Bulls mailbag: Is Gar Forman's job in jeopardy? What about Jim Boylen's?

Bulls mailbag: Is Gar Forman's job in jeopardy? What about Jim Boylen's?

While soliciting questions for this week’s mailbag on Twitter, I asked for angst. You delivered angst — lots and lots of angst. You had questions about firings, players underperforming and, with one four-question pile-on, skepticism regarding the coaching performance.

Q: The Sun-Times reported that Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is upset about how this season is going and that he and senior adviser Doug Collins are growing increasingly dissatisfied with general manager Gar Forman, whose job security is “crumbling.” Would firing Forman solve the issues plaguing the team, which seem fairly widespread? - Dave A., Chicago

A: Ownership signed off on trading Jimmy Butler and beginning the rebuild and, like management and coach Jim Boylen, is publicly on record that this season would show improvement. So, yes, ownership, just like management, the coaches and players, is very upset with the poor start. In recent internal discussions, Reinsdorf did emphasize urgency to fix things. That said, a source emphasized that nobody’s job is in imminent jeopardy, including Forman’s. Remember: Executive vice president John Paxson reclaimed his more central role as the face of the franchise and lead decision-maker with the Butler trade. Forman’s power within the organization isn’t what it once was, though ownership still values his scouting and negotiating ability.

The sense around the organization is that’s too early to panic but not too early to be upset. There’s still internal belief that if players start making open shots, a soft Eastern Conference playoff picture could be crashed. That said, the roster improvements haven’t borne fruit in terms of the won-lost record, and players haven’t performed to expectations. Internal concerns about some players’ mental and physical toughness remain. As of now, nobody is being singled out but everyone — management, coaches, players — is under the microscope.

Ownership has overseen a gradual evolution of the front office. Collins came on board. The analytics department expanded. And though it’s still small by league standards, additions like former assistant coach Mike Wilhelm have been made. Brian Hagen has more duties. Ownership will continue to evaluate and possibly evolve the front office further. There is still great confidence in and respect for Paxson, who is the lead decision maker. Whether any changes are made at season’s end will obviously depend on how the remainder of the season transpires.

Q:  How many more embarrassing nights until Jim Boylen is under pressure? It should be clear by now that our roster is pretty good, our assistants are also good but his decisions, especially on defense with the blitzing scheme, are dragging us down. Is the intention of the front office to keep him until the end of the season no matter what? - Stavros S.

Q: I was just wondering, as a lot of Bulls fans are, has Boylen moved any closer to the proverbial "hot seat?" Last anything was mentioned about his relationship with the front office, Boylen talked about how well he was getting along with management. But with a start to the season this bad, has there been any talk about his job being in jeopardy? As fans we'd love to see accountability on some level, and instead all we have is a 6-12 start to the season and no answers from management or ownership. Looking like a long and cold winter for Bulls fans with very little hope on the horizon. - J. Boa

Q: How much longer can this go on before something changes? There seems to be pretty clear evidence at this point that Boylen is not working and there need to be major changes in coaching and management. Are we really going to be with the same coach and GM next year? – Tim G.

Q: I've tried to refrain from Boylen-bashing. But during the Portland game, I thought he was outmaneuvered by Terry Stotts at every turn. They had a plan every time down the court and swatted away adjustments from Boylen like they were playing a JV team. You've said repeatedly that this coach is "more aligned" with management than you've ever seen, but do you see any cracks in that? Also: would ownership allow GarPax to hire yet another coach? – Alejandro Y.

A: What has been reported multiple times but sometimes gets forgotten is that it wasn’t just management that believed in Boylen but ownership. Everyone was on board to extend Boylen for three seasons, albeit at an annual salary that’s on the low end of NBA coaches. So it’s not prohibitive if the Bulls ever want to move off Boylen’s money, although I’ve heard no inkling of that this early into his extension. Remember: The Bulls are still paying Fred Hoiberg this season as well.

Paxson has talked publicly numerous times about Boylen’s care factor, teaching of fundamentals in practice and ability to hold players accountable. That’s the culture template Paxson desires. As for the schematic stuff, Boylen talks about establishing a style of play at both ends. Unfortunately for the Bulls, neither side is producing results for now. Collins offers plenty of input. I’d have to believe that if the systems Boylen is trying to establish at both ends continue to struggle, Paxson and Collins would suggest changes.

For instance, Boylen talks about the open shots the Bulls get and how players are underperforming based on their career percentages. For some of the bigger names on the roster, this is true. But there’s a reason why Kris Dunn is wide open on 3-pointers. So even if Dunn is taking what Boylen calls a good shot because it’s open, is that a good thing? Dunn is a career 30.7 percent shooter from 3-point range.

