Bulls Insider

'Thankful’ Jim Boylen discusses Bulls tenure, firing

Bulls Insider

You don’t last 22 years in the NBA without knowing the realities of the profession.

So, no, you’re not going to hear any bitterness come from Jim Boylen’s mouth.

“I loved every minute of working for the Bulls, even the hard ones,” Boylen said in a phone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago. “And I invested myself fully in every aspect of the job.”

Until Friday. That’s when new executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas fired Boylen, ending his five-season stint with the organization that featured three-plus seasons as Fred Hoiberg’s associate head coach. Boylen’s tenure in the big seat concluded with a 39-84 record.

“Artūras was very respectful. I understand why he would want to have his own guy. I really enjoyed getting to know him and (general manager) Marc Eversley,” Boylen said. “I’ve got 13- and 15-year-old girls that miss their dad. So I’m going to do a little carpooling and just prepare myself for the next opportunity.”

Given that Boylen has worked on the staffs of three NBA champions and three top-five defenses, that’s a matter of when, not if. And if that opportunity isn’t another head coaching gig, Boylen will sleep well knowing he followed an organizational mandate that aligned philosophically with his.

“Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf) and (former executive vice president) John (Paxson) asked me to bring more discipline to the practice facility and practice floor,” Boylen said. “My marching orders were for us to practice harder, play harder and defend better.”

Boylen, who said he'd learn and grow from the experience, understands how the NBA works. It’s a results-oriented business. He knows youth and injuries can’t be used as crutches, even if the Bulls featured plenty of both. He knows new managerial regimes might prioritize different philosophies.

But he’s proud of his commitment to the franchise, which included everything from diversity hiring to meet-and-greets with season-ticket holders to visiting players in the offseason.

“Thanks to Jerry and Michael for their support and for giving me the opportunity to be a Bull. My relationship with them is something I will cherish forever,” Boylen said. “I want to thank my hard-working and loyal staff. They have been a rock for this organization. I want to thank John, (former general manager) Gar (Forman) and Fred for bringing me here to coach and teach.

“John became a mentor and a friend. Our shared goal was to establish a style of play and system at both ends. I feel we were moving forward. We were improving.”

Using a trap-heavy scheme, the Bulls moved from 22nd place in 2018-19 to leading the league in forcing turnovers this season. Their defensive rating jumped from 25th (112.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) to ninth (108.9). That ranking stood at fifth when Wendell Carter Jr. went down with an ankle sprain in early January, a devastating injury which was followed by a season-ending MCL sprain to Kris Dunn less than a month later. 

In most hustle metrics — including deflections per game (17.4, 1st), loose balls recovered per game (8.2, 2nd) and distance traveled per game (18.51 miles, 2nd) — the Bulls ranked near the top of the NBA. They generated nearly 1/5th of their points off turnovers, first in the league by a fair margin.

Yet all that wasn’t enough to offset an offensive rating that languished near the bottom all season and finished 29th. 

The Bulls did increase their fastbreak points per game, PACE and 3-point attempts as Boylen and his staff tried to modernize the offense.

But while the team’s offensive and defensive numbers speak to increased effort, efficiency often lagged behind. They finished the season 22nd in 3-point field goal percentage (34.8%) and 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.50).

The Bulls also appeared in 38 “clutch” games this season, which NBA.com defines as being within five points with five minutes to play. That’s 11th in the league. Their .342 winning percentage (13-25) in such contests, though, ranked 26th.

“People could turn that around and say, ‘You should’ve won more of them,’” said Boylen, who only had Otto Porter Jr. at his disposal for 29 of his 123 games at the helm. “With a young team and injuries, that doesn’t always happen. But we competed.”

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called the Bulls “the hardest-playing team in the NBA” following a January meeting. Just-ousted New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry offered a similar sentiment late last season.

Those were two examples of a leaguewide perception of Boylen that seemed to differ sharply from the local one. High-profile assistant jobs, of which Boylen has had many, aren’t handed out.

“I also want to thank the players,” Boylen said. “We practiced hard. We competed. We fought through some tough losses.”

It’s that investment which made some of the goodbyes with his players difficult. Zach LaVine reached out. So did Lauri Markkanen.

“That’s the only reason we do this, man,” Boylen said, emotion present in his voice.

Both of those players, either subtly or sometimes more overtly, occasionally questioned their usages. But LaVine also said as recently as June that Boylen’s challenging him to be a better two-way player came from a place of care.

Markkanen enjoyed a breakout February under Boylen in his second season before regressing throughout an injury-riddled 2019-20. LaVine’s scoring average rose to 25.5 points, 13th in the league. Coby White won a Rookie of the Month award and earned his first NBA start the last game before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the Bulls’ season in March.

“I wanted Coby to improve his defense to become a starter. He did that. I think the way we handled him was right,” Boylen said. “He would’ve started the last 17 games. And Wendell was back. Those two guys in the pick-and-roll was something I was looking forward to coaching.”

Boylen never apologized for unconventional methods — or agreed with that characterization — such as an in-season conditioning emphasis when he first replaced Hoiberg, or late-game timeouts for teachable moments at the end of blowouts. He believed in his initial "shock and awe" approach.

And he stuck to his beliefs whether they puzzled people, including sometimes his own players, or not.

“I don’t worry about people who haven’t coached critiquing me,” he said. “I don’t try to be a doctor.”

On a conference call Friday, Karnišovas repeatedly said his decision to change coaches was “a basketball decision.” According to multiple sources, Karnišovas’ recommendation to ownership for the change mentioned only basketball reasons.

Team president Michael Reinsdorf consistently praised Boylen’s team-player approach to all matters of the organization, which is why it shouldn’t surprise that Boylen spent part of Friday calling staffers from myriad departments to say goodbye.

“I had great relationships in the facility, both front office and business side,” Boylen said. “I tried to treat everybody well and with respect. I tried to raise people up and support everybody. I’m just thankful, man.”