Jim Boylen is finally out as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. To be honest, I thought it was not going to happen. He has done an awful job, causing players to hate him while overseeing regression of key players and a lot of losing. But all of this was apparent last season, when the Bulls kept him on as head coach after a poor interim tenure. It was apparent when Arturas Karnisovas was hired as the new general manager months ago, yet Boylen kept his job until Friday. There was a report in the Chicago Sun-Times that the Bulls might keep Boylen to save money. But whatever the reason for the delay, Boylen is now gone.
Reviewing Boylen’s tenure with the Bulls is an exercise in what not to do as an NBA head coach. He caused a player mutiny just one week into the job. He installed a punch clock in the practice facility. He called timeouts late in blowout losses to draw up plays. Players have been caught on camera showing visible disgust towards him during games. He talked about wanting to average 35 assists per game as a team, which has never come close to happening for any team in NBA history.
Beyond these laughable mishaps, Boylen did not win, going 39-84 over his season and a half in charge. Despite having some talent on the roster this season, the Bulls were not even close enough to the playoffs to get invited to the bubble.
The Bulls under Boylen struggled greatly on offense, posting a 105.8 offensive rating, the second-worst mark in the league. They had the shot profile of a modern team, taking a lot of threes and shots at the rim. But while the shots came from the right locations, they were often contested. The offensive sets were poorly designed, and often led to Zach LaVine driving into the teeth of the defense. Players rarely had the advantage of attacking a scrambling defense. As a team, the Bulls attempt 52.1 drives per game, fourth in the NBA. But on shots coming from drives, they only shoot 43.8%, the fourth-worst mark in the league. They also do not get fouled much, with a 23.1% free throw attempt rate, also fourth-worst. Similarly, the Bulls took 35.1 three-pointers per game (11th in the NBA), but only hit 34.8% (22nd).
The poor offensive environment has hurt the development of the Bulls’ young core. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have not shown much improvement since they were drafted. Markkanen, in his third season, is still being used primarily as a spot-up shooter. He still takes most of his shots (49%, per Cleaning the Glass) from behind the three-point line, and does not take shots at the rim (35%) or make plays for others (7.8% assist rate). This is disappointing as he projected as a guy who could score in the post and make plays in addition to shooting from outside. Carter does not get the ball much (15.2% usage rate), and has regressed as a passer (6.2% assist rate, down from 11.9% his rookie year). The Bulls need him to be more involved.
Zach LaVine has blossomed as a scorer, but does not pass well. His 21.8% assist rate largely comes because his usage rate is so high (31.7%), and it comes with a lot of turnovers (1.23 assist-to-turnover ratio, better than only Collin Sexton among high-usage guards). There are plenty of instances of him forcing up contested shots instead of passing to open guys. Here, he overlooks an open Thaddeus Young in the corner to force up a contested layup, which gets blocked:
LaVine probably does not have the vision to improve as a passer, so Boylen may not be to blame for LaVine’s lack of development in that department. But Boylen did not do a good job of designing sets to get the ball into someone else’s hands.
The Bulls were a little better on the defensive end. Their 108.9 defensive rating ranked 13th in the NBA before the shutdown. Boylen had the team playing an aggressive trapping scheme on the perimeter. Kris Dunn in particular thrived, and finished second in the NBA in steals with 2.0 per game, despite coming off the bench. The Bulls led the league by forcing 18.3 turnovers per game. But when teams got past the traps, they were able to score because the Bulls could not protect the rim. Opponents took 38.9% of their shots against the Bulls inside six feet (worst in the NBA), and hit 64.0% of those shots (fourth-worst).
Despite the team’s relative defensive success, the Bulls’ young core did not show much development. Markkanen still struggles to rebound (10.4% rebounding rate) or block shots (0.9% block rate). Carter regressed in blocking shots (1.5% block rate, down from 2.8% his rookie year) and was often caught out of position. LaVine has improved on defense, but is still a minus at that end. He often falls asleep, like here, where he lets Collin Sexton slip by him for a game-sealing dunk.
With a young team, the Bulls should be looking for a coach who can develop young players. The names rumored, which include Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Mavs assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, indicate the Bulls are looking for just that. Atkinson in particular was able to take a young Nets team and build them into an appealing enough destination for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to sign there.
For all of Boylen’s faults, the Bulls have some solid pieces. A lot of their struggles have been due to stagnant offensive sets and over-aggressive defense. Better offensive schemes can greatly help Markkanen, Carter, LaVine, and Coby White. In Otto Porter Jr, Tomáš Satoranský, Young, and Dunn, the Bulls actually have some decent depth. The situation is not hopeless in Chicago, it just seemed that way under Boylen.