There are some eerie parallels to what occurred with the Bulls Monday when Fred Hoiberg, surprisingly considering the injuries to so many of the team’s top players, was fired after just over three seasons as Bulls coach and replaced by top assistant Jim Boylen.
It was 11 years ago in December on a Monday following back to back blowout losses, including to Houston on a Saturday night—as it was for the Bulls this past Friday and Saturday— that Bulls coach Scott Skiles was fired and replaced by Jim Boylan.
The Bulls then went on to beat the NBA draft lottery odds by getting the No. 1 draft pick and Derrick Rose. Which led to the Bulls’ greatest successes since the Michael Jordan championship years.
Could that be the plan?
Probably not even if you do believe in NBA conspiracies.
Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson said Boylen, who joined Hoiberg as associate head coach when Hoiberg was hired in 2015 to replace Tom Thibodeau, was named head coach and not interim. Like Hoiberg, who will be paid through next season, Boylen has another year left on his contract.
“We want Jim to be our head coach next season,” Paxson said in a hurried morning press conference in the Advocate Center. “We think he’s got the intangibles to be a really good head coach in this league. He’s sat in that seat next to the head coaches for a long time, he has a philosophy, he has a belief system in who he is and how he wants to play. We’ve going to give him every opportunity to succeed.
“We believe Jim has a lot of the intangibles that head coaches have,” said Paxson. “He has a passion and an energy to him that I think our players will respond to. I think he’ll be able to take his personality and get these guys to buy in to what he’s doing. I also think he’s a teacher of the game and when you have a young basketball team you need a coach and a staff that can drill down to the fundamentals we talk about it all the time and teach the right way to play. Those are the things that Jim will bring to the table. Now we recognize it’s very difficult to make changes in-season. You don’t have a training camp, you don’t have a lot of practice time, but we believe Jim will be able to effect change hopefully quickly. We’re not putting a Band-Aid on anything.”
The Bulls have been stumbling this season at 5-19, losers of six straight and 10 of 11. Though the move came as something of a surprise despite speculation about Hoiberg’s job status this season since Markkanen just returned from injury Saturday, Denzel Valentine is out for the season and Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis remain out with injuries. They could return in the next week or so. The speculation was Hoiberg would get a chance to employ his system of play with the team the Bulls anticipated having to start the season, one young, but athletic and more talented. But Paxson said the problems with the team are more endemic, almost something of a disease of indifferent and lethargic play, a torpor that could spread even to the returning players without a change.
Paxson insisted it’s necessary, even more important now, to create the appropriate environment not only for the returning core players but for hopes for future personnel moves and significant free agency opportunities this summer.
“We were in a similar situation last year at this time: poor record, we had some injuries, Zach (LaVine) was not playing yet, we had the incident in training camp (fight between Portis and Nikola Mirotic), so we didn’t have a full roster,” Paxson explained. “But the entire energy about this group was different back then. We felt that here in the last several weeks, that something’s different. What we’re lacking is kind of an energy and a spirit about our team, and we need to get that back. It’s not as simple as saying we would have gotten that with healthy players, with Lauri coming back, Kris Dunn coming back, Bobby coming back. It was more than that. This decision was not based on our record, plain and simple. We need to find a spirit to our group that’s been missing and missing for quite some time.
“We talked about a way of playing and, yes, the injuries have played a part in us not being able to do that,” Paxson acknowledged. “You have to be able to get your identity across to your team and we felt we’re not playing with the force that we want our group to play with. You may not win games, but you can get any 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. For us to sit here and think that just because we’re getting guys back, I think that would’ve masked the problems we’ve seen. Then we wouldn’t have made good decisions going forward. We gave Fred opportunities. And he did a lot of good things for us. But (we’re) 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. We were lacking that. I told the players that earlier today. We need a voice and someone who can at least try. You can see how guys compete and how they respond. We felt that we’re not seeing that to the level we need to see it. And a change was needed.
“It was about what we were seeing internally and the vibe and the energy that was in this building,” Paxson added. “We felt we needed a change, and we needed a change sooner rather than later. Over time and especially lately as we’ve all taken the pulse of our group, that spirit and energy just have not been there. For a young team, we need that. I’m sure Fred is disappointed. Fred is a terrific guy. All of us in this organization liked Fred Hoiberg a lot. He’s a great person, handles himself with class, he was respected by everybody. We also acknowledge that Fred had to deal with a lot of difficult circumstances while he was here, dating back to last year. This year obviously with the injuries and not having a full roster. I’m sure he’ll get another chance at some point. He needs to decompress and take his time and see where life leads him. But we can’t look back. We’ve got to look forward.”
