You’re not going to believe this, but it looks like firing Fred Hoiberg didn’t solve all of the Chicago Bulls’ problems.
After a couple of competitive outings to start the Jim Boylen era — a six-point loss to the Pacers followed by a thrilling final-seconds win over the Thunder — the Bulls completely disintegrated on Saturday against the Celtics. Boston scored the game’s first 17 points and never looked back, hammering the hosts to a historic degree in a 133–77 apocalypse. Staggeringly, the loss wasn’t the worst part of the Bulls’ weekend.
On Sunday, Bulls players considered a walkout, only to settle on two long, air-clearing meetings. It’s fair to say that things have taken a turn for the disastrous in Chicago. Let’s review the series of events that brought them to this point. Here are Seven Signs Your Franchise Is in Turmoil: Chicago Edition. (Coming soon, we suspect, to NBC.)
1. Things get so bad so quickly that we kind of forget you, like, just gave up the single-game 3-point record
Hey, remember this?
We’re barely five weeks removed from the Bulls allowing Klay Thompson to make 14 3-pointers — on 24 attempts! — in just three quarters. The Warriors at one point led by 45 points in that October 29 annihilation; after Saturday’s full-body convulsion against Boston, that deficit seems downright quaint. What stands out in revisiting that game — well, besides Klay’s headband — is just how resigned the Bulls seem to history happening on their home court, how dispassionately they approached even trying to prevent Thompson from getting going.
“We’ve got to do a better job of trying to contain him. I’ve got to do a better job trying to chase him,” Chicago guard Zach LaVine told reporters after the game. “But when a dude gets on a run like that, you can’t do [expletive] about it.” It’s not just that the Bulls didn’t; it’s that they scarcely seemed interested in trying.
After that game, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson left a note on a dry erase board in Hoiberg’s office inside the locker room: “MEETING AT 9 AM.” The message Paxson delivered in that meeting: “Play tougher. Compete harder.”
The Bulls lost 14 of their next 17 games. In fairness, five of those defeats came by five or fewer points, and none came to an opponent you’d expect a very bad, Lauri Markkanen–less roster to handle; even so, Hoiberg was fired, and Boylen was elevated.
2. Your new coach starts writing legend-level checks in his third game
In the grand scheme of things, the Bulls getting crushed by a Celtics team that has been on an absolute tear after a sluggish 20-game start is in no way shocking. It’s how Chicago fell apart, though — and what it’s wrought — that makes the situation so remarkable.
After a Jayson Tatum 3 put the Celtics up 9–0 less than three minutes into the game, Boylen called a timeout to try to settle his team down. A pair of missed Markkanen 3s and Boston buckets later, it was 13–0, and Chicago had yet to show any signs of life. So Boylen pulled a full-on hockey line change, benching his entire starting five and going with an all-reserve lineup.
The mass substitution was surprising, and notable:
Reporter: "You don't see 5-man substitutions happen a lot in the league, so---"— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 9, 2018
Zach LaVine, interrupting: "No, you don't."
“He subbed five guys a ton of times. Nobody says a word to him about it,” said Boylen, who worked on Pop’s staff in San Antonio from 2013 to 2015. “He felt that was best for the team. I felt that was best for the team. And that’s what my job is.”
Popovich has a career NBA head-coaching record of 1,377–665, with five NBA championships to his name. While Boylen has been a respected assistant in the league for the past two decades, Saturday was his third career game as an NBA head coach. When it comes to the benefit of the doubt you’ll get from veterans, that is a veeeeeery big difference.
The Celtics continued to get pretty much whatever they wanted on offense after the early changeup, but the Bulls’ backups at least offered a respectably professional showing for the balance of the quarter. Things remained more or less the way you’d expect them — the much better veteran team keeping the younger, much worse one at arm’s length — until early in the second half. With Chicago down by 23 and just over nine minutes to go in the third quarter, Boylen again yanked his entire starting five, entrusting Robin Lopez, Jabari Parker, Chandler Hutchison, Shaquille Harrison, and Cameron Payne with injecting some energy and purpose into the meandering Bulls.
It didn’t work. The Celtics outscored the Bulls 64–31 after the second line change. It didn’t go over well.
As reported last night, players understood Boylen's first 5-man substitution. Bulls came out flat/new coach sending message/etc. It's the second one that caught some players off guard. Celtics began 2nd half on mere 5-3 run and Boylen pulled all 5 starters just 2:58 into half.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 9, 2018
3. Your new coach’s excitement over tomorrow’s practice leads to your worst loss ever
After the third-quarter benching, Chicago’s starters spent the rest of the game on ice; in total, they watched the most lopsided loss in franchise history for the final 21 minutes and two seconds. Why’d Boylen do that? To keep them fresh for a practice the next day.
“Why have them play in a game that’s going to be difficult to win when the benefit to me is going to be practice [Sunday] and get better?” Boylen said after the game. “That was all premeditated. So I play them more, we lose and then we can’t practice? We double lose. And we don’t have time to do that.”
