On a cold Chicago night in late February, the Bulls were down 10 with 30 seconds to go, moments away from their eighth loss in a row. It was the first night of a back-to-back and many fans had begun shuffling toward the United Center exits. Just about everyone wanted to go home.
Except for Jim Boylen. The 55-year-old head coach, who was relieved of his duties as Bulls head coach on Friday after two losing seasons, did something in that moment that coaches rarely do in this hopeless situation: Boylen called a timeout.
The Bulls had a 0.01 percent win probability, according to play-by-play data provided by analytics site Inpredictable.com. No matter what Boylen drew up on the whiteboard, there is no magical 10-point play that could have tied the game. Nonetheless, Boylen sought the opportunity to earn his whiteboard miles.
The Bulls took the ball out on a sideline out-of-bounds play. It didn’t work as planned. Zach LaVine was the first option and called for the ball after curling around a pindown screen and never got the pass from Ryan Arcidiacono. Just before a five-second violation would be called, Arcidiacono flipped the ball to rookie Daniel Gafford who tossed the ball back to Arcidiacono, who was inexplicably fouled on the pass by the Suns’ Kelly Oubre.
After Arcidiacono made two free throws, the Suns’ Devin Booker dribbled to halfcourt where he held the ball for 20 seconds and let the shot clock expire. The players on the court waved the white flag. It was finally time to go home.
On the other side of the court, LaVine could be seen lifting up his jersey to cover his mouth as he talked to the Suns’ point guard Ricky Rubio. LaVine didn’t want cameras to pick up what he was saying. The Bulls would lose by eight.
When asked about Boylen’s late-game timeout after the game, LaVine said, “That’s what he do, man. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not the coach.”
Of all the things that Boylen will be remembered for -- the player-led mutiny one week into his tenure, the practice push-ups, the custom time clock to punch in and out of work -- his enduring legacy around the league will be the steady stream of hopeless timeouts at end of games.
It is perhaps the most tangible way that a coach can assert their authority over players. Instead of letting time expire, hit the showers and move on, Boylen liked to halt everything and huddle up one last time.
Old-school coaching purists might find this an admirable trait but to most around the league this was Boylen establishing himself as a dinosaur in a bygone era.
After that game in February, I worked with Inpredictable.com to find out how many times a coach called a fourth-quarter timeout with 0.1% or lower odds to win the game. The Bulls led the league with 29. No other team was higher than 24.
Another time, on Super Bowl Sunday in Toronto, Boylen called a timeout with just over one minute left with the Bulls down 25 points. On the Raptors broadcast, announcer Jack Armstrong went viral for his on-air rant: “Jim Boylen, what are you doing? What strategy are you taking? It’s a 25-point blowout, there’s a minute and four left, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. I want to get out of here.”
Bulls reporters asked Boylen about the Super Bowl timeout. The coach said he wanted to get two-way player Adam Mokoka some experience with an after timeout (ATO) play.
Moments like these add up over time and can be grating for players making 10 times Boylen’s salary. It had obviously reached a breaking point as the Bulls announced on Friday that they would part ways with Boylen, who had previous stints with five teams as an assistant coach before getting promoted to replace former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg in 2018. Boylen leaves with a 39-84 (.317) record, the second-worst win percentage for a full-time Bulls head coach, ahead of Tim Floyd (.205).
The Hail Mary timeouts aren’t the only reason Boylen was fired. It’s common practice in the NBA for new front office regimes to make their own head coaching hire. More recently, one of the first moves for newly-minted New York Knicks president Leon Rose was to hire former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and let go of interim head coach Mike Miller.
While it’s true that New Orleans Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin didn’t part ways with Alvin Gentry when Griffin took over the reigns in New Orleans, there was a reason for that. Griffin and Gentry had previously worked together in Phoenix for many years and had built a strong relationship. Alternatively, Bulls president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and Boylen have no such history.
In the four months they’ve worked together in a pandemic, Karnisovas apparently learned enough and was ready to move on. The timing of the Boylen news is curious on some levels. Why now? Why did Karnisovas and the Bulls brass wait four months to make the call? The easy answer is that the Bulls were in no rush, considering the league was shut down in a pandemic and the Bulls may not play a game for another several months.
But there’s a better explanation for the timing of Friday’s news. With the regular season wrapping up on Friday, the Bulls are wise to open up a vacancy in case current head coaches around the league become coaching free agents. Or, perhaps more important in Chicago’s case, letting Boylen walk now allows them to chase highly-coveted assistant coaches before they are promoted into newly-created vacancies.
Friday’s news is more of an indication that they’re coveting an assistant coach ripe for a promotion rather than a coaching candidate that is a free agent.
The biggest name to watch is Ime Udoka. Currently the Philadelphia 76ers’ top assistant coach under head coach Brett Brown, Udoka has familiarity with new Bulls general manager Marc Eversley while Eversley was an executive with the Sixers and carries a strong reputation around the league
Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.
The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. (Both Udoka and Brown are products of Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree. Before Philadelphia, Udoka served under Popovich as an assistant coach for seven years.)
There’s lots of talk around the league connecting Adrian Griffin to Chicago’s new vacancy. Earlier this week, the former NBA player and Toronto’s top assistant coach took over as the Raptors’ head coach on Wednesday to fill in for Nick Nurse who took the night off.
Griffin has clear ties to the Bulls as a former assistant coach under Tom Thibodeau and Karnisovas’ teammate at Seton Hall. Interestingly enough, the Raptors got Griffin his first head-coaching win against, of all teams, Udoka’s Sixers, winning 125-121.
But league chatter about Griffin is also centered on allegations recently made by his ex-wife, which reached social media ahead of his one-game promotion. On Thursday, Griffin released a statement through the Raptors denying the claims. Griffin’s oldest daughter posted on social media in support of her father as did his son Alan, a college basketball player at Illinois.
The Bulls could also focus their pursuit on Darvin Ham, the top assistant for the NBA’s best team in Milwaukee. The former NBA player has spent seven years on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta and is currently on the top-seeded Bucks. Stephen Silas, the longtime assistant coach who is currently the coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks’ all-time leading offense, is another name to know.
Friday’s news may also hint that the Bulls are intrigued by former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and want to get a headstart before the 53-year-old is interviewed for other soon-to-be-open positions.
Atkinson’s tenure in Brooklyn rebuilding the Nets into a playoff team may be attractive to the Bulls. But if the Bulls really wanted Atkinson, wouldn't it be prudent to hire him away before the coaching carousel shifts into high gear and demand for his services go up?
It’s more likely that the Bulls go the up-and-comer route. Making a play for a highly-coveted assistant coach like Udoka or Griffin would also fall in line with ownership’s clear preference for greener talent rather than perhaps shinier, established names. The last three coaching hires -- Boylen, Hoiberg and Thibodeau -- have been first-time head coaches in the NBA.
An up-and-comer hire would also be consistent with the front office overhaul. In March, NBC Sports Chicago's Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson reported that the Bulls had performed due diligence on Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti and Raptors’ Masai Ujiri. The Bulls -- known for not opening the wallet to hire the biggest name on the market -- went with a lesser-known name in Karnisovas. And it’s worth noting that both Karnisovas and Eversley were elevated to their positions for the first time in their careers.
These are unprecedented times. Instead of letting Boylen’s tenure drag on any longer, Chicago decided time was no longer on its side. With the clock on the season ticking down and new vacancies competing with their own, the Bulls front office huddled up and decided to draw up a new play. It’s a strategy the team hopes will lead to better results than Boylen’s last-second huddles did.