Storyline: Chicago Bulls Turmoil?

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Jim Boylen sounds off

After most every loss this season, and there have been a lot of them, Jim Boylen has remained positive more often than not with his postgame comments to reporters. That changed Wednesday night following the Bulls’ 115-108 loss to the Timberwolves that partially ruined Lauri Markkanen’s return. “I didn’t like it. They got 25 percent of their missed shots back. That’s too many. Can’t happen. I challenged our group,” Boylen said. “We have to be tougher and more competitive in those moments when there are 50-50 balls in the air. We’ve got to do a better job.

“I don’t care who’s coming back. I don’t care who’s been out, who’s working on a minute restriction. I didn’t think we were tough enough tonight and I didn’t like it. You can’t let them shoot 50 percent and then not rebound the ball. Can’t do it. I didn’t like it. “I understand what we’re operating under and it’s difficult on the group, but we’ve got to be tougher. I want us to rebound the ball better. I want us to be more physical. And I didn’t think our physicality was good enough. I understand that we’re trying to work guys back in. I understand we played 11 guys and those things are difficult. But our effort on the defensive board has to be better.”

“What I’m talking about — and it’s not negativity; I’m coaching this team — is you gotta play your minutes with force whether you haven’t played in two months or you have. Play hard. Compete. Rebound the ball. That’s all I’m talking about. You can’t control making shots. We had I think four point-blank layups we missed and eight or 10 wide-open 3s we missed. We can’t control those. But we can control our effort on the defensive board.”

So how did the Bulls get here? Zach LaVine has some thoughts. “There’s a lot of different factors, man,” he said. “I don’t think some people played up to par. I don’t think we did the right things, game to game. We fight, but we obviously don’t get the end result that we need. So something’s got to change. You’ve got to do something to get those wins and stop stockpiling (those) losses. I think there’s a lot of things that you’ve got to take into consideration and you’ve got to look at in the offseason.”

So how did the Bulls get here? Zach LaVine has some thoughts. “There’s a lot of different factors, man,” he said. “I don’t think some people played up to par. I don’t think we did the right things, game to game. We fight, but we obviously don’t get the end result that we need. So something’s got to change. You’ve got to do something to get those wins and stop stockpiling (those) losses. I think there’s a lot of things that you’ve got to take into consideration and you’ve got to look at in the offseason.”

When asked if his penchant for late timeouts in lopsided games is worth the risk of mounting player frustration, Boylen downplayed the question. “He hasn’t said a word to me about it agitating him,” Boylen said specifically of LaVine. “I don’t know if you’re reading his mind on that or if you’re just making that assumption that that’s what he’s upset about. He hasn’t said a word to me about it. He’s very respectful about me coaching the team and me trying to help the team. So you’ll have to ask him.”

Told that Boylen used the phrase “three egregious defensive mistakes,” LaVine turned sarcastic. “Zach LaVine got 13 points scored on him, I guess. Or was it the starting five? I don’t remember,” he said. “I thought I was trying to do my job out there. I can’t do anything about that. I just have to control what I can control. I can’t control my minutes.” Did LaVine feel singled out on a night the starters collectively came out flat and, ultimately, were outscored 62-46? “If you’re just gonna pull me, yeah, for sure,” LaVine said. “But that’s not my decision.”
2 years ago via ESPN

The Bulls are working to get at least a second-round pick in a trade for Lopez and his $14 million expiring contract. But there have also been rumors of a possible buyout as the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaches. If teams sense that Lopez will be bought out, there’s less of an incentive to give up a draft asset before the deadline. The Bulls would likely only accept another expiring contract back for him in a trade, and getting the money to match up with Lopez’s salary presents a challenge. For now, the Bulls position is that they plan to keep Lopez for the season, barring a trade, because of the veteran leadership he provides on a young team. But the situation appears fluid.

The company line is that the chaos is all just a byproduct of change, and change is hard. Hoiberg was too player friendly, too laid back, and Boylen’s discipline-first approach is what these young Bulls need. “Player development is most important. And Jim realizes that. And, he’s come in and placed demands on guys,” Forman said. “He’s been very honest, up-front with guys. Our feeling is that he’s going to push them. And that’s difficult sometimes because it’s a big change. But we think, what happened” Sunday, “I really do believe it’s a blessing.”

Allow me to start with a bit of housekeeping. I was unfair to Antonio Blakeney and former coach Fred Hoiberg. In my story last week about the Bulls’ waning faith in Hoiberg, I wrote that Blakeney directed some colorful language toward Hoiberg in asking why he was being removed from a game earlier this season. I cited team sources in the report — which The Athletic stands by. But I didn’t hear the comment myself, and while scrambling to report and write the piece I never gave Blakeney nor Hoiberg a chance to address the allegation. I’ve spent much of this hectic past week trying to make it right as best I can, and after careful consideration of a handful of ideas I settled on this format. Blakeney denies ever saying it. Hoiberg, who has chosen to not be quoted, said Blakeney didn’t say it either. Blakeney respectfully refuted the allegation on Twitter upon learning of the comments I attributed to him in my story. I immediately retweeted Blakeney’s response and realized then I had been unfair. To be fair to Blakeney, who has been professional and a stand-up guy since I began covering him last season, I circled back to him so that he could address the allegation.

