Bulls

Bulls: Here are 5 initial candidates to replace Jim Boylen as coach

Bulls

Well, the Jim Boylen era is over in Chicago.

The news that executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas had fired the beleaguered coach rang across the internet like a sonic boom. But now that the dust is beginning to settle, it’s time to shift the focus to what’s next.

Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley have offered only sparing public remarks since their hiring, but in them, they’ve emphasized the importance of building a player-first organization in Chicago. In announcing Boylen’s termination, Karnisovas hinted at the need for a “fresh approach.”

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Now, the search begins.

“In terms of what we’re going to be looking for, we’re going to continue focusing on player development and an emphasis on player development, someone who puts relationships with players first and is a good communicator,” Karnisovas said on a conference call Friday. “There are a lot of factors going on in terms of criteria that we’re looking for in a coach, but again, those are the main ones. We will start the search immediately.”

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With that in mind, here’s a look at five names, who have all been reported as initial candidates by NBC Sports Chicago, the Bulls could and should pursue to replace Boylen. More candidates will undoubtedly emerge, but this is the initial crop. Common threads include strong player development backgrounds and experience in successful organizations. Welcome traits.

Kenny Atkinson

The unceremonious end to Atkinson’s tenure with the Brooklyn Nets reportedly came at least partly at the behest of star players at the team. He sported only a 118-190 record across nearly four seasons in Brooklyn. 

But don’t let that fool you: His player-development reputation is sterling. Remember, Atkinson inherited a Nets team in 2016 completely bereft of draft capital and roster talent. It was an organization sucked dry by the infamous Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade of 2013 that cost them three first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018) and a pick-swap (2017), and ensuing front-office overhaul. Seriously, gander at their roster from his first season at the helm.

And still, over the course of his three full campaigns, the Nets’ record improved from 20-62 to 28-54 to 42-40. In 2019, the last of those seasons, Brooklyn snagged the No. 7 seed in the East and stole a game from the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. D’Angelo Russell, once cast aside by the team that drafted him, made an All-Star team. Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen were drafted in the latter part of the first round and developed under Atkinson’s watch. Spencer Dinwiddie, signed in 2016 after spending the first two years of his career meandering between the G League and the pros, represents another success. 

The list goes on, but the bottom line: The Nets went from an unmitigated dumpster fire to a destination attractive enough to lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency from 2016 to 2019. Things went downhill from there, but the point stands: He’s a more-than-capable rebuild captain.

Moreover, Atkinson installed a similar 3-point and rim-attempt-heavy, midrange-eschewing offensive style to that of the Bulls when he arrived in Brooklyn. The Nets finished each of his three full seasons at the helm 29th, 22nd and 19th in offensive rating. They were 23rd when he and the team parted ways on March 7. And, it should be noted, he has a familiarity with current assistant Chris Fleming, who served under him in Brooklyn.

RELATED: Bulls assistants Chris Fleming, Roy Rogers to stay aboard for now 

Wes Unseld Jr.

Son of the Hall-of-Fame Washington Bullets center, Wes Unseld Jr. is currently Michael Malone’s lead assistant with the Nuggets. He’s known for his defensive scheming — a feature written by DNVR’s Harrison Wind described him as the Nuggets’ “de facto defensive coordinator” — and last year drew an interview for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coaching spot before the team opted to roll with John Beilein.

Unseld Jr.’s roots are in scouting, and his career as an assistant coach has also featured stints with the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics, Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic. Since his hiring in 2015, the Nuggets’ defensive rating has ranked, in order: 25th, 29th, 23rd, 10th, and, in 2019-20, 16th. He’s contributed to Denver evolving into being serviceable, if not solid, on that end of the floor, with flashes of brilliance. (Also, for what it’s worth: According to Krishna Narsu/Second Spectrum, the Nuggets blitzed the pick-and-roll with the second-highest frequency in the NBA this season — the Bulls, of course, were first by a mile and built their identity around trapping the PnR and generating turnovers.) 

In a Nuggets-sponsored video in 2016, Unseld Jr. described himself as having a “more even-keeled, laid back” personality, elaborated on the influence of growing up in an NBA family and touched on the importance of player relationships:

 

That he shares a connection with Karnisovas from their four overlapping seasons in Denver makes him a candidate to watch closely.

Darvin Ham

Ham enjoyed an eight-season NBA career that spanned stops in Denver, Indiana, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Detroit from 1996-2005, winning a title with the 2004 Pistons. He’s now Mike Budenholzer’s lead assistant with the Bucks. Ham also served on Budenholzer’s staff with the Hawks — he followed Bud when he left Atlanta — along with Taylor Jenkins, who broke out as a first-year coach with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019-20. 

Not a bad coaching tree from which to sprout.

Before teaming up with Budenholzer, Ham coached the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the then-D-League and was an assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2011-2013.

And, on a lighter note: Ham is actually the namesake for the famed “Hammer” set, which was first designed by George Karl while helming the Bucks. Having played under Karl and Larry Brown, and coached under Budenholzer, Ham could bring an ex-player’s instinct and relatability with a keen and strategic coaching eye, to boot.

Stephen Silas

Silas is wrapping his second season as an assistant under Rick Carlisle with the Dallas Mavericks — and 19th season as an assistant coach in total — after extended stints with the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors prior. He got his start as an assistant under his father, Paul Silas, with the Hornets (2000-03) and Cavaliers (2003-05), and also served as a scout with the Wizards.

That Stephen owns high-level NBA pedigree — Paul spent 48 years in the NBA between his playing and coaching career — and decades of assistant coaching experience is undeniably intriguing. Also notable on his resume is his wealth of international experience. Per the Mavericks’ biography for him:

In addition to his work with NBA teams, Silas coached at the 2003 and 2007 NBA Pre-Draft camps and the 2011 adidas EuroCamp in Treviso, Italy. Internationally, Silas has worked at camps and clinics across the globe to help promote the game of basketball and the NBA in locations including Germany, South Africa and South Korea.

That should certainly appeal to Karnisovas, whose international roots as a person, player, scout and NBA employee are well-documented.

Ime Udoka

Another defensive mind, Udoka is finishing his first year as an assistant on Brett Brown’s staff with the Philadelphia 76ers after a seven-year spell with the San Antonio Spurs. A Gregg Popovich disciple.

In terms of Udoka’s presumed philosophy: While Philly employs mostly drop coverage in pick-and-roll, Udoka isn’t afraid to mix in blitzing schemes, as well. 

“That’s something we talk about, creating turnovers,” Udoka told NBC Sports Philadelphia, last offseason about his vision for the 76ers defense. “We want to up our physicality on the ball. That (blitzing) should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable.”

And in terms of results: Staffed with exceptional defensive personnel, the 76ers currently rank eighth in the NBA in defensive rating (108.9), ninth in steals per game (8.0) and 23rd in opponent turnovers per game (13.8).

Udoka also had a transient playing career from 2000-2012 that featured international stops in Argentina, France and Spain, and NBA stints with the Lakers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Spurs and Sacramento Kings. Similar to many on this list, his relationship-building skills have been praised.

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