This is notable because the Bulls were coming off a Friday-Saturday back-to-back, with Monday’s game against the Sacramento Kings looming. NBA teams almost never practice in that situation. (Fun fact! The Bulls actually did it earlier this season, with Hoiberg putting his team “through a rare practice session [on Sunday] after a back-to-back” on the road against Charlotte and Atlanta. That Monday, in their next game, Klay Thompson took ownership of the Bulls’ souls.) But Boylen has made it clear since taking the top job that he intends to be a hardass counterpoint/reaction to the lukewarm Hoiberg, and this is part of it.
Boylen held a “marathon shootaround that approached two hours” before his first game, and publicly criticized his players’ conditioning and lack of toughness after it. He had Chicago’s players watch film of their failings immediately after the loss to Indiana because “I want them to learn while they’re hurting.” He reportedly held three two-hour-plus practices in his first four days on the job, insisting on an “old school” approach to try to jolt the Bulls into form.
“We’re doing a lot of running,” Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono told reporters after last Thursday’s practice. “We’ve really gotten after each other. We’ve really played hard together, worked on the little things. We’re doing a lot of running, though. We’re getting up and down the floor. I can’t emphasize enough: We’re doing a lot of running.”
But on Sunday, after the public embarrassment of the Celtics loss and Boylen’s “premeditated” benching practice, the Bulls decided they were all set on running, thanks.
4. Your players consider mutiny six days after the new coach takes over
The Bulls did not practice on Sunday. Why, and how that decision was arrived at, appears to depend on who you talk to.
According to multiple reports, several Bulls had discussed boycotting Boylen’s planned practice by not showing up to the practice facility at all. Some Chicago players were so incensed by a practice following a back-to-back that they “contacted the National Basketball Players Association” to protest Boylen’s “extreme tactics,” according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes and Vincent Goodwill. Eventually, several players — reportedly big men Markkanen, Lopez, and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. — advocated for turning up to air grievances without doing on-court work.
Boylen, however, insisted that the meetings — a players-only discussion reportedly led by LaVine and swingman Justin Holiday, followed by one that included coaches and management — were “what I thought we needed.”
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported that during the meeting with players, Boylen “had someone reveal that he merely planned to hold [a] film session and let players get shots up [rather than holding a] hard practice,” but that he communicated it all this way “to show players how they need to learn to trust him.” That message might have gotten lost in translation.
The one the players sent to Boylen, however, seemed a bit more direct. Regarding Boylen’s Popovich-like tactics, Yahoo reported that, “A player responded, sources said, telling Boylen in essence that they aren’t the Spurs and, more importantly, he isn’t Popovich.”
“The main thing that we can tell you guys is that we went in there and we went in as a unit,” LaVine told reporters Sunday. “I think we needed to get a lot of stuff off our chest and be transparent. I think moving forward that will help us.”
5. Your organization is firmly behind the new head coach who just narrowly avoided mutiny in his first week
The Bulls didn’t name Boylen their “interim” head coach after Hoiberg’s firing; they’re giving him the chance to keep the job. Upon promoting Boylen, Paxson praised his “passion” and “energy,” saying, “I think he’ll be able to take his personality and get these guys to buy in to what he’s doing.” The events of this weekend might seem to call that into question. But ESPN’s Malika Andrews reported Sunday that Paxson and general manager Gar Forman — who attended Sunday’s meetings with the players — “are fully supportive of Boylen’s hard-driving changes,” believing that an aggressive shift in strategy and tone is just what the Bulls need after the Hoiberg era.
“Boylen believes he has an organizational mandate to institute what he called a ‘shock and awe’ campaign in the early days of his tenure,” Andrews wrote.
Oh, BTW …
6. Your new head coach is using Iraq War tactical jargon to describe his approach
“We’re still learning about each other,” Boylen said Sunday. “I’ve moved over the 18 inches [from one chair on the bench to the next]. They’re still learning how I want it. There’s been a little shock and awe here in the last seven days. And there’s an adjustment to that.”
Maybe not, like, the best thing to evoke as you enter a new endeavor that you hope will result in lasting success and prosperity without a bunch of negative consequences?
7. You’re still not sure this is the bottom
Boylen came out of Sunday’s meeting extolling the virtues of “open lines of communication.” He also sounded totally committed to his approach.
“They’re learning how I operate,” he said. “They’re learning what I value. And if I think a group out there isn’t doing what they need to be doing as a collective unit, I’m going to sub. Maybe I’ll sub three. Maybe I’ll sub five.”
That the front office has his back is emboldening him to try to create the sort of culture that hasn’t really existed since the last hardass left town. (Not that Tom Thibodeau’s tenure was free of dysfunction and internal strife.) It sounds good in theory, but it can get messy.
“Here’s the difference, here’s the deal now: The best players in this program are going to be coached by the head coach,” Boylen said. “The great teams I’ve been on, the best players are coached by the head coach every day. … I don’t think anybody in here thought we were going to ease into this thing. That’s not my personality. That’s not how you effect change. We’re not easing into anything.”
This weekend sure as hell clarified that. But with the Bulls about to welcome a tough young Kings team, then go on a three-game road trip to Orlando, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, things could get worse before they get better. How the players handle it will determine whether the Bulls will build something with Boylen at the helm, or just keep finding more ways to break stuff.