Enough already with the intangibles.
The Chicago Bulls and coach Jim Boylen need to focus on the tangibles of what’s left of this season or risk losing something worse than an unseemly number of basketball games. They risk losing their reputations.
The Bulls were mired in intangibles for more than a week, and it went horribly. When the Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg on Dec. 3, VP of basketball operations John Paxson cited an absence of “passion,” “energy” and “spirit” as the overriding -- yet intangible -- reasons. Urgent ones, too, because the Bulls didn’t even wait to give Hoiberg a chance to work with a semblance of a full roster.
Stretch big Lauri Markkanen played his first game just two days before the firing. Point guard Kris Dunn (strained left knee) and forward Bobby Portis (strained right knee), returned Monday night against the Sacramento Kings.
Boylen revved up and muscled up with a little training-camp-in-December. He reportedly ran practices that lasted well over two hours -- once, twice, three times in the first four days. He hit the Bulls with a heavy dose of conditioning work, with suicide sprints and military-style push-ups. He ordered film breakdowns immediately after Chicago’s loss to the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 4.
A two-point upset of Oklahoma City on Friday was followed Saturday by the worst defeat in Bulls history. The 133-77 pasting by the Boston Celtics was humiliating, from the 17-0 hole the Bulls dug themselves to Boylen theatrically subbing out all the starters not once, but twice.
Yet that performance wasn’t even the most embarrassing thing the Bulls did last weekend. That came Sunday, when players reportedly considered boycotting Boylen’s scheduled practice.
A couple of them initiated a group text late Saturday to muster support for the resistance -- they thought it was “excessive,” Boylen later told reporters, to practice after a back-to-back and on the lone slack day in a stretch of three games in four nights. (Both are contrary to common NBA work schedules). They allegedly even contacted the National Basketball Players Association to see if union rules were being violated (they were not).
“This is not a negotiation,” Boylen said.
The ringleaders were described in some Chicago media reports as “veterans,” which narrows the list of suspects quickly -- only four Bulls players have as much as four years of NBA experience. Robin Lopez, 30, specifically was mentioned as a vet who slowed the resisters’ roll, telling them how unprofessional they’d be perceived.
So, per one team source, the players’ big stand wound up as walking in at 12:15 p.m. instead of the scheduled noon practice time. They did avoid another potential killer workout by instead heading into a players-only meeting, followed by a players-coaches-management meeting after. Then some players got some shots up while a handful played 2-on-2.
Per ESPN's Malika Andrews and Ramona Shelburne on Tuesday, after the players-coaches-management meeting, the idea of forming a leadership committee was discussed. The idea there was that in the future, those appointed to the leadership committee could act as a liason between players and coaches.
ESPN also reports that Bulls management is on board with Boylen's tough-love leadership style and are supporting him as he uses a firm hand to change the team's culture.
All that said, the Bulls spit out the bit against the Kings at United Center Monday. They were outscored 63-33 in the second half and got booed at the end. Again.
Hopefully, that now is that. This has been way too much drama for a 6-22 team ill-equipped to handle it at either the coaching or playing level.
Boylen got into the weeds of the intangibles that got him promoted. He was dwelling on basketball’s last refuge of scoundrels, hustle factors, because that’s what his bosses apparently value most, as evidenced by their dismissal of Hoiberg. Pushing the players as hard as he did in his first seven days -- and talking enthusiastically about it to the media -- led invariably to players pushing back.
They were wrong for doing so -- the leaders on better, more veteran teams would have demanded a practice Sunday after Chicago’s loss. But many of these Bulls players are too young, too inexperienced and too of-their-generation to realize how wrong they were.
There was no way anything resembling NBA basketball (never mind the winning variety) could have continued, as raw as things got in the 48 hours or so before Monday’s loss. Now, in the hangover from raw emotions and a pair of regrettable defeats, Boylen can busy himself with the fine points of cleaning up the Bulls’ defense, turnover woes and defense on 3-pointers and side pick-and-rolls.
They all can use the itinerary quirk of a brief trip to Mexico City for Thursday’s Global Game against Orlando (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), followed by games at San Antonio and OKC, to do some familiar road bonding. Even the stop to face the Spurs can help, provided it gets Boylen to back off some of his Gregg Popovich references in the presence of the real deal (and the Bulls players stop feeling compelled to remind their coach he’s not Pop).
If not quite tranquil, there seemed to be a calming down -- maybe a playing out -- by late Monday.
“Good, bad or ugly, I think that ordeal was good for the team,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said.
Said Boylen: “I think it’s a blessing for where we want to go.”
Maybe. But like the coach said when asked how a team digs out from such an emotional hole, the Bulls are going to be in “win the next possession” mode for some time. This group has built no track record and has nothing to lean on, besides some talent.
Oh, and all the new passion, energy and spirit.
The Bulls and Boylen are stuck with each other, and they won’t become any other team’s nemeses until they stop being each other’s worst enemies.
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