Here, in full, is Blakeney’s side of it: “Obviously, I saw the report saying I cursed coach Fred asking him why I came out of the game. No, I didn’t say that. Obviously, me being a younger player in the league and a minimum (salary) guy who is just trying to make it, an undrafted guy, that’s nothing I would ever even think in my mind to say. I’ve never been that type of person. Even in high school. I was a McDonald’s All-American. I never cursed the coach or anything like that. So I don’t really know where that came from, but I kind of just wanted to clear the air on that because I don’t want that image out there of me. I don’t want anybody to think that of me. I don’t want any coach in the league or any coach anywhere to think that I would say that to them.

“What I have to do is install this thing and play in the right way to go where I want to go, and outside noise, it’s always going to be there, is part of this job and this business. I just take this as a challenge,” said Boylen, who worked for the San Antonio Spurs for a couple of seasons under coach Greg Popovich before arriving in Chicago in 2015. “In San Antonio, they have standards of behavior and standards of play, and we are establishing those in here, but we can’t do that without practicing, and we cannot do that without being pushed. We are in a different place, nothing wrong with that, but we are going to work hard,” Boylen said.
2 years ago via ESPN

After Chicago Bulls players discussed the idea of boycotting Sunday afternoon’s practice, Zach LaVine spoke with head coach Jim Boylen one-on-one and tried to clear the air to forge a path forward. LaVine said he wouldn’t characterize the interaction as an apology, but rather he had to “elaborate on thoughts.” “You just want to be real with people,” LaVine told ESPN. “There shouldn’t be any clouds. I think of myself as one of the leaders on the team. I just wanted to voice my opinion to them.” He continued: “This is a business, this isn’t a dictatorship. We are all grown men, so everybody has a voice.”
2 years ago via ESPN

In the second meeting on Sunday, the idea of forming a leadership committee was discussed, multiple sources told ESPN. The idea is that in the future, those appointed to the committee would be able to act as a liaison between the players and coaches. It has been made clear that Boylen has been empowered and encouraged by Bulls management to use a firm hand in changing the Bulls’ culture. The way Boylen handled Sunday’s meetings has reinforced management’s belief in the new coach, sources said. They are fully on-board with Boylen’s tough-love leadership style.

“My job is to try to push our guys to a place they can’t take themselves,” Boylen said. “That’s pushing them outside their comfort zone. That’s what the Reinsdorfs are paying me for.” The fact Boylen cited ownership is telling. Phil Jackson praised Boylen to Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf after Boylen met with the Hall of Fame coach last summer. And according to team and league sources, executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman raved to ownership about Boylen’s message during Sunday’s meeting, which Paxson and Forman attended.

According to multiple sources, Sunday’s scheduled practice served as the tipping point for some players’ frustration. But the fact Boylen used two five-man substitutions in Saturday’s 133-77 loss to the Celtics — the second coming just 2 minutes, 58 seconds into the second half with the Celtics leading by a mere 5-3 in the half — and constant public browbeating that featured Boylen publicly questioning players’ toughness and conditioning were bigger issues, per sources.

After a close win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday and a 56-point rout Saturday night by the Boston Celtics, Boylen, finishing his first week as head coach, called for a Sunday practice — an NBA protocol no-no with the Bulls just completing a back-to-back. After taking the helm from fired coach Fred Hoiberg on Monday, Boylen held three two-and-a-half-hour practices in his first week that included extra wind sprints and players doing military-style pushups. Calling for another lengthy practice after the back-to-back led to a near-mutiny and caused the players to reach out to the union, sources said.

When Boylen arrived Sunday, the players stood and told Boylen they weren’t practicing, sources said, with the sides meeting to express their issues. Zach LaVine and Justin Holiday were the most vocal, sources said. Boylen repeatedly referenced his days on the San Antonio Spurs staff and instances in which coach Gregg Popovich pulled all five players off the floor to send a message, sources said. A player responded, sources said, telling Boylen in essence that they aren’t the Spurs and, more importantly, he isn’t Popovich.

Saturday night’s 133-77 loss to the Celtics was followed with another set of pointed postgame comments by Boylen and the promise of another grueling practice session Sunday — this one after back-to-back games. Those events led to a tipping point that could either lead to positive results down the road or a complete mess of a season. That grueling practice never took place Sunday because the Bulls players discussed a boycott of practice, multiple sources told The Athletic. Veteran players spent Saturday night trying to talk Boylen out of a Sunday session, sources said, and when their pleas were rejected, they began bouncing around other ideas in a team-wide group text.

The texts started Saturday night and carried into Sunday morning. One idea that had significant support, according to sources, was the players simply not showing up to the Advocate Center on Sunday. A preliminary plan was to gather at one player’s house and wait for the phones to begin buzzing. That plan fizzled because Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez spoke up, voicing their concerns about the unprofessionalism of that potential act of rebellion, as well as the impact such a stance could have on the roster’s younger, less established players, sources said.

2 years ago via ESPN

Team president John Paxson has committed to Boylen beyond this season, and that pledge appears to have given Boylen more latitude to be perhaps more aggressive. After Boston got up 13-0 against the Bulls on Saturday night, Boylen pulled all five starters. He pulled the entire group again midway through the quarter and the starting unit remained on the bench for the final 21 minutes of the contest. After the game, Boylen explained he didn’t like the effort he was seeing on the court and wanted to see if the reserve group could “right the ship.”

At one point during a mid-November game at Milwaukee, guard Antonio Blakeney took exception to Hoiberg subbing him out and asked, in what team sources say was a show of rebellion, “Why the fuck are you taking me out?” His query was posed loudly in front of the team bench. Hoiberg later re-inserted him without reproach, sources said. Two weeks later, Blakeney mysteriously was supplanted in the rotation by Cameron Payne, whose inconsistency caused him to slip from emergency starter to third-stringer.

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