The Bulls have officially signed Head Coach Jim Boylen to a 3 year contract extension, and for some fans the world has ended. Almost immediately after the announcement, the cries to fire GarPax and Jim Boylen echoed across the expansive halls of the interwebs. Disappointment, anger, and disgust seem to be the overwhelming emotions on display from Bulls fans, along with a lot of head hanging, fist shaking, and sighing in resignation. I too, felt and displayed these same emotions and physical responses, but not because GarPax chose Jim Boylen to lead the Bulls, it’s more about how they chose him.
This is the 2nd coach in a row hired by John Paxson and Gar Forman without a public search being made. Perhaps the Front Office made an exhaustive and clandestine search for a new head coach. Maybe they have been working behind the scenes for months, scouting coaching talent, candidly speaking with potential candidates, putting out feelers and getting a sense of who would fit best with this roster. Maybe Jim Boylen is the best person for this job. But we fans don’t know that. We haven’t seen, or heard, any of those things taking place. From our perspective it looks like John Paxson waved his magic wand and, voila! Head Coach Jim Boylen appears from out of the hat.
If we are speaking honestly about the situation, Jim Boylen is well qualified to be a head coach in the NBA. He has spent 30+ years working in basketball as an assistant and head coach. He has learned from some of the best basketball minds in recent history; Rudy Tomjanovich, Tom Izzo, and Greg Popovich. Over the course of his career, Jim Boylen has helped two teams win 3 NBA championships; two with the Houston Rockets, and one with the San Antonio Spurs. He has been a head coach at the University of Utah, taking the Utes to several NCAA tournaments. Based on this resume, Boylen has earned his chance to coach an NBA team.
Earning a shot at a head coaching gig is not the same as being a good head coach, just as studying under some of the greatest basketball minds doesn’t make one a great basketball mind. Jim Boylen still has much to prove in all areas of professional coaching.
1) Can he get the most out of his players?
A big part of being a good head coach is understanding the players on the roster, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to maximize the pluses while minimizing, or eliminating, the minuses. This requires a good working relationship between the coach and players, one built on trust. Lauri Markkanen has to trust Jim Boylen before he will listen and respond positively to criticism from the man, the same is true for Zach LaVine, or Wendell Carter Jr, or any employee being critiqued by a boss.
I believe Jim Boylen understands the strengths and weaknesses of his roster. It’s one of the reasons he launched his “shock and awe” campaign in the first week he took over from Fred Hoiberg. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Bulls was their conditioning. For a team that wanted to run opponents off the court with a fast paced Hoiball offense, the players were not in good enough shape to make that happen. They could not run with other teams, so Boylen slowed the pace to a crawl. It was back to conditioning, and basics, and paint touches, and post play, and Robin Lopez pivoting players into the court like so many screws.
Boylen also understood that due to all the injuries to key starters, Zach LaVine was being run into the ground. Slow the pace for a month or so and you give LaVine a rest. Introduce a multi-ball handler offensive system to the team and you relieve some of the pressure from Zach’s shoulders. Boylen gets credit for understanding the roster, but he might have failed to gain the teams trust.
The major problem with Boylen’s “shock and awe” campaign-the extra practices, 5 player substitutions, the worst loss in franchise history, and the public shaming of players in post game press conferences-is that none of it served to build trust between the players and their new coach. Would you trust that a person had your best interests at heart if they called you an embarrassment during a national press conference? I would have a hard time listening to whatever the guy had to say after that, whether or not the statement was true.
When the coach limits two of the biggest strengths of the best player on the team, how can that player not be upset? When Boylen slowed the pace of the game, and took the ball out of Zach LaVine’s hands, how could Zach not feel frustrated and confused about the direction of the team and his roll on it? The unfortunate first impression Boylen made on this Bulls team, and the rest of the league, hurt the foundation of trust all great relationships need to be built on. It severely hindered player growth during the last few months of the season.
It’s no coincidence that the team started playing better with the addition of Otto Porter Jr, a talented wing who had not suffered the initial humiliation Boylen heaped on the roster that first week of “shock and awe.” It’s also not a coincidence that Lauri Markkanen had his best month as a Bull shortly after talking with his Finnish National Team coach, Henrik Dettmann, a man he seems to trust and respect. Boylen dropped the ball in relationship building, but it’s not too late to repair those bridges.
One of the best things Boylen does as a head coach is fight for his players. He is constantly in the ear of the referee questioning foul calls. He famously challenged the play of certain L.A. Clipper players accusing them of dirty tactics after several hard picks were set. Boylen was so voracious in the defense of his players that he was kicked out of the game and fined by the league. It was encouraging to hear that Zach LaVine offered to pay Jim Boylen’s fine, maybe the players are starting to warm up to him.
Jim Boylen in here pic.twitter.com/w4ObZnEgSG
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) December 18, 2018
2) Is Jim Boylen a sound tactician?
While it appears Jim Boylen has a firm grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of the Bulls roster, and it also appears he is slowly winning the trust of his players, the question still remains: Does he know enough basketball X’s and O’s to give the Bulls a competitive advantage during a game? Jim Boylen made a lot of mistakes last season when it came to his in-game tactics. Benching all 5 starters at once, twice in one game while not bringing them back in to play, resulted in the worst loss in Bulls history. Not a very good tactical plan, Jim. There were several times last season when the Bulls had the chance to win a game in the final possession, but the play Coach Boylen called resulted in nothing more than a contested shot that missed.
