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The Bulls underestimated the damage Jim Boylen’s in-game coaching can cause

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the head coach needs to carry performance over to games, too

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Chicago Bulls
why does he do this weird mouth-covering shit?
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

When I or Blowtorch O’Donnell write about how Jim Boylen is the worst coach in the NBA who should be fired immediately (and never elevated above interim status in the first place), it usually includes the caveat that Boylen knows more about basketball than we ever will. This is probably true, Boylen has decades of experience and has showed his knowledge of basketball schemes and concepts before.

Though ‘knowing the game’ sure seems like a bare minimum requirement, and one for a job much lower than head coach of one of the (should-be) glamour franchises in the league.

John Paxson keeps insisting that his puppet coach is actually good in part because of how well the practices are going and how Boylen’s ‘care factor’ for individual player development makes him this great teacher. But Boylen has shown to be totally inept at some other aspects at the lead chair, like leadership or communicating to the media.

Another element that Boylen has shown a lack of ability in is with his in-game coaching: Timeout usage, schematic adjustments, rotation substitutions, all things that are on the margins compared to overall talent, but still difference-making.

This was pointed to several times last season, perhaps most diligently by Cody Westerlund of 670 The Score, but the actual wins and losses were so immaterial last year (except when convenient, remember FEBRUARY?!?) this was lost in the big Bulls dumpster pile. And it’s a coaching trait so rarely (if ever?) addressed by Boylen’s bosses that it comes off like they don’t think it’s important.

But Boylen’s in-game coaching has cost the Bulls several wins this season. And in a season where the franchise was looking to show material improvement, that’s a big cost.

Boylen had several head-scratching moves in their latest collapse monday in Oklahoma City. Asked after the game why his defense continually switched big men onto Chris Paul, helping Paul sink five three-pointers, Boylen not only had no regrets but no assessment:

I thought they made shots over us and those are shots you’ve got to live with those. They didn’t get to the rim or in the paint. They were at the end of possessions, so give him (Paul) credit for that.

Then as the lead was gone, the timeout usage by Boylen came into focus. Boylen found himself using his last timeout with 1:22 remaining to challenge a foul call, one that sure looked like a blown call but was not overturned.

But the more curious timeout usage was when Boylen called one in the 3rd quarter, with thirty seconds remaining in the period. There were no substitutions made. If it was to ‘settle the team down’ that was blowing the lead, the quarter break was a possession away. If it was to draw up a play, well...

Fast-forwarding again to where the Bulls blew the lead but came back to tie with 25 seconds left. This was a stretch admired by Boylen post-game and deservedly so. But that just makes it worse that the coaching couldn’t back up the players performance.

Chris Paul wound down the clock but was forced into a timeout. A Bulls foul on the inbounds sent Steven Adams to the line with 4 seconds remaining. Reminder, Boylen is without a timeout here, and thus the ability to advance the ball once they gain possession.

Adams is a 55% career free throw shooter and at 51.5% this year. He banks in the first attempt to give OKC the lead. Boylen then subs out Wendell Carter Jr. for Coby White for the second free throw. And with commentator Stacey King calling this out in real time, the Bulls could not secure the Adams miss:

Boylen had this to say on that decision:

We needed speed on the floor. We didn’t have a timeout. We needed speed and had to get the ball down the floor. He banks the first one in and now we have to get something going to the rim. That’s what I wanted to do.

Carter is the team’s best defensive rebounder. To get the ball down the floor, you first have to get the ball.

What’s made even worse then is that after OKC secured this board and was fouled again with a second remaining...Boylen put Carter back in!

As we know following this calendar year from hell that’s been Jim Boylen’s tenure, Boylen offered up no culpability post-game (“we didn’t have a timeout”, like it was just circumstance...), instead offering praise towards the effort and mere ‘mistakes’ from his players as the culprit in another loss.

But Boylen’s in-game decisionmaking is also a problem. The players do look to be playing hard, and while that could be seen as a positive accomplishment for Boylen, he has previously said it’s not on him to coach effort so it just wouldn’t be fair to give him that credit.

The players will not get positive reinforcement from their coach blurting out positivity to a mocking audience, it’d be from actual wins. Tom Thibodeau didn’t get buy-in from his players just because he yelled at them, Thibs proved to them that he was prepared and smart and could help them win games. And when they didn’t, he would offer up his own failures and pledge to get better. Boylen just has the sprints and drills.

And after these late-game failures, and overall crappiness in fourth quarters, the players are undoubtedly losing belief that their coach is up to the task. They’ve looked discouraged as leads dwindle, freelanced in crunch time, and it’ll cascade into more systemic failures as the team doubts the whole operation.

The Bulls have proven that they literally do not value coaching. They usually get first-timers, rarely do any coaching search, and as one of the wealthiest franchises in the league they are currently paying Boylen in gift certificates to a cured meat distributor. And management continually highlights only the non-game aspects of the job, up to and including schmoozing season-tickets holders. A mission statement was given preseason for tangible improvement, yet they double-downed on a coach who showed only the strategy and tactics to cost them games on the margins, let alone win them. Paxson has emphasized that his only real frustration is that the players aren’t carrying over from the practices into well-executed moments in the games. Why doesn’t have have that same standard for his head coach?