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Jim Boylen is no genius, but he managed to sucker John Paxson into keeping the NBA’s worst coach

a couple dopes telling each other what they want to hear

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still bizarre, to the point of infuriating, that John Paxson spoke after an embarrassing season for a mere 20 minutes (less than their amount of wins this year) and only referenced like three players and his big loud coach. The former got too hurt to avoid being outright terrible (or learn anything from that), the latter ‘did terrific things’.

Paxson didn’t offer much else, but the percentage of time praising Jim Boylen did eliminate any doubt that his team would actually try to find a coach. And now we wait in fear that he’ll do the one thing worse than have Jim Boylen enter a lame-duck season: extend Boylen’s contract.

It’s a nail in the coffin of John Paxson’s dwindling credibility. Because, despite being more telegenic than back-in-the-shadows Gar Forman, and taking more of a front-facing role the past couple seasons as a way to obfuscate blame among the two lead executives, John Paxson was never going to save this franchise’s circling of the drain.

Because, at his heart, John Paxson is a basketball meathead who has shown to be incapable in evolving alongside the league. So when you think about it in those terms, of course he was going to love a walking used-elbow-pad like Jim Boylen.

And Boylen, who I don’t give a lot of credit to (though his team went a whopping 5-5 in a month where the trade deadline screws with the whole league!), knew enough to steer into his own meatball bullshit to win John Paxson’s heart. Or to put it in their eyeroll-inducing terms, his soul.

the spirit of st. doofus

The Bulls have dumped so much crap on us this year that it’s almost tough to remember, but it was John Paxson who started with this ‘spirit’ nonsense. It was when he fired Fred Hoiberg with Lauri Markkanen back only a single game. The timing was such a logical observer would deduce it was meant to give Boylen the best chance to look good in comparison. Paxson spun that:

For us to sit here and think that just because we’re getting (injured) guys back, I think that would’ve masked the problems that we’ve seen. I’m tasked with looking at the underlying things in an organization. And if you don’t think competitive spirit is important for an organization or basketball team, then you’re wrong. And we were lacking that.

(cut forward to after the season, and the injuries were indeed used to mask the problems...)

We know what happened next: Boylen took over and it was a disaster. More so initially then later, sure, but a disaster all the same. However, smartly, not only did Boylen employ a bunch of ‘old school’, ‘hard knocks’, ‘road dog’, ‘ass hole’ tactics, he relentlessly told everyone about it with gridiron cliche.

Now, to most, that was annoying and an indictment on Boylen’s acumen, but to John Paxson was undoubtedly marching band music to his ears: spirit. spirit. spirit.

After ‘spirit’, it was another nebulous attribute of ‘toughness’ that Boylen spouted the most to the point where the players were getting kind of sick of it. He kept it up until the final game, per usual in absence of anything concrete or insightful as to his team’s problems.

And then what does John Paxson say in that press conference? The exact same uselessness:

What I will tell you and I know for sure, we need some physical and mental toughness from some vets to help our guys out, and that will be a priority

second city is the first loser

If the Los Angeles Lakers have a problem with ‘Lakers exceptionalism’, the similarly (at least should be) glamour franchise in Chicago has a similar hangup on staying unexceptional. Or maybe it’s something better called “Bulls Grit-icism”.

Because if you’re not the most talented or well-reinforced, it’s more satisfying when you compete? or something? I can’t quite figure it out, but it’s a mindset that’s been around for years.

Sam Smith at the Bulls official website tried to express this mindset earlier this year in the wake of Boylen’s ascension to head coach, and it was goddamned insane:

It’s like buying a car. Sometimes you see a fancy model that looks impressive and then you take it for a test drive and it’s not quite what you believed. That’s often the way it is with sports in Chicago. It’s like when the Bears hired Marc Trestman, the offensive guru. And things looked good for awhile and it made sense with the rules changes to open up the game. But that style doesn’t fit everyone, and it doesn’t fit Chicago. You know Monsters of the Midway and all that stuff. Our football onomatopoeia, Butkus and Ditka, names that sound like a tackle. And so it was for the Bulls as well. The NBA changed the rules to open up the game, increase scoring, limit interior contact, and the Bulls went along with the trend, reasonably enough since it seemed to be working well for the Golden State Warriors, and the Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg. But you could sense the ambivalence as the team drafted defensive oriented players like Bobby Portis, featured Jimmy Butler, drafted again a defensive player in Chandler Hutchison. Defense is in the team’s DNA, in the city’s DNA. So the Bulls gave the fancy fast sports car offense a whirl and it just didn’t feel right. So they’re going back to the pickup truck. It helps occasionally to have a Ferrari in the mix like Jordan or Rose, but the Bulls spear to be going back to the foundation with which they are comfortable to rebuild.

(credit to a BaB FanPoster - who since deleted it I think- in reading Sam enough to post that back in December)

Now all...whatever that was...was complete and total idiocy. There is nothing inherently ‘Chicago’ that makes the Bulls need to strive to be an outmoded team. But I do think even though it makes no sense, that Sam believes it. And Jerry Reinsdorf believes it. And Jerry told his son to believe it. And John Paxson believes it. And Jim Boylen believes it.

