In retrospect, we should have all seen it coming. On the final day of the NBA regular season, Arturas Karnisovas fired Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, ending a nearly two-year tenure that saw the team play to a 39-84 record.
“I thought the timing was right right now, going into the lottery and the draft process. It’s an official offseason for us. So we thought it was good timing,” Karnisovas said in a conference call Friday.
The seeding phase of the league’s restart ending Friday and the draft lottery six days ahead does provide a nice bit of symmetry. But was Aug. 14 too long to wait? Karnisovas officially accepted his position as executive vice president of basketball operations on April 13. He brought in new front office hires in Marc Eversley, J.J. Polk and Pat Connelly in early May. Yet Boylen’s tenure dragged into the dog days of summer.
Why? Karnisovas addressed that on said conference call.
“I took my time for a reason. It was a process to make that decision. Over the last few months, since I was hired in April, I had no timeline,” he said. “This was the right time to make this change.”
“Since it was a very unique situation to be hired in April, we took our time. The restrictions were lifted a little bit more. Interaction was involved.”
That answer echoes Karnisovas’ reputation as a thoughtful and deliberate decision-maker. He’s also said in the past that, in his eyes, forming personal relationships is requisite to holding employees accountable — player or coach. Some will appreciate that approach applied in this context, especially given that he’s inheriting a franchise that has twice in the past has parted ways with coaches on Christmas Eve. Some may not.
But bottom line: The end result is the one the Bulls badly needed to reach, and just in the nick of time.
The cruciality of moving on from Boylen now is multi-layered. For one, there appears to be burbling optimism that the eight teams excluded from the NBA’s Disney World restart will find a way to resume basketball activities in some capacity soon. It may not be in a second bubble, but even organized OTAs with group activities would be a step up for a Bulls team that has been constrained to voluntary individual workouts with stringent protocols thus far.
“The players now can work out individually in our practice facility, and our gym is pretty,” Karnisovas said on the call. “So while we’re waiting, if we can get any additional support from the league — again, overall the league regrets that we couldn’t get anything done until now. But I’m hopeful to get something soon.”
Starting the search “immediately” (in Karnisovas’ words) could have a new coach in the Advocate Center doors for all or some of those activities, should they come to fruition. Even if it doesn’t, the Bulls still have plenty of runway before the start of the 2020-21 campaign, which has yet to be finalized. Plus, every candidate the front office might have considered is still eligible for consideration, even after taking the deliberate approach on parting ways with Boylen.
And in a big picture sense, getting fresh blood in the building has the potential to further a much-needed shift in the Bulls’ league wide perception that was catalyzed by its front office facelift months ago.
Because this decision makes the organizational message clear: No half-measures. With a new executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager, burgeoning player development personnel, and soon a new coach — particularly, one that will replace a coach that lost games at a historic clip and often prompted questions about his player relationships — there are no caveats required to call this a new era of Bulls basketball; an era in which player development appears to be king, and mediocrity isn’t tolerated.
“The signal is that we’re changing things. It signals that we’re looking forward to what comes next,” Karnisovas said. “We just felt this program needed a change and needed a change now. And I can’t wait to find the next coach for this group.”
The looming free agency period of 2021 makes sending that signal now all the more important. Of course, firing Boylen doesn’t guarantee the Bulls Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo. It might not even get them a meeting.
For the time being, the Bulls are pretty much locked in place from a roster standpoint. Otto Porter Jr. opting in to his $28.5 million player option — which still qualifies as a near-certainty — and the cap hits the team’s first- and second-round draft choices will eventually invoke will cinch the Bulls in as an over-the-cap club for the 2020-21 season.
So, the ship likely isn’t getting entirely righted overnight. Whatever your opinion of Boylen, some share of the blame for a 22-win season falls on the roster, as well. However talented you deem the Bulls’ core pieces, new leadership won’t vault them straight to title contention.
But they don’t necessarily need to, at least not next season. The foundation has to start somewhere, and that summer of 2021 is where things get interesting. To steal a chart from myself, here’s what the Bulls books roughly look heading into that summer, as matters stand right now (via Spotrac):
|Total Cap Allocations||$106,027,707||$65,249,867||$9,344,636||$0|
A possible Lauri Markkanen’s extension is pending, but partial guarantees on the third years of Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young’s contracts, as well as a team option on the third year of Ryan Arcidiacono’s, provides flexibility. Bottom line: They’ll be in a position to make major changes, possibly a splash — assuming the salary cap holds in the vicinity of its current $109.1 million status.
Which makes it all the more imperative that the 2020-21 season not play out as 2019-20 did. The Bulls are an attractive coaching job for the same reasons they were an attractive front office gig — young talent on the roster (albeit largely unproven), own all their own draft capital, cap space coming, big market, rabid fanbase — but to leverage all of that into being a desirable player destination, the soggy hunk of clay that is this rebuild needs to take shape.
To follow in the footsteps of recent successful rebuilds — think Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers; big-market teams that parlayed modica of promising talent into scrappy overperformance on the court, and, in turn, big moves on the trade and free agent markets — the Bulls need to transform themselves into a team on the rise.
That doesn’t have to mean a top-four seed or a first-round playoff victory from the jump. But it starts with maximizing the pieces on the team now and improving next season, so that, in the age or perpetual player movement, when opportunity comes knocking, they’ll be prepared to seize it. Irrespective of injuries, which undoubtedly marred his tenure, it's evident by the results that Boylen wasn’t the person to foster such progression.
A coach with a specialization in player development and relationships — which Karnisvoas said will be a focal point in the search — will be a foundational step. What the changes necessary will look like specifically may have to wait until Karnisovas and Co. have a precise candidate in their sights. Fortunately, there’s just about nowhere to go but up.
For now, it’s at least refreshing to know the Bulls are on the right track.