Here’s what Bulls coach Jim Boylen said at Media Day back in September:
“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs. And every day to prepare like we’re a playoff team. Every day to work like we’re a playoff-bound team. I’m excited for that. I think that’s the only way to do it. There’s no way that we were going to stand up here and say, ‘Hey, I hope we can win 10 more games or we hope we can be better.’ We want to get to the mountain top.’’
Here’s what Boylen said Tuesday night:
“It is a win-loss league but that’s not the only thing that gets evaluated. Are we establishing a style of play? I think we have. Have we cleaned up our defense that needed to be cleaned up? I think we have. Have we established a shot profile that’s top five in the league? I think we’re three right now in the shots we get compared to other teams. So, those are all positive things,” he said. “And then you can look at the 'what-ifs,' which I don’t do very often. With our shot profile, what would Otto Porter do in that shot profile? He’d be pretty successful. And Lauri Markkanen and right on down the line.
“I’m not worried about my personal record or my win-loss record. I’ve been asked to establish a style of play, to have a disciplined approach and develop a young group of guys. And in my opinion, we are doing that. Case in point – Coby White’s improvement, Daniel Gafford’s improvement. Cris Felicio, I think, is doing a heckuva job for us. So play the guys you have and hopefully make them better.”
There’s both some moving of the goalposts and truth to what Boylen says.
Yes, the Bulls have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries. Yes, they had a top-10 defense, which is impressive for such a young team, before injuries to crucial defenders like Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. occurred. Yes, they continue to play hard most nights, including Tuesday’s 124-122 loss to the Thunder when injuries forced the rotation to prominently feature Cristiano Felicio, Adam Mokoka and Shaquille Harrison.
But the Bulls began the season at full strength, playing mostly non-playoff teams and came out of the gate at 3-6 before Porter went down first.
“It is hard for me. But that’s not my calling. That’s not what they ask me to do,” Boylen said about how difficult the reality of the won-lost record is. “Nobody in this organization said to me, ‘You got to win this many games.’ Nobody said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going to talk about wins and losses all year.’ Not one time have they said that to me. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win but nobody said that to me.
“I have to honor the organization with trying to do this thing the right way. If we do that and if we can get healthy, I feel good about it.”
As has been written and said plenty, ownership and management first hired and then extended Boylen because they saw a teacher who held players accountable. So, yes, the full evaluation of Boylen moves beyond won-loss record.
And that’s why Boylen answered confidently when asked if it would surprise him if management used the Bulls’ poor record against him.
“Yes, it would,” he said. “I don’t foresee that happening.”
But here’s the rub: However the Bulls end up restructuring the front office this season, there will be at least one new prominent voice in basketball operations. So, Boylen’s future won’t merely be decided by who is currently employed by ownership.
In fact, while executive vice president John Paxson will remain with the organization, the biggest new hire is expected to have significant autonomy in basketball operations. While it’s unknown at this point whether this hire would be able to solely determine Boylen’s future, that prerequisite likely would be a priority for most attractive candidates.
This story isn’t over yet.
To Boylen’s credit, he’s staying true to what he believes in, including currently keeping Coby White in a reserve role despite loud outside noise to start him. White is playing electrifying and historic offense these days, piling a career-high 35 points tonight on top of back-to-back, 33-point games.
White is the first rookie in NBA history to post three such games off the bench.
“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time: Coby is in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place,” Boylen said when asked about starting White. “I understand what you’re trying to ask. But let’s let Coby keep playing and keep developing and keep him in a good spot. That’s my goal right now.”
Boylen has other goals and they all stem from staying true to his beliefs. Time will tell if that’s enough for him to return.