(and Ryan Arcidiocano wears a Butkus jersey)

They think it’s not about being better, or smarter, or having more resources (John Paxson’s small staff!) that can bring the franchise back to prominence. It isn’t even about the slightly more useful mindset of being defensive-focused: Boylen’s defenses were terrible (and Bobby Portis was a defensive player, Sam?).

Instead, there’s nothing that can’t be solved by simply trying harder and being ‘tougher’. Boylen said this nearly every game, and we should’ve known he wasn’t talking to us as much as he was talking to his superiors.

the sycophantic oaf

So Paxson has consistently said as much dumb stuff as Jim Boylen, but Boylen has smartly done something in addition to telling Paxson what he wants to hear. He’s done this consistently since taking over the job, including on the last game of the season: explicitly kissing the ass of Paxson and the rest of the organization.

Tom Thibodeau was - to a maniacal level in their eyes - dedicated to the job. And Fred Hoiberg was the master of improving interdepartmental communication. Boylen, in Paxson’s words, is somehow a combination of both. Paxson even said “he and I have had more dialogue together about everything than I had with any of the other guys probably combined”, which really hurts someone like me who read a lot about the Paxson basketball love affair with Scott Skiles.

Jon Greenberg summed up this phenomenon well at The Athletic.

The Bulls love company men. So do the White Sox. It’s not a coincidence.

In an interview he did with Stephen Noh late in the season, Michael Reinsdorf praised Boylen’s “give-a-shit factor” and [a truly wild anecdote about Boylen’s enthusiasm for meeting with season ticket holders before games]

No judgments, but I’d prefer my head coach to be worried about, say, the game 45 minutes before tipoff.

One single thing Paxson praised Boylen for most certainly wasn’t strategy or on-court performance, it was Boylen leading the greatest exit interviews that ever exit-ed.

Curiously enough, Paxson mentioned he was a part of this process between Boylen and the players. I enjoyed reading what BaB commenter SatchelPage2 had to say about this:

Does your manager’s boss sit in on your one-on-one meetings with your manager? Because then it’s no longer just between the two of you. Now it’s a performance for the big boss, possibly for you both.

It would take a very independent-minded manager not to change the style of the meeting to try and make it what the big boss wants to hear. And after most of a season of watching Jimbo polishing GarPax’s shoes at every opportunity, we can safely say Jimbo is not that independent-minded person.

and back to Greenberg again:

There’s a lot to dissect here, but it seems evident that Paxson respects that Boylen is “receptive” to his thoughts and his presence around the team.

To be even more malleable than Fred Hoiberg, that really is something special.

Out of touch, plenty of time

Notice that while Paxson didn’t go into Boylen’s actual coaching much, I didn’t do this either. That analysis is coming (this post is getting long enough...), but in short: while Boylen undoubtedly knows the game and has a lot of experience, he has not only espoused outdated and provably-wrong philosophies but tried to get his team to play this way.

Paxson, kind of telling on himself, tried to roll back Boylen’s own words when it came to playing style, and as mentioned Paxson acknowledged Boylen was offered a lot of input from him and others. But there is no real conflict here: Paxson truly believes this stuff too. And invoking the name Doug Collins is meant to assuage our fears of Boylen’s novice status, but Collins himself was ran out of his last job for the game passing him by.

And the NBA has also passed John Paxson by. We saw it all season. That’s why he - not just Boylen - says ‘spirit’ and ‘toughness’, has no concept of team perception and free agent recruitment, offers weird paternalistic attitude while consistently lamenting ‘kids today’, is obsessed with players being in the practice facility all summer (that’s how he and Will Purdue and that gang did things!)...

...and this is why he thinks Jim friggin’ Boylen is actually the right coach for this team.

Here was Paxson, again on these incredible exit meetings:

Some of these exit meetings with our guys; they were no nonsense. The players were engaged. They accepted what Jim was asking of them. And Jim has high expectations for them.

Where’s John Paxson’s “high expectations”?

Instead, Paxson looks to be comfortable with keeping arguably the worst coach in the league because that coach is a amiable subordinate who participates in a feedback loop: misguided ideas in how to succeed in the NBA in 2019, and those ideas invoking ‘Chicago toughness’.

Especially for next season, if the Bulls are to make this leap “back in the playoff hunt”, it makes little sense to stick with the break-them-down-and-teach-the-basics guy. The Bulls may be better next season after all: they do have some talented players, who should be healthier (unless ‘camp Boylen’ breaks them...), and the addition of Otto Porter helps somewhat in coach-proofing the team.

But Jim Boylen most certainly is not their best option to lead them, and it’s an insult that Paxson was so convinced that didn’t even bother looking at alternatives.

One of Paxson’s more prickly moments as part of his cringe-inducing media rounds was when he was debating how many ‘rebuilds’ he’s actually led as part of 16 goddamned years at this job. It should be asked if Paxson considers Jim Boylen as one of his coaching hires. Paxson certainly sounds like it counts, to the point where he and Boylen sound one in the same.