It’s July 20, 2020 and Jim Boylen is still the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
This is after about 100 days since the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as their new Vice President of Basketball Operations, relegating mainstays Gar Forman and John Paxson into the shadows. It was supposed to be a fresh start for a franchise that desperately needed one, but now looks more symbolic than actualized.
Because, logically, Boylen seemed like the next stalwart of the old regime to go away. But so much time time has passed, and Karnisovas has pledged a thorough in-person evaluation of Boylen’s coaching merits.
And Boylen himself is still out there selling himself:
“The relationship [with the new front office] has gone really well,” Boylen told Jack Doles of WOOD-TV, an NBC affiliate in the coach’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., with a question and local angle given to Doles by sister station WGN-Ch. 9 in Chicago. “We communicate every day. I think they understand where we were, what we’re trying to get to. They’ve been very supportive and collaborative. It’s a process to build this team into what it can be. I just like the fact that we have a relationship already. It’s never perfect. Nothing’s perfect. You just work at it. Tell the truth. You get your guys to play hard. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Johnson goes on to write that Boylen and his staff are operating ‘empowered’, and as if they will still have jobs with the Bulls whenever the team gets to play meaningful basketball again.
There is also more rumblings about the Bulls keeping Boylen due to financial implications. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf recently whined to USA Today writer Bob Nightengale that both the Bulls and the Chicago White Sox (the other team he owns) have incurred significant financial losses this year and is worried about the upcoming season too.
Reinsdorf may be ‘worried’ to wonder what’s the use of firing Boylen and hiring a new guy in a year where revenues are down anyway because of COVID-19. This excuse is infuriating, but if you follow this franchise at all you know this is in character for them.
For whatever reason, a decision that once seemed to be a delightful no-brainer even the Chicago Bulls couldn’t screw up has gotten muddied.
In a great column over at The Athletic, Darnell Mayberry wrote a scathing review of Boylen with that simple question: why in the world is Jim Boylen still employed by the Bulls? Even though it really wasn’t necessary, Mayberry laid out the case:
His .317 winning percentage ranks as the second-worst in franchise history, trailing only Tim Floyd. He was promoted in hopes that he could instill discipline and improved habits into one of the league’s youngest rosters, and instead the Bulls rebelled, regressed and repeatedly lost. He implemented an offensive system that either didn’t fit his roster or one in which his players were ill-prepared to play. Most damning is how, in spite of his celebrated care factor, he butted heads with several players. More than a few players this season voiced frustration with Boylen’s methods, some even openly mocking him.
There’s an egregious bit in there of how instead of poor performance causing concern, Boylen only assumed more and more responsibilities in the power vacuum caused by ownership’s apathy:
“Jerry Reinsdorf asked me to be the CEO,” Boylen told The Athletic in October. “He never said ‘coach’ to me one time. (It was) ‘Hire the right people. Get them organized. Set the course. Maintain the course. Correct the course.’ That’s what he asked me to do. I’m here to lead. The great head coaches are leaders.”
On the face of it, their continued confidence in Boylen comes off as tone-deaf. But internally, the Bulls believe Boylen is in fact a competent head coach and remain curious about what he might be capable of when everything is stripped away so that he may focus solely on coaching. As his tenure wore on last season, Boylen wielded more and more authority, focusing his attention on relatively trivial matters ranging from how the media relations staff operated to game night meetings with season ticket holders shortly before tip-off. Boylen reveled in being the leading figure of the Bulls and having his fingerprints on so many aspects of the organization.
This also speaks to the money-saving aspect of Boylen’s ascension. Not only is he one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league (reportedly a shade under $2M for two more seasons), and willing to do this extra work outside of his job purview, he originally didn’t even want a raise when taking over for Fred Hoiberg midseason 2019. That’s a great way to earn ‘backing’ from ownership and advisors, Boylen’s con is still paying off.
That brings us to who was reportedly given ‘full autonomy over basketball’, Arturas Karnisovas. Initially lauded as a fantastic hire, Karnisovas is slowly beginning to lose his good will with Bulls fans with each passing day that he keeps Boylen around. The list of reasons to fire Boylen is long and convincing. Either Karnisovas isn’t convinced, or doesn’t have the power to act on those convictions. Neither explanation is good.