The state of the Bulls franchise made it pretty clear that Fred Hoiberg’s days in Chicago were numbered. After teetering in basketball purgatory for two years – with two uninspiring playoff wins as a No. 8 seed mixed in – the Bulls had won 32 games since the start of the 2017-18 season, third fewest in the NBA in front of only Phoenix and Atlanta.
But Monday’s decision by John Paxson and the Bulls front office to relieve Fred Hoiberg of his head coaching duties is peculiar for a single reason: Why now?
Yes, the Bulls are 5-19, on an NBA-worst six-game losing streak and headed toward the NBA Draft Lottery for a third time in four years. They’re 29th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 28th in net rating. But no team has suffered more injuries than the Bulls this season, especially to key contributors, and at one point last month Fred Hoiberg was forced to start a backcourt of Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono. What chance did he have of surviving this?
The answer, Paxson said Monday afternoon at the Advocate Center, was a lack of “energy and competitive spirit” the front office noticed in games, practices and the locker room the last few weeks. That passion, Paxson said, had been evident even during last year’s tank-inspired 27-win season
“Something’s different,” he said. And what we’re lacking is kind of an energy and a spirit about our team, and we need to get that back.
“We need to identify the right way to play and we need that spirit with our group.”
The Bulls are still in the early stages of their rebuild, but in Paxson’s eyes they’re at a critical juncture. And though not even a full-strength Bulls team was expected to contend for a playoff spot, another losing season in the standings can’t mean a step back. And where Hoiberg had his moments as a tactician with a bright offensive mind, he was anything but a motivator.
And while the Bulls may lose more games than they win, they still need to progress as they work toward the latter stages of their rebuild. Whereas last season’s struggles were new to a Bulls team featuring more than a handful of players fighting for their careers, it appeared to Paxson as though a second consecutive year of losing was beginning to take its toll.
“Sometimes it’s just a sense that you have and you just notice it more and more,” he said. “And when you look in the locker room after a game and you don’t see guys maybe hurting as much as they did before about losing, those are all things that when you sit in my position, in Gar’s position, you have to pay attention to. And that’s what we were looking at.”
That’s where Boylen fits in.
It was a common sight on the Bulls sideline to see Boylen, not Hoiberg, yelling out defensive assignments, motivating players and arguing calls. That’s not necessarily a requirement to be a successful NBA coach, but it fits what the Bulls are looking for with the current state of their team. Boylen even admitted as much on Monday, boldly saying that "I think I’m a little more passionate in-game coach than maybe Fred is."
Added Paxson: “Jim will bring a strong voice to our locker room. When players know you have their best interest at heart, even when you’re pushing them to certain limits, players will respond to that. I think we’re at that point right now, especially with our young guys and especially with the guys coming back into play here soon, this is a change we needed.”
Even if it was simple posturing from the front office, a newfound energy under Boylen will be apparent upon the returns of Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis, two of the most vocal leaders both in the later stages of their knee sprain rehab. There's also the inevitable surge of performance from teams after a head coach is fired. If seeing your head coach fired because you showed lack of passion doesn't light a fire, nothing will.
That’ll be Boylen’s biggest task, Paxson said. At 5-19, the season still isn’t about wins and losses and Boylen won’t be based on them. But after a productive first year of a rebuild, the Bulls were trending in the wrong direction in most aspects outside of wins and losses.
Boylen started his NBA head-coaching career with a two-hour long practice and said all the right things at his introductory press conference. Now all eyes turn to him to see if his own competitive spirit and energy will transfer to his team in a way that Hoiberg apparently was unable to.
“You can have a team that plays hard every night no matter who you put out there,” Paxson said. “That’s energy and passion right there. I don’t care who you’re throwing out there. You have to get your guys to buy in and be connected.”