Similarly, while the Bulls have either led or hung near the top of the league in forced turnovers and points off turnovers all season, is the high-risk, high-reward defensive scheme worth it if the Bulls end up in scramble mode so often? They often get beat on the boards because they’re out of rebounding position and also rank near the top of the league in allowing open shots. As of Tuesday night, the Bulls ranked 15th in defensive rating.

What’s your best guess why Bulls ownership sticks with John Paxson running the show? What’s the Bulls’ won/loss record since he took over? La Beets, via Twitter

Since succeeding Jerry Krause in April 2003, Paxson has compiled a 668-646 regular-season record. The Bulls have made the playoffs 11 times in his 16 full seasons, winning five series and advancing to one conference finals. Management has hired five coaches in this span.

As for ownership’s belief, Jerry Reinsdorf is famously loyal and told Paxson he had been interviewing him for years without Paxson knowing it when he tabbed Paxson to replace Krause. He respects Paxson’s toughness, competitiveness and commitment to the organization. He and his son, Michael, think Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have drafted well and constructed two separate rosters that produced winning basketball — the Scott Skiles-coached teams centered on Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich and the Tom Thibodeau-coached teams centered around Deng, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. This is why ownership signed off on the current rebuild. It believed in management’s ability to construct a roster from the ground up. That’s also why this season is so disappointing. This was supposed to be the season that progress manifested itself in the won-loss record. To this point, that hasn’t happened.

We criticize Boylen for the Bulls performance this season, the rotations, schemes, etc. How much criticism should be given to Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers as the "offensive" and "defensive" coordinators? I'd have to image those two have a reasonable influence on Boylen and his decision-making? If all of us on Twitter can see what's going wrong with the rotations, and schemes, surely those two are seeing it and should be providing suggestions or adjustments to Boylen? Or is Boylen just a coach who shuts those two out and it's his way? Curious to hear how their relationship is with the head coach.  – Tyler P.

I’m in the early stages of forming relationships with Fleming and Rogers myself, so I can’t claim to be an expert on how much influence they have. Of course they have input. And Fleming in particular carried a strong, leaguewide reputation for his offensive creativity. What I do know is that any head coach has final say and only acts on the assistants’ suggestions with which he agrees. For instance, anyone around the team knew that Boylen didn’t always agree with Fred Hoiberg’s handling of players. But he supported his head coach because that’s the assistant’s job. I also know that Boylen compliments both Fleming and Rogers often. So I’m sure he values their input and their relationships are strong. He recommended their hirings. The thing about failure with any team sport is that it’s a shared entity.

Will the major pieces on this roster be here at season’s end? – Andrew H.

For now, the plan is to ride it out with the current players and coaches. Remember, this team became the trendy pick to make the playoffs from several prognosticators following offseason moves that were widely praised. If this poor play continues, everything has to be considered.

How does Michael Reinsdorf feel about Boylen throwing players under the bus? – Chicago Jon, via Twitter

I don’t know what Reinsdorf’s reaction was, but I do know there was some support for LaVine’s take that he was unfairly singled out. Pulling LaVine solo in that instance was a bad look.

Is there a reason Wendell Carter Jr. won’t shoot wide open mid-range shots? Are the coaches telling him not to? He seems so reluctant to do it, and his above average jump shot was one of his selling points coming out of school. His ability to moderately stretch the defense was supposed to open driving lines and keep defenders honest if he pops for a shot or looks for a pass, but his unwillingness to even think about shooting causes the defense to collapse into the paint. Teams simply know he won’t shoot. Can you shed any light on this? – Patrick S.

Remember those Al Horford comps? Sigh.

The Bulls average 6.8 midrange shots per game, the third-fewest in the league. So there’s that. As for Carter, Boylen was asked that this week and Boylen said he wants any player to take open, good shots. There is definitely an emphasis on 3-pointers or shots at the rim in this offense. Carter said that emphasis hasn’t affected him and that he’s just trying to make the right play. You’re right, though: The right play at times would be for him to rise up without hesitation and shoot it.

I’m writing to you as a 27-year-old Bulls fan who was a ballboy when the Bulls used to trot out Ron Mercer, Corey Benjamin and Dalibor Bagaric. I believe this team has some talent but I disagree on the schemes and the talent evaluators. My question to you is what did they see in Chandler Hutchison? This is a first-round pick who can’t even crack the lineup with Otto Porter Jr. out with an injury. My second question is why can’t we throw the ball to Lauri Markkanen in the post? I think they need to get creative and watch what the Mavericks do with Kristaps Porzingis or what the Grizzlies do with Jaren Jackson Jr. That’s all. Have a great day.  – Tyler B.

