Bulls decide time is right for coaching change

New 'permanent' coach Jim Boylen will have opportunity to prove himself

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Dec 3, 2018 6:06 PM ET

The Bulls struggled during Fred Hoiberg's three-plus seasons in Chicago.

CHICAGO – Both the Bulls and the Chicago media outlets reporting on coach Fred Hoiberg’s firing Monday went to painstaking lengths to make clear that Jim Boylen, the lieutenant who is replacing Hoiberg, is not being labeled an “interim.”

In fact, a few went so far as to call Boylen the team’s new “permanent” coach. Which, for what that means in the NBA, belongs on the late, great George Carlin’s list of oxymorons somewhere between “airline food” and “small crowd.”

Boylen was promoted from associate head coach Monday, taking over a 5-19 team that is “still at the early stages of what we started” last season. That’s how John Paxson, the Bulls’ vice president of basketball operations, put it after the team’s first practice under Boylen, who became the 17th, uh, permanent coach in franchise history.

What the Bulls started last season was officially billed as a “rebuild.” But what it dragged with it was a culture of losing, a mission in which their position in the Draft lottery mattered more than their winning percentage. That one paid off with the selection at No. 7 of rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Still, the culture was back for the first seven weeks this time around, not just as leftover infestation but fueled by early-season injuries to three of the Bulls’ top five or six players.

 
The Fred Hoiberg era is over for the Chicago Bulls.

Seven-foot shooter Lauri Markkanen (zero), Kris Dunn (one) and Bobby Portis (four) played in a total of five of Chicago’s first 23 games. Markkanen, a first-team all-rookie honoree in 2018, made his debut at Houston on Saturday after suffering a seriously sprained right elbow in September. Dunn (left knee) and Portis (right knee) are practicing now and said to be a week or so away. (Role player Denzel Valentine had ankle surgery last week and is out for the season.)

With three starters back to bolster Zach LaVine (25.0 ppg, 10th in the NBA) and Carter -- and with other Bulls having gained reps and experience that could help them in more specific secondary roles -- conventional wisdom said that at last, Hoiberg would be allowed to coach his preferred style with the proper personnel. And even, for once, be judged not by developing second-tier talent or keeping one eye on the ping-pong balls, but on the Bulls' wins and losses.

So naturally, he gets fired now.

Hoiball, we hardly knew ye.

This story is all about the when, as it is such an unusual time to have terminated a coach. Had Hoiberg been fired before last season, when the Bulls made the choice to lose games, that might have made NBA sense. Had he gotten axed after this season, after a real opportunity to coach their best players as he saw fit, that would have been fair. But this?

It’s like sending home Gladys Knight as the last Pip shows up for work. Hoiberg finally gets the group with which he could grow, the core that offered several legit glimpses of its talent last December, and he’s pink-slipped before they can even run through one full practice.

He leaves with a dreary 115-155 record and more than a season and a half left on his five-year, $25 million contract. He’ll also tote with him the sad fact that, year after year, he was dealt losing basketball hands by Paxson, GM Gar Forman and the ever-shuffling Bulls.

In 2015-16, Hoiberg was the front office’s answer to newly fired Tom Thibodeau, inheriting an aching, aging roster that was largely played out. The following season was a chemistry experiment gone awry when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade took over one side of the locker room while Rajon Rondo huddled with some overmatched youngsters on the other.

Last season was one long “tank you” note, with injuries and the Portis-Nikola Mirotic training camp throwdown for drama. And now this, with LaVine dominating the ball, Jabari Parker drawing a $20 million salary to play offense only and a succession of point guards (Cam Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaquille Harrison) bringing NBA G League stylings to the big stage.

 
Should the Bulls have fired Fred Hoiberg? The Starters share their thoughts.

Paxson kept repeating the words “energy,” “effort,” “passion” and “spirit” as the Bulls’ current deficiencies. He said it had nothing to do with the W-L record and downplayed the idea that Hoiberg was on the brink of being dealt a playable hand.

“It’s not as simple as saying we’d have gotten that [energy] with healthy players,” Paxson said. “We need to find a spirit to our group that’s been missing, and missing for quite some time.

“You have to be able to get your identity across to your team. We just felt we’re not playing the style with the force that we want our group to play with. You may not win games, but you can get many of your players to play that way. That’s why we decided to do it now, with three of our more talented players coming back.”

Hoiberg was maybe too nice, a characterization that often seemed impossible to shake, but he stayed classy inside and out the organization to the end.

“Regardless of how you are as an individual,” said Will Perdue, the former NBA big man turned Bulls analyst for NBC Sports Chicago, “to be a successful NBA coach, you have to have a little bit of an ass in you. I don’t think Fred has that in him.”

Yeah, well, he also didn’t have enough talent on his roster (Cristiano Felicio, four years, $32 million?) or one true, enduring vision laid down by management.

Now it is Boylen’s turn, with an apparent mandate to chew on players and neither a chance nor an imperative to chase a playoff berth. Even if the Bulls were to go .500 the rest of the way, beginning Tuesday at Indiana (7 ET, NBA League Pass), they’d finish 34-48.

If Hoiberg was a poor man’s attempt to replicate Steve Kerr as an NBA coach, Boylen’s portfolio suggests a Thibodeau redux, albeit with a lower profile. Boylen's coaching career stretches back more than 30 years, with 20 as an assistant in Houston, Milwaukee, Golden State, Indiana and San Antonio.

Boylen also worked at Michigan State in two separate stints and was coach at the University of Utah from 2007-11. He was working with the Rockets when they won NBA titles in 1994 and '95 and with the Spurs in their 2014 championship. He got his start in the NBA as Houston’s video coordinator in 1987.

The new coach got into the weeds a bit when trying to explain how, exactly, he’ll dial up all those rah-rah intangibles. He was better identifying the basketball issues that face the Bulls. And he met head-on the inevitable question about loyalty vs. career-climbing when an assistant replaces his boss by stressing his friendship with Hoiberg and work habits in the job he just held.

The Xs & Os Boylen spoke of in need of work now included defensive rebounding, transition defense and details within plays (cutting, screening, passing). He wants the Bulls to play more physically, too.

“We have to do our technique better,” Boylen said. “We have to care about it more. […] We can own “Bulls” across our chest better.”

Here’s where the “when” matters most: By making the move now, management gives Boylen a chance with the team at nearly its healthiest. Now he has 58 games to make a difference. Or not.

Not sticking the “interim” tag on him sends a message to the players that they can’t risk easing through what’s left of this season. But it also allows the Bulls brass to evaluate now and, if they choose, hire an outsider like Monty Williams, Adrian Griffin, Tyronn Lue or some other candidate later. 

That coach undoubtedly would be termed “permanent” too.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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