A tidal wave of change has swept through the managing ranks of the Chicago Bulls. Should Jim Boylen and his unique coaching style be next out the door?
With the recent news that Gar Forman was relieved of his duties as general manager while John Paxson gets reshuffled into an advisory role in favor of the respected Arturas Karnisovas at the executive vice president of basketball operations position, there’s now only one unscathed member of the Chicago Bulls’ management team that has drawn the ire of fans everywhere this season: Jim Boylen.
As the head coach of a team tottering on the edge of irrelevancy for yet another year, Boylen has seen a lot of blame placed on his shoulders. Some of that blame is warranted of course, but some is also misplaced.
Take the Bulls hapless record this season. 22-43 is hardly a record that instills confidence in a fanbase desperate to see some results from a seemingly never-ending rebuild, but finding a single person to blame for the team’s lack of success would be nearly impossible.
A lot of factors went into those struggles, not the least of which had anything to do with Boylen’s coaching. The Bulls, in what is now an all too familiar happenstance, were once again struck by the injury bug this season.
Their arguably ideal starting lineup of Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. only played nine games together. Even if you distill that lineup down to account for Porter missing a vast majority of the season and the platoon that emerged at point guard, the nucleus of LaVine, Markkanen, and Carter only played 37 of the Bulls 65 games together.
It’s hard to really judge the success of a rebuilding roster if the three cornerstones of that team only play together for a little more than half of the season, especially if that team is as shallow as the Bulls. For much of the season, Boylen was forced to use players like Chandler Hutchison and Cristiano Felicio, a far cry from starting pieces on any NBA team.
It might be unsatisfactory for fans to have to endure another season of excuses because of injuries, but that’s just the facts of the situation. Boylen shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame for a poor record then given the personnel he was left with.
What can be placed undeniably on Boylen is his coaching style though. The late game timeouts, heavily publicized conflicts with players, and all-around odd behaviors are all part of what makes the Boylen experience, for better or worse.
Let’s not be mistaken however, while the worst parts of Boylen’s style have rightfully gotten their fair share of attention, not much has been made of what Boylen has done well.
LaVine has flourished. He’s become the face of the franchise in a season that saw him just miss out on his first all-star berth by the slimmest of margins. Most of his game has looked considerably sharper, with a bit of an edge finally being developed on his defense to accompany his already explosive offense.
Meanwhile, Coby White was on an absolute tear before the season was shut down. White scored more than 20 points in eight of his last nine games, and was quickly staking his claim as one of the most exciting rookies out of the league’s most recent draft class.
While much of the credit for those improvements should rightfully belong to the players themselves, Boylen shouldn’t be left out of the conversation either. He’s been in charge of guiding the rebuild and helping these young players find their identities, and he’s clearly created an environment for that to occur with White and LaVine.
The fact that has come in spite of how he’s butted heads with LaVine, or perhaps even because of it, just makes the situation more unique at the end of the day. Regardless, it’s given the Bulls a player they can be confident in to help lead their rebuild and a rookie who looks to have enormous potential to possibly pair with him in the backcourt.
Now, none of this is to say that fans or management should forget Boylen’s shortcomings as a coach. While elements like the much ballyhooed punch clock and obnoxious time-outs are merely quirks in the grand scheme of things, something that Chicago sports fans should be used to in their coaches at this point, many of his other decisions are much more than that.
Markkanen’s regression has led to a reported displeasure that can likely only stem from Boylen’s coaching. The fact that the team owned the league’s fourth-worst offense at stoppage only goes to prove that those struggles aren’t just the gripes and misfortunes of one player alone as well.
Something has to be done to bring the Bulls offense to the same level as it’s defense, and it’s not at all clear that Boylen is capable of doing that. Instead of trying to radically change his system as the season wore on, Boylen just got in the way of giving a more offensive-minded player like Denzel Valentine a chance to shine in favor of stubbornly working with Hutchison and Kris Dunn as the team’s de facto replacements for Porter Jr. during his absence.
Those kinds of decisions and that unwillingness or inability to see flaws in his own systems are undeniably marks against Boylen, and could rightfully lead to his departure.
Making that the beginning and end of the discussion around Boylen would be wrong, however. If fans really are ready to put their trust in Karnisovas and whoever he hires as the new general manager, then they should be fine with Boylen being able to make his case personally to his new bosses.
From a defense that was among the league’s top ten for quite awhile to those aforementioned developments from some of the team’s most important pieces, Boylen has actually overseen some positive changes on the Bulls. As the league enters an uncertain future, there would certainly be some value in keeping a familar presence in charge of these young players too.
In other words, Boylen may not have earned the ability to prove himself during the actual season again, but he should have at least earned the ear of his new management to make his case. It should then be up to Karnisovas and his new GM alone to decide Boylen’s future, regardless of how the team’s fans feel about him.