Anyone who endured that era gets two questions.

It’s too early to definitively judge Hutchison, although the early returns are underwhelming. Particularly since he is developing an injury prone label. The Bulls scouted him early and valued his athleticism and versatility and ability to guard multiple positions because of his positional size and length. However, he was a four-year player at a non-blue-chip program. And while he has showed flashes of defensive and rebounding ability, not to mention dunking prowess, it’s all been in flashes.

As for Markkanen’s usage, the Bulls need to try something to get him on the move or at the rim more often than just launching 3-pointers. Zach LaVine himself advocated for Markkanen to post up more, something he did in the season opener at Charlotte when he went for 35 points and 17 rebounds.

I want to travel to Chicago for All-Star weekend, but I would only bite the bullet if Zach LaVine was in the All-Star game (although dunk contest would be an exciting night). Do I reserve my ticket now or do you believe Zach won't be an East All-Star? - Devin M.

Count me in the camp that truly believed LaVine would make that game this season. He had similar stats to Kemba Walker last season and Walker got that hometown bump to make it as a reserve. LaVine also played in training camp and the preseason with an edge and focus that seemed to scream, “This is my time.” But it hasn’t played out that way yet this season. My advice would be to catch the weekend on TV. LaVine versus Zion or Aaron Gordon in the dunk contest could be fun.

Why do the Bulls switch so much? – Theodore M.

When is Boylen going to realize that his hard blitz PnR defensive scheme is easily picked apart by the opponent? - Derek B., via Twitter

Well, you have to guard the pick-and-roll with some strategy. These two questions represent two of the options. And the Trail Blazers in particular exposed how much the Bulls are struggling with both. On the blitz, the Bulls’ big man is so high up on the floor that he has a lot of ground to cover to rejoin the play and/or get in rebounding position. On the switch, the Bulls don’t have a ton of veteran, experienced players and communication sometimes lacks. So they either flub the switch or, in the Trail Blazers’ game, Damian Lillard just picked apart the defense to find the mismatch. Often, that was Carmelo Anthony, isolated in the midpost, hitting the midrange jumper he’ll probably be able to sink until he’s 60.

What is your prediction on who the Bulls will draft at No. 7? - PM Blue, via Twitter

After all this angst, it’s never a bad idea to laugh.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you soon.

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Anatomy of a comeback: Bulls use defense, new lineup to rally vs. Cavaliers

USA Today

Anatomy of a comeback: Bulls use defense, new lineup to rally vs. Cavaliers

The Bulls are in no position to judge victories, but Zach LaVine, as usual, nailed it with his assessment of Saturday’s 118-116 comeback victory over the Cavaliers.

“Ugly win,” LaVine said.

The Bulls allowed an opponent season-high 73 points in a sluggish first half, trailed by 19 in the third and by 15 to open the final period.

So what happened?

Defense, and another sublime offensive night from LaVine, happened.

But it seemed fitting on a night where LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth that he also set his career-high with five steals. The 40-point, five-steal night put LaVine in select franchise company alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls scored 16 points off 10 Cavaliers’ turnovers in the final period, limiting them to 14 points on 26.7 percent shooting. And they accomplished all this with a lineup they hadn’t used all season. It featured Kris Dunn at point guard, LaVine at shooting guard, Tomas Satoransky at small forward, Chandler Hutchison at power forward and Lauri Markkanen at center.

“KD, we joke about a guy being a cephalopod, an extremely fast and agile being,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was all over the place. We had six turnovers in the first seven possessions of the fourth. You gotta give our guys some credit. They found some juice. We were able to get a lineup there that could work. I thought Lauri got some pop back.”

He also got some minutes back.

Boylen called the first play of the game for Markkanen, utilized him in the post once and played him two seconds shy of 33 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter. Markkanen joked about turning the ball over on that first play call, but his 17 points on 14 shots and heavy minutes in crunch time were signs of progress.

“I had no problems with that,” Markkanen said of playing the entire fourth. “It was fun to be out there.”

LaVine and Hutchison each had three steals in the fourth as the Bulls tied their season-high of 17 steals. They also added to their league-leading totals of forcing turnovers and scoring off them by registering 33 points off 26 Cavaliers’ miscues.