Boylen’s ATO to potentially win the game. Stacey King: “Wow. What are we doing?” pic.twitter.com/ksZsEoTBnr
— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) January 27, 2019
Boylen’s last ATO. LaVine got an okay look to force into OT but missed the shot. Cavs elected not to foul, it worked out for them. Cavs win 104-101. pic.twitter.com/M4IDplT1Hn
— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) January 27, 2019
Also, Boylen was not very good at drawing up plays after coming out of a timeout. Some of the blame could be directed at the players for sloppy execution of the plays that were drawn up, but none of the plays I saw (end of game or after time out) were particularly inspiring or genius, it was pretty run of the mill stuff.
Boylen: “I called a timeout and drew a baseline out-of bounds and we ran it poorly. You can’t do that. I can’t use my timeout and we draw something up that has worked for us before and we don’t execute it. That’s unacceptable here. And it aggravates me.”
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 26, 2019
Another area of concern, was Boylen’s clock management. There were several games last season, where he used all of the teams timeouts before the final 2 minutes, making it difficult to call plays and set lineups during crucial stretch runs. At other times, Boylen would take a timeout during the last 2 minutes of a blowout, violating one of the unwritten rules of professional basketball. He extended games that were “over,” wasting everyone’s time and pissing off opposing coaches. I don’t really care about Boylen violating the unwritten rules of basketball, I’m more worried about his seeming lack of awareness. For a man that has spent 30+ years on the sidelines as a coach, he should have a better understanding of time management in professional basketball.
Suns scored next time down, Boylen called timeout. Suns bench looked puzzled as to why. Normally you’d intentionally foul to sub. Plus it’s bizarre w/ only 40 seconds left. Boylen did sub and drew up a real play. As Blakeney came to set screen, Kokoskov yelled for Suns to foul. pic.twitter.com/LpCAdxFd8C
— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) March 19, 2019
Hilarious moment at the end of this one. Boylen called a timeout with 40 seconds left, Bulls up 14. Kokoskov intentionally fouled to blow up Boylen’s ATO, then walked off the court before Boylen could do the customary coach wave goodbye pic.twitter.com/vAZWbbv14U
— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) March 19, 2019
Jim Boylen seems to be more of a big picture guy when it comes to tactics. He is better at putting together an overall strategy for the team. He has solid ideas about working the ball into the paint on offense in order to free up perimeter shots or get high percentage looks at the rim. We fans complain about this style being Old School ‘90’s basketball, but if you watch the Houston Rockets, they run plays built off of similar concepts; slow pace, half-court, pick-and-roll centric, multiple ball handlers getting to the paint or threatening the paint, one Big fighting in the post. The difference between the Rockets and last seasons Bulls is the personnel they have running the offense, and the spacing and discipline along the perimeter (James Harden and Chris Paul > Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn). I’m not saying Jim Boylen is the next Mike D’Antoni, or that the Bulls are the next Houston Rockets, I’m just pointing out that a slowed pace and half-court offensive can work in the current NBA.
Another strength of Boylen as a tactician is his willingness to take advice and criticism from his peers. John Paxson has raved about Boylen’s ability to communicate with the Front Office and Special Advisor Doug Collins in particular. Boylen knows that he is a rookie head coach in the NBA, and even though he has several decades of experience, he can always learn more. That’s refreshing to hear and see from an NBA head coach. It means Boylen wants to grow and wants to get better. It also means that you can expect new tactics from the Bulls next season, because if Boylen is truly willing to listen and grow as a coach, it should be reflected in his in-game decision making and overall schemes.
3) Finally, can Jim Boylen win?
The answer to this question is completely dependent on the roster he has to work with, and how well he answers the two questions before this one. It’s hard to win in the NBA when you have G-League talent filling out the roster. The Front Office needs to sign more talented players in order for Jim Boylen to have any hope at winning basketball games. Likewise, the core players need to stay healthy for that to happen too. We can’t expect the Bulls to make the playoffs when multiple starters miss 20+ games due to injury.
The goal for next season is for the Bulls to be in the playoff hunt. For that to happen, Jim Boylen needs this team to buy-in to his overall basketball philosophy. The players will need to trust him and play to their full potential. Boylen will have to get better at his in-game decision making. He needs to continue to grow in his understanding of the League and his roster. It’s all got to mesh.
Can Jim Boylen be a great coach? Sure, I don’t see why not. He made some mistakes during his first season as an NBA head coach, but everybody has to start somewhere. He has acknowledged his gaffes, which is an important first step on the way to improvement. We’ll see if he can correct, or avoid, mistakes in the future. The most important thing Boylen needs to do as the returning head coach is build the trust of his team. He can’t embarrass his players in press conferences and with mass substitutions. He needs to build up the confidence of this young squad and point them in the direction of success.
Jim Boylen’s three year contract extension is not the end of the world, Bulls fans. It’s an opportunity for a new head coach to grow, and a young team to come together. Whether we like it or not, Jim Boylen will be the head coach of the Chicago Bulls for the foreseeable future. Embrace it. Accept it. Get “juiced and jacked” about it.
Next week: The NBA Draft Lottery Drawing!!! Thanks for reading and GO BULLS!!!