After a 114-112 victory against the Thunder Friday, Bulls head coach Jim Boylen was being congratulated in the United Center hallways.
His squad had just beaten the hottest team in the league over the previous 19 games in his first home game as the new head coach of the Bulls. Lauri Markkanen, one of Chicago’s promising young players, tallied 24 points and seven rebounds in his first home game of the season, including the game-winning basket. When VP of basketball operations John Paxson and GM Gar Forman made the coaching change, they cited a “lack of spirit and energy in the building”. After a dominant performance, it appeared that Chicago’s swagger had finally returned Friday night.
But it only took 24 hours for that feeling to evaporate.
The Bulls suffered a 56-point loss to the Celtics Saturday night, the worst loss in franchise history. Boylen implemented a five-man switch during the game multiple times, as an apparent attempt to send a message to the starters after a disastrous effort. Boylen then sat the starters for the final 21 minutes of the contest in order to keep them fresh for practice Sunday.
“Why have them play in a game that’s going to be very difficult to win when the benefit to me is going to be practice tomorrow and getting better? So that was all premeditated in my mind,” Boylen said after the devastating loss. “So I play them more, we lose tonight and can’t practice tomorrow, we double-lose. And we don’t have time to do that.”
Practicing the day after a back-to-back set is highly unusual in the NBA, but the Bulls had done it once earlier in the year under the recently fired Fred Hoiberg. However, Boylen had reportedly already held multiple long practices that included rigorous conditioning — and that’s when things almost unraveled.
Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania reported that players debated whether to show up at practice Sunday after their back-to-back set. Eventually, the wary players did show up to the Advocate Center (Chicago’s training facility), but didn’t practice. Instead, the players and coaches held meetings to discuss their feelings regarding their rollercoaster of a weekend.
According to Yahoo!, Boylen referred to his days in San Antonio as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich as his reasoning for yanking all five starters at once, but the players weren’t having it. They reportedly responded with “we aren’t the Spurs” and reminded Boylen that he wasn’t Popovich.
The meetings were “productive,” per Charania.
Both sides appeared ready to move on from the tension of the weekend heading into Monday’s game against the upstart Kings. Fortunately for Boylen, he still has the support of the front office, which is why he’s not coaching under the interim tag. Paxson repeatedly said at Boylen’s introductory news conference that he expects Boylen to be the head coach “for a long time.”
Bulls head coach Jim Boylen on the backing he has from the front office in light of recent events pic.twitter.com/6EkOGyvpzT
— Chinmay Vaidya (@Chinmay_Vaidya) December 10, 2018
There’s a lot to unpack in Boylen’s comments before Monday’s game.
He says “there’s no differing philosophy” in how the Bulls plan to attack the rebuild, offering some insight into the potential source of conflict between Hoiberg and the front office. Boylen also said he can freely coach the team with “passion, emotion and directness.” And then there was the game against Sacramento itself.
The Bulls blew an 11-point halftime lead in the third quarter, being outscored 36-18. Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox, who was 0-for-5 in the first half, went 5-for-7 in the third quarter to tally 16 points. Chicago committed a season-high 27 turnovers in the 108-89 loss and was booed off its home floor for the second game in a row. The Bulls were outscored 63-33 in the second half.
“We played 30 minutes and 15 seconds of very good basketball last night. We were plus-9 with 5:45 to go in the third,” Boylen said. “We turned it over, we lost our energy, we lost our focus, we lost our edge. That’s a young team at that moment. That’s the teaching moment, that’s the learning point. Everything in that moment, that 5:45, we can fix.”
“We played good yesterday, man. The first 30 minutes of the game, we played really good,” Bulls PG Zach LaVine said. “We’ve been having these little stretches where we can’t get back into the game and we have to fix that.”
In an effort to create better communication within the team, the Bulls are establishing a leadership council among the players. LaVine said Boylen suggested the idea.
“Jim came up with it, and we all took a liking to it, so that we’re all on the same page and the team will have someone to go to or a group of people to go to if there’s an issue,” LaVine said. “We’re putting it together within the team and we’re just trying to figure out the right dudes to lead the team.”
“We had a situation over the weekend that could’ve been handled by a leadership group walking into my office, saying ‘You know what, Coach? This is how we feel today, what do you think?,'” Boylen said. “Ownership of the team, strong leadership, care factor, commitment…those are actionable words. I want the leadership group because they will have input onto what we do and how we operate.”
This doesn’t mean players will be coaching the team a la Golden State. It does allow them to take more ownership of team structure, which could help leaders emerge on a young team looking to get its rebuild on track. However, there’s also the question of why this committee wasn’t needed under Hoiberg.
“I think we just got to where we figured out we’re going to need one,” LaVine said.
This is where the disconnect still exists between Boylen and the players. Part of that could be due to their limited time together with Boylen in the head coaching role, but part of it is certainly due to Boylen’s coaching style and the near-mutiny because of it.
“I’m honoring what my ownership and management wants me to do. The great thing about it is it fits my personality. It fits what I believe in in the game, that the game’s bigger than all of us,” Boylen said. “We got to take ownership of our behavior and our actions, be accountable for the things we [do] wrong and improve on the things we can. It fits right into my wheelhouse.”
Time will tell if Boylen’s style results in wins, but if it doesn’t, Chicago’s new leadership council might become a frequent guest in Boylen’s office.