If Jim Boylen Doesn’t Soften on Bulls, Expect Another Change in Chicago

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The Chicago Bulls are only a week removed from a coaching change, but they already look headed for more changes.

The Bulls have little choice but to promptly revise the instructions they handed Jim Boylen when they installed him as Fred Hoiberg’s successor just seven days ago.

Or else the replacement will need replacing.

In stark contrast to Hoiberg’s ever-forgiving demeanor, Bulls officials wanted Boylen to be uber-demanding in his approach. What the Bulls got, in return, was a young roster in revolt over the weekend — just three games into the new regime.

In-season coaching moves are supposed to infuse flat teams with a fresh reserve of energy. New Coach Bounce is how it’s often described.

Chicago, by contrast, just witnessed an entirely different sort of jolt. Bulls players, in essence, refused to practice Sunday in the wake of a humiliating 133-77 home loss to Boston. Those players were convinced they should be granted a day off — in spite of the embarrassing no-show against the Celtics that matched the most one-sided home loss in league history — because they also played Friday night, upsetting Oklahoma City.

A protest that soon and that loud, resulting in a standoff that spawned two team meetings Sunday afternoon, undoubtedly set some sort of unofficial league record. Yet it also wasn’t a complete shock in the current climate, since you won’t find any team that practices after completing a back-to-back set in 2018.

This doesn’t get discussed as much as other areas of evolution in the millennial N.B.A., such as the growing emphasis on 3-point shots, positionless basketball and star players trying to team up with other star players. But the coaching business is evolving big-time, too.

The reality is that nobody these days coaches exclusively from the old-school, push-em-harder playbook. Not even Gregg Popovich.

Armed with five fewer championship rings than Popovich — under whom he coached in San Antonio before landing with the Bulls — Boylen won’t come close to surviving the rest of the season if he persists in trying the taskmaster approach in Chicago.

A lighter hand is the preferred touch in the modern game. Practices are becoming less and less frequent as teams increasingly prioritize player health and rest over tactical instruction. I’ve heard numerous coaches share stories about the great caution they are forced to exercise when it comes to assembling film clips of player mistakes — lest anyone feel singled out or, worse, picked on.

Connecting with players and trying to perpetually instill them with confidence are the priorities. Think Golden State’s Steve Kerr, New Orleans’s Alvin Gentry and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers.

Chicago has to recognize this. There is simply no alternative no matter what you think of the oft-critcized management tandem of John Paxson and Gar Forman, whose curious string of personnel moves throughout Hoiberg’s tenure has flummoxed many.

Natural as it might have been for the Bulls to replace the famously rigid Tom Thibodeau with the more player-friendly Hoiberg, it surprised no one that they turned to the more Thibodeau-like Boylen to succeed Hoiberg. But Boylen has made Thibodeau look like a softy by calling for extra wind sprints to punctuate practice sessions, issuing public critiques of his players’ conditioning and subbing out all five starters at one time — twice — in the Boston loss.

It has been suggested that Boylen, beyond knowing that his bosses supported him challenging the group more than Hoiberg ever did, felt even more license to do so because he knew all of these players previously as an assistant on Hoiberg’s staff.

Unfortunately for Boylen, I’d argue that the opposite is true. Boylen would likely have found his players more receptive to the three long practice sessions he wedged in amid Chicago’s three games last week if he were a legit newcomer.

Part of what has made Popovich so successful over the years is his ability to weave great interpersonal skills and copious amounts of empathy into his dogged strictness. He is also said to have consciously mellowed since the 2016 retirement of Tim Duncan — as well as in the wake of last season’s disconnect with Kawhi Leonard that led to Leonard being traded to Toronto in July.

Ultimately, though, it’s Pop’s fistful of titles that furnish him with unimpeachable credibility. As many have noted over the past 48 hours, Boylen is a Spurs alumnus — but that’s all he credibly shares in common with his former boss.

How Boylen and the Bulls rebound from this crisis will be watched keenly by his peers leaguewide, as coaching norms continue to shift. Yet I can confidently forecast, without delay, that he and his current bosses will have to do most of the adapting here.

The Bulls, in spite of themselves, have amassed a few interesting talents — most notably Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Zach LaVine — after years of head-scratching moves. Those three, and the potential star forthcoming with Chicago’s top pick in the 2019 draft in June, have to be the priority going forward.

The N.B.A., after all, is a players’ league — more so than ever before.

It’s true in Chicago, even with a rebuilding team that lugged a 6-21 record into Monday night’s game against Sacramento, just as it is everywhere else.

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