And so Boylen—the other Jim Boylan was recently an assistant with the Cavaliers and was a Skiles assistant—becomes the 17th Bulls coach not counting interim coaches. Current assistant Pete Myers was twice an interim coach briefly. Boylen said he will retain the same staff and add G-league assistant Dean Cooper, a colleague from Boylen’s decade as an assistant in Houston to Rudy Tomjanovich. Boylen is the fifth coach for Paxson, who fired Bill Cartwright soon after being named general manager. The Bulls had successes with Skiles and Thibodeau. Vinny Del Negro coached two seasons and Hoiberg just over three amidst varying rosters each season and a rebuild that started with trading Jimmy Butler last year.
Boylen said he will return Markkanen to the starting lineup Tuesday in Indiana and have Jabari Parker back as a reserve as a facilitator. Dunn is scheduled to begin practices with the Windy City Bulls this week in anticipation of a return to play and perhaps Portis soon as well. So perhaps by next week when the Bulls leave to play Orlando in Mexico City, Boylen will have an opportunity to begin seeing the team the Bulls anticipated to start this season.
Paxson Monday deflected a question about whether the team now would think playoffs with discussion about a mood and style of play. Though at least a competitive run toward the playoffs was not out of consideration when the season started. But with the shocking accumulation of injuries and constantly changing lineups, the team got stuck in a quagmire of basketball despair.
The Bulls’ offensive rating is last in the league despite Hoiberg preaching a high pace of play, which was more common last season. The Bulls are 28th in scoring and 24th in opponent shooting, third from poorest in differential, being outscored by almost 10 points per game. Certainly, it would have been different with Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Valentine.
But Paxson insisted it was deeper than that, intimating it was elements of more isolation play and a slower game that ran contrary to the style the team hoped to play and which the NBA demands in this era. Plus, Paxson alluded to players not seeming to be as concerned with defeat as they perhaps might and should be.
All of which comes with losing, though also the chicken and egg riddle. Did the attitude cause the losing or did the losing cause the attitude. In any case, Paxson said the team needed a change now.
Sports is a zero sum game. When one team wins, the other loses, an athletic financial transition.
So as disappointing as it had to be for Hoiberg, who was not available for comment, it was exhilarating for Boylen and his 30-year journey through the coaching ranks with six NBA teams including the Bulls and a four-year stint as head coach at the U. of Utah.
Boylen said he was informed Sunday night. Paxson told Hoiberg of his decision Monday morning when Hoiberg arrived to run practice because he wanted to tell him in person. Boylen was a candidate after last season for the Charlotte head coaching job.
“I’m very thankful to the Reinsdorfs, for John and Gar’s (Forman) support, their faith in me and who I am as a person, how they want this team coached,” Boylen said following Paxson’s remarks. "They feel I’m the guy and I’m excited about it. And I feel I’m the guy for it. I don’t think anyone has a better vantage point of who this team is, what it was, what it can be than me. And from the experiences that I’ve had and where I’ve been, who I’ve been with, I’m going to try and use all that to make us into a better ball club and to build our culture in a positive way.”
Though it’s often perception because many successful coaches are not excessively animated, like Boston’s Brad Stevens, Boylen said he is more of an excitable figure on the sidelines. Hoiberg often was criticized for being too calm, though Phil Jackson often did just sit through long runs without timeouts. Paxson did concede personnel ultimately makes the difference in talking about the team’s defense. “Tom (Thibodeau), last year in Minnesota, his teams weren’t great defensively. A lot of it is personnel.”
So Boylen, 53, hopes to marry returning personnel with growing personal enthusiasm.
“I think I’m a little more passionate in-game coach than maybe Fred is,” Boylen said. “That might be one difference you might see. You might see a different style of play at the offensive end. As we get going here, it’s hard to change everything right away. Not that a whole bunch needs to be changed, but the emphasis will be on some different things. You have to put your hand print on it and make it yours, but we also have to understand there’s a shock involved with the team. You’ve got a new voice and a new coach. The great thing about it is I have relationships with our guys, I put the time into our guys and I feel like we can make this adjustment together.
“From my seat as an assistant, I tried to bring as much passion and energy as I could,” said Boylen. “And to support Fred, maybe fill in that hole or fill in that situation. I don't think anybody's saying here that Fred did a poor job. The franchise is moving on.”