Taking a side in the Jim Boylen-Bulls players mess means being wrong
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One thing is missing on both sides of the tug-of-war between new Bulls coach Jim Boylen and his players, though it goes by many names.
Credibility. Standing. Accomplishment. Heft. Substance.
Boylen doesn’t have enough of it to come in, play the tough guy and be listened to.
His players don’t have enough of it to threaten a practice boycott without looking like second-rate divas.
It’s hard to believe a telenovela could take hold in less than a week, but it has, runny mascara and all.
On one side, you have Boylen, who looks like actor Jeff Daniels superimposed on a large egg. Having been elevated from associate head coach to head coach, he came in guns blazing, with a mandate from the front office to introduce a law-and-order-and-run-’em-till-they-puke approach. He declared that the coach-player dynamic “isn’t a negotiation.’’ At times, he has looked almost maniacally aglow while preaching a gospel of togetherness, toughness and whatever he wrote down during the two seasons he spent working for Gregg Popovich. Boylen is a 20-year NBA assistant, and this is his moment. As he’s finding out, very little of it carries weight.
On the other side is a group of players that, when the mood is right and things are really clicking, has the talent to make a run at a G League title. The players who have led the Bulls to the worst record in the Eastern Conference want to decide how to be coached. They’ve blanched at the idea of hard practices involving conditioning drills. You know, because the season has gone so well for them.
If you take a side in this mess, trust me, you’re going to be wrong.
Boylen insists that everything is fine, that he and the players are jelling and that a newly formed players leadership committee will help smooth out future rough patches like the one that has had the league buzzing the last several days.
You might ask yourself how a mini-revolt could break out in the first week of a coach’s tenure.
Part of the problem is that the NBA is as much a lifestyle as it is a league. Players, having made the big time, are used to being treated like the entertainers that they’ve been told they are. Entertainers want to save their best for the show and not for rehearsals. See the Allen Iverson “We talking about practice!” video.
Unfortunately, these particular entertainers, as a group, aren’t good. The first third of the season has been marked by injuries, terrible play and Zach LaVine’s one-man act with a basketball.
The other part of the problem is that the Bulls’ hierarchy, having called out the players for a lack of “energy and spirit’’ under former coach Fred Hoiberg, wanted Boylen to hold players accountable. But this is the NBA. When you’ve been wall paneling most of your career, as Boylen has, you can’t suddenly turn into a chandelier. That’s earned. The new coach hasn’t earned it yet. It’s a little early in his regime for saluting.
The circus officially pulled into town Saturday. The Bulls lost by 56 points to the Celtics that night, with Boylen twice yanking his starters for a lack of fire and results. His idea was to have a two-hour practice Sunday after back-to-back games. In the NBA, it was considered unnatural, like a dog and a cat starting a family. No, it was beyond that for the players. It was humiliating. What followed was a threatened boycott of the Sunday practice by several players, a players-only meeting, a team meeting with coaches and, finally, Boylen’s comments that he was happy about the meetings. And that scheduled difficult practice? It didn’t happen.
Pick a side? No. No one looks good in this, no one has the moral high ground and no one comes away unscarred. The NBA already is a soap opera, but somehow the Bulls have taken it to another level.
No one wants to hear how Popovich did it, though that hasn’t stopped Boylen from telling us over and over. Working for Popovich doesn’t confer any special qualities on a person. It means you learned at his knee. It doesn’t mean you have inherited his coaching ability, though it’s worth noting that Popovich and the Spurs are pretty average when they don’t have Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Maybe Boylen’s natural style is to be a tough guy. But if he had any doubts about what team vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman wanted in a coach, they were answered when Paxson questioned the players’ effort under Hoiberg. When Boylen was announced as the next coach, he all but affixed a sheriff’s star to his shirt.
So far, a new coach imposing his will on bad players hasn’t been much fun to watch. And it really does get at what the problem has been with this team, which is a lack of talent. Finding someone to make Paxson and Forman line up and run ”suicides” — now that would be fun.