The season was slipping away from Jim Boylen one humiliating loss at a time, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. His team couldn’t close out games, couldn’t win at home. Attendance was down. The fans were vocal in their disgust. The progress he was hired to oversee as head coach simply wasn’t happening. Faced with crisis, Boylen opted not to alter his strategies or look inward for answers. His media interviews, growing more bewildering by the day, routinely saw the coach throw his players under the bus and double down on schemes that simply weren’t working. The first reports of a player revolt didn’t surprise anyone paying attention.
This is the story of Boylen’s coaching tenure, though not with the Chicago Bulls. Before Boylen became the most overmatched head coach in the NBA, he was one of the most overmatched head coaches in college basketball at Utah. While Boylen’s bosses at the NCAA level eventually realized their error and ate the money required to fire him, Bulls management has done nothing but give him unwavering support amid another lost season.
This was supposed to be the year the Bulls stopped living in the basement of the NBA. Boylen and his boss, long-time Chicago executive John Paxson, publicly set the bar for themselves at the onset of the season by saying their team should compete for a playoff berth. The Bulls didn’t make any splashy moves in free agency, but they did improve the overall talent on the roster by signing capable veterans. They expected development from their prized young core. In a weak Eastern Conference, playoff dreams weren’t delusion, they were a reasonable expectation in year three of a rebuild.
Perhaps it could have happened under different circumstances, under a different head coach. Instead, the Bulls are one of the very worst teams in the NBA once again. It’s happened for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of Boylen’s singular ability to be the most destructive head coach in the league.
Boylen’s time as leader of the Bulls was a disaster from the very beginning. In his third game after replacing Fred Hoiberg last season, the Bulls suffered their biggest home defeat in franchise history, falling to the Celtics by 56 points. It only got that bad because Boylen pulled his starters with 21 minutes to play. After the game, Boylen told the media he was scheduling a practice the next morning because he didn’t want his team to “double lose” by failing to learn from their mistakes. The players, stuck in a span of three games in four days, simply decided they weren’t going to do it.
Reports of the alleged player mutiny in Chicago should have felt familiar to Boylen. When he was at Utah, he saw seven players transfer out of the program over a two-year period. His current players in Chicago aren’t lucky enough to have that option.
Boylen has held marathon practices. He’s created a farcical “leadership council”. He’s made his players run wind sprints and do pushups in a way that would be more befitting of high schoolers than professionals. He has lost at a record pace, owning the lowest winning percentage among active head coaches with at least a full season of experience. The Bulls still decided to give him a contract extension, refusing to do a coaching search to lock themselves into the least expensive option possible after firing Hoiberg.
Along the way, Boylen has become the walking image of old-school delusion. He’s justified losses by quoting “Field of Dreams”. He said his team’s goal was to average 35 assists per game, which has literally never been done. He said that there was no shame in losing the league-worst Warriors on the road, and then lost to them at home again nine days later. He has spoke of spirit and soul but never adjustments. He is such a bad communicator that management has told him he can no longer speak to the media about injuries.
Boylen has said he coaches by faith. It’s a good thing, because math and science would inform him that he isn’t very good at this. Boylen’s Bulls have the third-worst offense in the NBA. On defense, his ultra aggressive scheme to blitz ball handers in the pick-and-roll forces steals but sacrifices easy layups and corner threes to any team smart enough to find the obvious loopholes. His Bulls can’t rebound, can’t finish at the rim, can’t make threes. Boylen hasn’t offered a palatable solution to fix any of it.
Under the Boylen’s watch, the Bulls’ young core has stagnated at best, regressed at worst. Lauri Markkanen looks physically diminished and has shot the ball horribly. Zach LaVine has had some brilliant moments, but lacks the consistent decision making chops required to be a lead initiator. Wendell Carter, a tremendous passing and shooting center prospect coming out of the draft, has been told he cannot shoot or pass. Coby White is taking a lot of shots, but not making many of them.
Yet when Paxson talked to the press this week, he insisted Boylen isn’t on the hot seat. Paxson said he sees progress behind closed doors the public can’t see. He and senior advisor Doug Collins sit in on practices and film studies. Despite every piece of evidence pointing to Boylen being incompetent at the job, Paxson is pleased with him.
Why? It’s because Boylen is nothing more than Paxson’s puppet, a malleable mind Paxson can impress his bad ideas on without dealing with the punishment of watching these humiliating losses every day from the bench himself. Boylen is a glorified meat shield for the criticism that should be going to his bosses. He is a company man through and through, probably because he knows he’ll never get another NBA head coaching job again.
Paxson has been at this job for 17 years, and the only constant in his run is his inability to get along with his coaches. He once reportedly choked Vinny Del Negro in the locker room during a dispute over Joakim Noah’s minutes. He was shut out by Tom Thibodeau after firing his top assistant Ron Adams, with his coach locking himself in his office and refusing to communicate with management. He fired Scott Skiles on Christmas Eve and fired Hoiberg while his top players were injured.
Paxson’s record with talent evaluation is even more dispiriting. His trade of Jimmy Butler was unforgivable given the underwhelming package he got in return, and it’s the reason the Bulls are where they’re at right now. He had Spencer Dinwiddie in training camp but chose to keep Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan over him. He has routinely failed to make trades to improve the roster and has never signed an impact free agent. He is still blaming Derrick Rose’s injury issues all these years later. This is a feckless executive who has surrounded himself with ‘yes men’ like his brother Jim and like Collins, whose time in the league should have passed long ago.
Paxson hit one jump shot in the 1993 NBA Finals and got a job for life. The vast majority of those who have ever worked under him have seen a man impossible to get along with whose feel for the modern game is non-existence. Yet he has had unparalleled job security in this industry, mostly because his owner doesn’t care enough about his world class franchise to make a change.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf was once quoted as saying basketball is just a game, baseball is a religion (despite this pathos, his baseball team, the White Sox, haven’t made the postseason in a decade). He also reportedly told a friend in ownership to shoot for second place every year to keep the fans hungry for more. Whether the quote can be verified or not, it’s certainly believable. It’s that mindset that has put the Bulls in the position they are in today.
The Bulls should consider themselves blessed every day to have such a devoted fanbase, one that spans the entire globe, not just the third biggest market in the country. This is the benefit of once employing the greatest of all-time, yet Bulls ownership has always seemed too content to live off Michael Jordan and their ‘90s glory days. These problems go all the way to the top: Reinsdorf is too loyal, too lazy, and too cheap to fire Paxson. Paxson knows firing Boylen in-season would only be admitting failure. Paxson also knows he likely won’t ever find another head coach so open to his ideas.
This is why Boylen remains employed by the Bulls despite diminishing attendance and a rapidly deteriorating product. The Bulls are a train wreck, a simple fact that anyone with eyes can see. They just don’t care enough to make a change. For all of Paxson’s tough guy talk about competitive spirit, he obviously doesn’t have any himself if he continues to employ Boylen.
Boylen might be the face of the Bulls’ current problems, but he’s far from the biggest cause. The issues that have plagued the Bulls are not specific to this year; these are institutional problems have happened for nearly two decades under Paxson. One day, lord willing, Boylen and Paxson will both be just another casualty.