“I was trying to rebound, get my hands on passes, just be active. We needed more energy,” Hutchison said of his surprising star turn. “Lauri was talking to me, going, ‘You’re going to be on the ball screen this time.’ And then we kind of switched it out. We could feel them deflating.”

Dunn rallied from Collin Sexton blowing by him a couple early possessions, which led to Boylen even trying Shaq Harrison on Sexton in the third. Dunn helped hold him scoreless in the fourth.

“I love his game. He plays with passion,” Dunn said. “He was trying to bring it to me. He made a couple big-time shots in the first half. I just had to keep doing what I do. When that fourth quarter came, I got the stops I needed.”

All the Bulls did. Ugly victory or not, it counts. Boylen may not use that lineup again, but that defensive mindset can carry.

“We switched a little bit, changed it up on them,” Dunn said. “I love what the coaches did, gave them a different look. We were just locked in. You could see it in each guy’s face.”

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Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

The Bulls went down big, then came up bigger down the stretch. Observations from a 118-116 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers:

This one was… a shootout? (For a bit)

Before this one, I wrote that anything and everything was possible in this game — especially given that both teams entered on the back-end of back-to-backs and had their travel delayed overnight on Friday.

A shootout wasn’t high on the list of most probable outcomes, but that’s what we got, at least early on. Kevin Love and Collin Sexton led the charge for Cleveland. Love notched 21 first half points, scoring with relative ease at all three levels (4-for-6 from three). Sexton’s full array of crisp crossovers and breakneck dribble drives were on display — he had 16 at the break.

As a team, the Cavaliers shot an unholy 12-for-17 from 3-point range (with one of those misses being a last-second heave just before the half), 68.4% from the field and at one point made 14 consecutive field goals in the first half. They won the second quarter 40-25. 

The Bulls shot 54.5%, scored 56 points and forced 12 turnovers, yet all of that amounted in a 73-56 deficit entering the third. The Cavs’ shooting numbers regressed from there, as the Bulls eventually staged a furious rally.

Credit Cleveland for playing with pride and energy in a game they could have phoned in. And credit the Bulls for rebounding from a porous defensive first half in a game they should have dominated from the start.

Lauri Markkanen bounced back

The Bulls ran plays for Markkanen to start all three quarters that he began on the floor (the first, the third and the fourth). In that order: one ended in a turnover, one a made 3-pointer of a pick-and-pop feed from Tomas Satoransky, one a missed 3-pointer on a similar action.

His increased involvement seemed intentional on the heels of a three-game stretch in which Markkanen averaged 8.7 field goal attempts per game. He finished the night with 17 points, scoring seven of those in the fourth, on 7-for-14 shooting in 33 minutes. His 2-for-8 from 3-point range sticks out, but it was encouraging to see him find his offense in other ways (on the break, facing up and off offensive rebounds).

Markkanen gave the Bulls a 112-111 lead, a lead they never surrendered, with a transition layup through contact with just under three minutes left.

A rally ends in victory

The Bulls entered the fourth quarter trailing 102-87 but claimed the lead — 108-107 — by the 4:38 mark with a torrid 21-5 run. Games of this narrative arc are a pattern for the Bulls — only this time, the late rally ended in victory.

Zach LaVine was, again, the hero. He poured in 21 fourth quarter points — finishing the game with 42 on 19-for-31 shooting — and ignited the UC throughout the game’s last 12 minutes with tough bucket after tough bucket of every variety. His last one was an and-one layup that stretched the Bulls’ lead to four with under a minute left that caused a frenzy.

Dunn bounced back after Sexton got loose in the first half and made a litany of key plays. Some that stick out: drawing an offensive foul on Love that set up the possession that initially gave the Bulls the lead, a steal that resulted in a LaVine dunk to retake it a few minutes later and the game-clinching rebound off a Love miss with seconds remaining. He was everywhere. 

The Bulls’ closing lineup consisted of Chandler Hutchison at the presumptive four and Markkanen at center, with Satoransky, LaVine, and Dunn manning the wing. Hutchison only took two shots but played his role — his length and activity were pivotal to the Bulls holding the Cavaliers to 14 fourth-quarter points. It was an encouraging performance for him.

The game swung on a coach’s challenge won by Jim Boylen that took the ‘and-one’ designation off a Love dunk with 20.1 seconds left (the foul, on Markkanen, was ticky-tack). The Bulls forced nine turnovers and held the Cavaliers to 4-for-15 shooting, outscoring them 31-14 in the fourth quarter and 62-43 in the second half. The clamps went on at the right time.

It was an absolute ride, and though against suspect competition, an exhilarating win. Reality calls with Milwaukee in town on Monday.

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