Bulls getting the right coach looms larger than front office shakeup
Arturas Karnisovas taking over as vice president and a new face poised to take over the general manager reins is refreshing for the Chicago Bulls. At the same time, the Bulls turning the corner hinges more so on who their 2020-21 head coach is.
Yes, ownership is supposedly still in head coach Jim Boylen’s corner. Did Boylen inherit a mess after Fred Hoiberg was dismissed in 2018? You betcha. The problem? The Bulls have shown close to no signs of improvement this season.
They entered this season with one of the best young cores on the outside looking in at the playoffs in the NBA. With the likes of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White and Otto Porter Jr. in place, the Bulls had the makings of a dark horse playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Well, they’re 22-43, which is good for the 11th seed in an Eastern Conference with a seventh and eighth seed that are a combined nine games below .500 (the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic).
One could ague that the Bulls are more talented than Brooklyn and Orlando.
This team is reeking with talented, high-upside players.
LaVine has established himself as one of the best scorers in the NBA, averaging an astounding 25.5 points per game this season and 23.7 the season prior; Markkanen is one of the best scoring big men in the league, as he can play inside and outside interchangeably; Carter is a talented inside player who was beginning to come into his own before the NBA went on hiatus.
White was putting together an encouraging rookie season from a playmaking standpoint; when healthy, Porter is a stellar three-and-D player while Kris Dunn is an efficient backcourt option on both sides of the ball.
All six of the aforementioned players were lottery picks; five were selected in the top 10, four of them selected by the Bulls. Yes, they were brought in by the now-reassigned John Paxson and begone Gar Forman. That said, whenever Chicago finalizes its new front office, this is the core they’re building around. The pieces are in place for the Bulls to be a playoff team and a tough first-round out. Heck, they may have the best young core in the league. Some organizations may have been able to get their core over the hump by now.
Coaching and player development, as a whole, is Chicago’s most pressing issue, not management.
When a team has a young roster with lottery players, especially ones with compelling skill sets, a large burden falls on the team’s coaching staff to facilitate the team’s growth. No one should expect the coach of such a team to bypass the rebuild and get to the Conference Finals, so to speak, rather get them playing competitive team defense and embracing ball movement.
Defensively, the Bulls have held their own. Offensively? Different story. They’re 23rd in the NBA in assists per game (23.2), 24th in three-point shooting percentage (34.8 percent), 25th in turnovers (14.6), 26th in points per game (106.8), and 29th in offensive net rating (105.8). There’s little ball movement, a lot of offensive volatility and apparently some friction (Markkanen reportedly may ask for a trade if team direction doesn’t change).
There has been a lot of individual growth, specifically in the stat sheet. Collectively? It’s difficult to say the same, and that falls squarely on coaching.
Failure to enhance a team’s young core is what got David Fizdale (New York Knicks), Frank Vogel (Orlando Magic) and Dave Joerger (Sacramento Kings) fired over the last two years — or at least that’s what the Kings will tell you.
The Bulls have been the same team all year and were trending downward at the league’s hiatus, from both an offensive consistency and win-loss perspective. If the 2019-20 NBA season resumes, the Bulls will pick up eight games out of the playoffs with 17 to go; they have close to no chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
Moving on from Boylen, his assistants and player development with 17 games to go in the season doesn’t do anything other than grab headlines. Frankly, firing a coach in the middle of a season is never an ideal scenario, as it forces players to get accustomed to a new face calling the shots and perhaps a new system. Once the offseason commences, Chicago should begin a search for its new signal caller.
The Bulls need a coach, someone who can get the most out of their players and build a winning culture. So what names do those characteristics lead to?
Maybe, Kenny Atkinson? The recently-jettisoned head coach did an impressive job getting a young Nets team to the playoffs a season ago. In Atkinson’s time with the Nets, several youngsters gradually improved such as D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.
Do the Bulls throw the bag at a big-name college coach such as Villanova’s Jay Wright? Sure, he seems pretty content at the helm for the Wildcats, but an eight-figure salary can typically swing someone’s thought process. Plus, Wright runs a program that’s adept at effectively developing young players through their junior and even senior seasons.
Jason Kidd? Before being fired in 2018, Kidd did a plausible job getting the Milwaukee Bucks young core on the right path. Perhaps the Hall of Fame point guard gets Chicago’s offense in check.
Make no mistake: Chicago’s front office shakeup should be a breath of fresh air. With that said, the new brain trust’s first pivotal decision looms larger than their individual hires: Getting the right head coach.