach blame is not just endemic to the Bulls, it’s league wide. And as much as we are wired to look up to leadership and give them credit or blame when it isn’t due, in this league of this particular sport, the head coach simply doesn’t matter.
Fire him or keep him, some other coach will come in and shoulder all the blame or get all the credit for the play of this talented roster, and it won’t be necessarily earned.