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Can a New Coach Resurrect the Bulls As a Big-Swinging Franchise?

Jim Boylen is out after two very grumbly seasons in Chicago. With young players on the roster and cap space coming, can the right coaching hire put the Bulls back on top sooner rather than later?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Four months after taking the reins in Chicago, new basketball operations chief Arturas Karnisovas on Friday made his first major move to shake the Bulls from the doldrums. The firing of head coach Jim Boylen ends an awfully eventful, wildly unsuccessful chapter for the moribund franchise. It also gives Karnisovas and the Bulls an opportunity to chart a new course, and potentially wake one of the NBA’s sleeping giants after years of frustrating false starts and fizzle-outs.

While Karnisovas took his sweet time “to assure that [he was] thorough in [his] appraisals” and “deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making”—and because nobody else (besides the Knicks, who hired the one guy the Bulls definitely wouldn’t) was looking for a new head coach—there wasn’t much of a case for keeping Boylen around. (Well, beyond ownership trying to save money in the grip of a pandemic by not paying two coaching salaries, anyway.) Only the post-LeBron Cavaliers and post-hope Knicks have been worse in aggregate than Chicago over the past two seasons; the Bulls went 39-84 under Boylen, a .317 winning percentage that’s the second lowest of any coach in franchise history. Generally speaking, if your head coaching career gets mentioned in the same breath as Tim Floyd’s, something has gone horribly awry. Injuries played a major part in that; expected core pieces Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn, Otto Porter Jr., and Chandler Hutchison all missed significant time in each of the past two seasons, making it difficult for Chicago to establish continuity and cohesion. Even when they were available, though, they all seemed to stagnate under Boylen’s stewardship, and in stylistically old-school systems that didn’t always put them in the best positions to succeed.

The ride got rocky almost instantly, with Bulls players nearing mutiny just three games into Boylen’s tenure. Despite the coach introducing a now-infamous “leadership committee,” neither on-court performance nor intra-squad relations seemed to improve too much. Multiple players grumbled about the approach and tactics of a coach who installed a punch clock at the practice facility, called seemingly pointless timeouts late in already-decided games, and espoused baseless confidence that Chicago was moving in the right direction by quoting Field of Dreams and saying he “coached by faith.”

Boylen favored an offensive system defined by the hunt for “paint touches and paint drives,” and with Zach LaVine at the helm, the Bulls did finish in the top five in the league in drives per game in each of the past two seasons. All that attacking didn’t translate into effective offense, though: Chicago finished 24th and 25th in points per paint touch under Boylen, and 29th twice in points scored per possession, thanks largely to poor overall shooting (24th or worse in effective field goal and true shooting percentages in each of the two seasons), an inability to get to the foul line (24th and 27th in free throw rate), and routinely poor ball security (22nd and 26th in turnover rate).

On the other end, he also preferred an extremely aggressive trap-heavy defense aimed at forcing turnovers. With All-Defense-caliber havoc-wreaker Dunn as the tip of the spear, the Bulls did that well, leading the NBA in opponents’ turnover rate and riding that to a major improvement in defensive efficiency. But Boylen’s Bulls were like a blitz-happy football team that brought the house on every down. When the Bulls didn’t get home and hit the quarterback, they left themselves vulnerable to big plays, as evidenced by the fact that Chicago allowed the NBA’s highest percentage of opponents’ shots at the rim and the sixth-highest share of corner 3s this season, and sent opponents to the line more often than any other team.

Karnisovas, a longtime Nuggets executive, may hire a coach who hews to more modern schematic principles—one whose offense prioritizes spacing the floor around those LaVine drives, that looks to highlight Markkanen’s shooting and Carter’s complementary passing, and that more frequently bombs away from beyond the arc, and whose defense ratchets down the point-of-attack aggression in favor of more conservatively protecting the rim and running shooters off the line. In that kind of system, Chicago’s underlying talent might suddenly start to look a whole lot more enticing. The early signs indicate that’s the sort of direction he’s looking in.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Karnisovas’s formal coaching search will include Wes Unseld Jr., a top assistant on Nuggets teams that have ranked among the league’s most efficient offenses in recent years; former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who worked wonders in developing young prospects and whose teams adopted the let-it-fly-from-deep and force-them-to-take-midrangers philosophies he gleaned as one of Mike Budenholzer’s assistants in Atlanta; Darvin Ham, who’s gotten the same sort of training under Budenholzer in Milwaukee; and Adrian Griffin, who cut his teeth under defense-first hard-asses Scott Skiles and Tom Thibodeau, and who’s recently been part of Nick Nurse’s basketball laboratory in Toronto. Respected longtime assistants Stephen Silas, currently part of Rick Carlisle’s staff in Dallas, and Ime Udoka, who served under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and now supports Brett Brown in Philadelphia, will also be in the running, according to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

Whichever coach Karnisovas tabs will face a similar challenge to the one Thibodeau and new Knicks boss Leon Rose are undertaking in New York: how to build, after years of disappointment and instability, the foundation of a consistently competitive team. The new coach will have to establish a baseline from which to evaluate Chicago’s young pieces, to determine which ones merit consideration as cornerstones for the future, and to institute a style of play that can elevate the existing talent on the roster—and, perhaps even more importantly, make the Bulls an attractive option for top-tier free agents for the first time in ages (though I suppose that depends on whether you considered the 2016 versions of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo “top tier”).

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks points out, the Bulls project to have nearly $50 million in cap space available in the 2021 offseason, when a slew of big-name talent is slated to hit the open market. In theory, Chicago should be a pretty enticing option for superstars: It’s a team with a championship history and a still-monstrous-all-these-years-after-Michael global brand, in the country’s third-largest media market, that’s got deep-pocketed ownership, and that already has some quality young players on the roster, a bunch of cap space available to import multiple stars, and, perhaps, a smart and creative coach. In practice, though, everyone—the Reinsdorfs, Karnisovas, the next coach, and the Bulls players breathing free after Boylen’s ouster—will have to prove they’re worth a superstar’s time and consideration.

Rebooting a stillborn franchise isn’t easy, but after Karnisovas’s first big move on the job, the Bulls have the opportunity to do it. His next one will go a long way toward determining whether or not they’ll take advantage of it.