The Chicago Bulls fired coach Jim Boylen on Friday, ending a rocky tenure marked by clashes with players, a franchise-record 56-point loss and — perhaps most important — a 39-84 record in parts of two seasons with a rebuilding team expected to battle for a 2020 playoff spot.
A search for Boylen’s replacement will begin immediately.
Uncertainty had surrounded Boylen’s status ever since the Bulls overhauled their front office this spring, bringing in Arturas Karnisovas as vice president of basketball operations — ending John Paxson’s 17-year run as the franchise’s top basketball executive. Karnisovas hired Mark Eversley as a general manager to replace the fired Gar Forman, and Paxson moved into a senior advisory role.
“After doing a comprehensive evaluation and giving the process the time it deserved, I ultimately decided that a fresh approach and evolution in leadership was necessary,” Karnisovas said in a statement. “This was a very difficult decision, but it is time for our franchise to take that next step as we move in a new direction and era of Chicago Bulls basketball. Jim is a great human being that cares deeply about this organization and the game of basketball. I want to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to the franchise.”
New executives generally like to hire coaches, which made Boylen’s fate appear to be a fait accompli. Still, the new regime promised to evaluate the entire organization.
Karnisovas and Eversley made phone calls and held video calls while the coronavirus pandemic delayed their arrivals to Chicago. With the 2019-20 season suspended March 11 and the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the NBA calendar, they decided to wait before making a decision about Boylen. Reports began to emerge, however, that Bulls players had given mixed reviews on the coach.
Boylen, 55, joined the organization before the 2015-16 season as Fred Hoiberg’s associate head coach and spent three-plus seasons in the role before taking over for Hoiberg, who was fired Dec. 3, 2018. It was Boylen’s first NBA head coaching opportunity after spending 21 years in the league as an assistant; he also had been a college assistant at Michigan State and a head coach at Utah.
The Bulls were 5-19 when Boylen took over, and he had a tumultuous start to his tenure, publicly challenging players’ conditioning and using two five-man substitutions in a franchise-record 56-point loss to the Celtics at the United Center. Despite going 17-41 under Boylen and finishing at 22-60 — missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season — the Bulls gave him a multiyear contract extension on May 3, 2019.
With Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie Coby White, the front office this season expected the Bulls to contend for a playoff spot. But Porter, Carter and Markkanen missed significant time with injuries, and Boylen started to become known for calling superfluous timeouts late in blowout losses, which left his players and others visibly annoyed.
A rebuild that had been building momentum turned stagnant.
“No one could question Jim’s passion for our team and our organization,” Michael Reinsdorf said in a statement. “We sincerely appreciate his tireless efforts and contributions during his time with the Bulls, and we wish him and his family the very best.”
Boylen carried out orders handed down to him by the previous front office, living through the growing pains while trying to install a system with an oft-injured roster. Much of his focus was on developing young players, leaving him unconcerned with his record. Yet for as many players who took a step forward in their development — including White and Daniel Gafford — others, such as Markkanen and Denzel Valentine, took a step back.
Boylen’s run as Bulls coach was stormy from the outset, but he continued to survive because he had the trust of the team’s front office. Once that regime changed, however, he ultimately had little else to stand on.