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Fire Jim Boylen as Bulls coach not just because of what he says, but what he does

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when everybody stopped paying attention, it was back to ‘crawl’

Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls
“whoa whoa whoa there, speed racer”
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Not sure what phase I’m in when it comes to processing the trauma of seeing the Bulls stick with Jim Boylen next season (at least!), but it’s definitely not complete acceptance yet.

It’s easy to be dismayed that they’re keeping the worst coach in the NBA just because he’s in the building, he’s affordable, and he parrots the same dumb shit that management and ownership say about spirit and toughness and Chicago blue-collar whatever.

It’s also easy to remark on what a bad on-court coach Boylen is!

This was somewhat forgotten in the great February of 2019, an era of ::checks notes:: ten games where Boylen’s team wasn’t among the worst in the league. For reasons that I believe entail being optimistic for the sake of wanting to feel not-terrible all the time, it was reasoned that while Boylen may have had the worst first week of coaching in NBA history, things improved. That was mentioned regarding his off-the-court scream-o toughness and conditioning habits - did you hear Zach LaVine offered to pay his fine???? - but also on the court.

The Bulls at the start of Boylen’s “leadership” were not only a laughing stock, they were playing slow and outdated basketball while being laughed at. Hold the ball off a miss, limiting threes in favor of ‘paint touches’, that kind of thing. Boylen was openly saying he wanted to do this.

After the acquisition of Otto Porter and coinciding with a hot streak from him along with Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the Bulls offense did get a lot better.

BUT:

  1. Small sample size
  2. No, they didn’t have to be worst-in-ten-years bad first before being decent
  3. We should be more wary of February NBA regular season providing good evidence. I wish this was asked of John Paxson as to whether he learned this lesson in being more skeptical, else repeating his ‘we’re comfortable with Cam Payne’ stance from last offseason
  4. Boylen’s Bulls went back to bad pretty quickly, just nobody much cared to pay attention: the only thing worse than February NBA is March NBA.

So how did this team look both in that majestic February and outside of it? I have subjectively broken up this horrible Bulls season into 5 different ‘eras’:

Era 0 - Hoiberg’s tenure

Era 1 - 12/04 - 1/28: Boylen’s hell-world, shock and ugh, what Paxson called dyn-o-mite

Era 2 - 1/29 - 3/2: Expanding the February to give them a bit more credit. This is after they lost to the friggin’ Cavs, so starting with a ‘competitive’ performance in Brooklyn. Otto Porter’s first game was 2/8. Last game here is the 4OT game in Atlanta

Era 3 - 3/3 - 3/24: This is after the 4OT game when Markannen cooled off, up until big shellacking at home to the Jazz, which were the last games for Markkanen and Dunn.

Era 4 - 3/25 - 4/11: Garbage time, but worth noting that their garbage was neither better nor played harder than other garbage teams, despite that being Boylen’s big selling point to ownership. And we’re talking about guys who will play hard for anybody simply to try and stay in the league.

  • We’re not even touching the defense, which never even improved to where Hoiberg had it. This despite Boylen’s reputation as the ‘defensive coordinator’ and any false concepts he and GarPax have about defense being primarily about effort (defense is also strategy!)
  • Boylen always talks about ‘paint touches’ (should note that stat above isn’t pace-adjusted), but they were actually very bad in that even after he took over. They did greatly ‘improve’ in their percentage of points scored in the paint, so maybe he was just confused. Just look at how, and how much, Robin Lopez was used after how Wendell Carter Jr. was coached in the brief time they had together.
  • The great surge of February did see an uptick in pace and 3-point attempts as a percentage of total attempts. But it wasn’t a huge difference, certainly not a ‘pace and space’ edict (I guess that’s dead?), and then went back down. What we see as more significant in that time is the 3-point make percentage. This is very volatile! In that same surge era (I called it ‘fluke’, just having fun here) the Pistons were 2nd in the league in 3pt%. Then in the GLeague-esque final stretch Detroit was down to 25th. It fluctuates when we’re talking about a relatively small group of games.

It’s more important to look at what Boylen (or his team) does versus what he says, but we should also look at what he says...and not simply the bozo coach-y stuff that we make fun of.

Again, in February there was a lot of reporting saying to the effect of: “Boylen said they’d crawl before running! He delivered!”. But then at the end of the season he showed himself to still very much be old-school, not just in attitude but in basketball principles as well.

Before the game, coach Jim Boylen provided some insight when asked what he will take into the summer from this uneven season.

”I think we have identified some real positive things on how we’re going to play,” Boylen said. “I think the multiple ballhandler system has been good for us. I feel like driving the ball, I think we’re second in the league in paint touches since I got the job*. That was a point of emphasis from Day 1.

”I would like us to take good 3s. If it ends up being more 3s, great. Defensively, we’ve been real good some nights and really poor some nights. I’d like us to be more consistent there. I’d like to see some more toughness at that end of the floor.”

*they weren’t, see above

Boylen isn’t a total basketball idiot, he showed that in his 2-part conversation with Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic. But maybe that makes it worse? That he has the experience of decades coaching basketball and is more entrenched to these philosophies:

Because I ask our guys to take open shots. I’d like [3 point attempts] to keep rising. But I want us to take quality shots. I don’t mind a contested 3 from the corner. I haven’t pinpointed a number that is ideal for this team. What I’d like to do, though, is make good decisions for quality looks and have great discernment in our half-court offense.

I think the reason we’ve grown offensively is because our multiple ball-handlers and our discernment. And we’ve limited our mid-2s. I’ve coached this team not to (settle) for mid-2s.

Fred (Hoiberg) wanted 3-point attempts. I want paint touches and paint drives. So how, analytically, can we adjust to that as we go? It’s a weapon. It’s a tool. It’s not a cure-all. But I do understand it, and I do think it’s valuable. It doesn’t drive me every minute of every day.

As Mayberry’s colleague Stephen Noh found, even with Boylen playing lip service to these ‘modern’ tenets, the results weren’t there:

The reality is that he could not get his players to do any of those things consistently. The Bulls had the fifth-highest mid-range jumper frequency, per Cleaning the Glass, and were 19th in average time of possession, per Inpredictable. They were a slow team that lacked any sort of offensive cohesion.

(as Noh notes to be fair, Hoiberg also couldn’t get his teams to do this much. But at least he spoke to the value like he knew it.)

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Boylen doesn’t seem to really believe in the value of faster pace and 3-pointers (or analytics in general suggesting best ways to play), and as a result hasn’t been able to coach his team to better apply itself with these beliefs.

It’s undoubtedly not helped by his influences either. We know that while the Bulls do have an analytics department they don’t seem to have much influence compared to the old heads. Paxson is totally out of step when it comes to winning in this league, and even he was trying to walk back some of Boylen’s edicts, though noticeably not completely:

“I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that you have to shoot 50 threes a game to win at a high level,” Paxson said. “Jim’s thing is getting to the rim. It’s not necessarily through post passing, although that’s still something—if you have players that can catch the ball close to the basket and score—that is a valuable thing. His thing is getting to the paint and drawing defense. If you have shooters out there with them that can space the floor, that’s valuable, too.

We’ve come to learn that Paxson treats Boylen’s amiability as a feature, in that he can simply tell him how to coach. And then there’s the coach whisperer, Doug Collins, who always had slow teams and was booted from his last head job for being too stuck in the past.

It’s easy to get distracted when pointing out the many ways the Bulls keeping Jim Boylen is to the level of insulting. It’s a pretty big problem that even if you believe he can teach and ‘coach up’ teams without having them mutiny on him this time, if it’s to achieve an outdated goal.