What happens next if the Bulls keep Boylen?

As we discussed a bit on our recent round table podcast, speculation has been rampant that the Chicago Bulls may retain beleaguered head coach Jim Boylen. It’s been nearly two long seasons of wind sprints, losses, growth plate talk, and one near mutiny. Boylen’s record is a woeful 39-84 in his 123 games in charge and multiple key young players have stagnated or regressed in their development. In other words, things have been bad and don’t look to be getting better any time soon. One may wonder, when is enough enough?

Surprisingly, the writing seems to be on the wall for Jim sticking around at least one more season. Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson has speculated that a combination of factors may make it more difficult for Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley to present a compelling case for a head coaching change. For starters, it’s likely no fans will be in attendance at games until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. In addition, it’s widely known that the Reinsdorfs and now-advisor John Paxson are fans of Boylen.

If Boylen keeps his position as head coach, it’s important that fans and players alike see some changes going forward. However, not everything is completely broken. So worked and what didn’t? We’ll dig deeper into that topic today, examining three things that Boylen’s Bulls did well and three that need to change if the franchise wants to move forward with their rebuild.

What Worked?

As much as Chicago Bulls’ fans might protest, the team did improve in a few key areas this season. Though there’s much work left to be done to meet this team’s self-professed goal of making the playoffs, it’s important that the team take care not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Zach LaVine’s Production

It’s certainly not ideal that the Bulls have yet to find a bonafide primary initiator to run half court offense and, as a result, their production on that end hasn’t been great. Chicago posted a depressing 106.6 points per 100 possessions in 2019-20, good for 28th in the league per Cleaning The Glass

More specifically, the offense struggled to create advantage situations off the dribble and use those mismatches to get teammates easy looks. Although talented passer Tomáš Satoranský started most of the season, he lacks the burst to consistently beat his defender off the dribble. 

Coby White is lightning quick with a solid handle, but he frequently failed to use the space he created to get teammates involved. For a head coach who famously wanted his team to average 35 assists a game, this yields a minor conundrum.

Enter: Zach LaVine. While his role was probably bigger than you would want it to be on a contender, LaVine showed a borderline elite combination of scoring volume, efficiency, and gravity. 

Illustrating his impressive scoring efficiency, Zach posted a usage rating of 31.7%, good for 98th percentile league wide per Cleaning the Glass. In addition, he shot 38% from 3 on 8.1 attempts per game. 

Furthermore, lot of those shots were difficult looks as a result of offensive congestion. According to the wonderful BBall Index, LaVine ranked in the 9th percentile in openness rating and his catch and shoot to pull-up ratio was 1.7. Despite the immense burden he was asked to shoulder, Zach still managed to get the job done. 

The Defense

Ok, this one might seem like a stretch given that the scheme resulted in some pretty glaring errors. However, the Bulls actually performed very well in advanced defensive metrics, especially when you take into account the personnel they were working with. Chicago posted a solid 110  points against per 100 possessions, good for 13th best defense in the league. In addition, the Bulls deflected 17.7 passes per game (1st in the league) and nabbed 10 steals per game (1st in the league by a good bit), a few perks of the high pressure blitz P&R scheme Boylen employed. 

The metrics glorified the Bulls effort on the defensive end this year, and the scheme they utilized highlighted the defensive ability of players like Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison. Dunn is widely considered to be one of the best point of attack defenders in the league, and the blitz allowed him to maximize his ball-hawking abilities as a free safety type to profit off of the frenzy the blitz created.

The sheer number of possessions that Chicago played where they blitzed the P&R will prove valuable experience. As far as having a tool in the tool kit, the blitz can be helpful for the Bulls in situations where they need to ratchet the pressure up. That said, the use of this P&R scheme absolutely needs to be toned down; we’ll talk more about this one later.

The Effort

Jim Boylen preaches spirit, effort, and a “Bulls across the chest” mentality and, to his credit, the Bulls played with tons of energy and effort. I won’t condone his methods, but the team definitely played hard. The Bulls drew plenty of charges, played at a commendable pace, and were fourth best in the league in loose ball recoveries at 8.2 per game. Some of the effort plays were incredibly fun to watch:

This is a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it does matter. After the season wore on, the young Bulls knew they were playing for no more than development. Yet despite this, the team brought energy and effort every night, covering some of the most ground of any team in the league. They continued to execute the scheme to the best of their abilities, despite it’s poor with with the team’s personnel. I thought it was important to end this section on a good note, because I like the young guys and you can tell they want to get better. Coming up next, we’ll focus on what they can do to be better going forward.

 

What Needs To Change?

Lauri Markkanen’s Role

In a year where many speculated that Lauri Markkanen would take a huge leap forward in his development, he actually stagnated to a staggering degree. A lot of the blame lies on the Bulls’ lack of a reliable primary initiator for half court offense. Zach LaVine and Coby White can score very capably and Tomas Satoransky passes well, but none of the above offer the right blend of burst, shake, creativity, and gravity that heliocentric offensive initiators possess.

What that means is that the coaching staff have to get creative schematically to create advantages and get players involved in the offense. Unfortunately for Lauri Markkanen, their vision for him was mostly as a spot up shooter. Markkanen took most of his shots from spot up three point opportunities out of maybe a simple P&R at best. His scoring dropped off and so did his engagement, and Lauri is not a particularly assertive player to begin with. 

Chicago needs to do better getting guys involved in creative ways, and that starts with Markkanen. Utilizing actions where Lauri can act as the ball handler in P&R or as the screener on dribble handoffs would give him the ability to roll or pop and would increase the versatility of his shooting profile. Lauri and sophomore center Wendell Carter Jr. are both plus passers; let the bigs handle some of the playmaking and get them more involved while giving LaVine and White a chance to cook off ball.

The Blitz P&R

The blitz created a jaw dropping number of turnovers, but it also resulted in a large number of mistakes. Put simply, the blitz fits Chicago’s guard personnel poorly and it minimizes some of Wendell Carter Jr.’s best attributes as a rim protector in drop coverage. This played out on the court with Carter being drawn away from the rim and various back court pairings getting put into rotation when a savvy P&R play maker breaks down the pressure.

The blitz is a nice tool to use, but it can’t be successfully played to the degree Boylen has employed it thus far in his head coaching career. I personally think a scheme more focused on drop or ice would be more suitable, and would result in a better overall defense despite forcing fewer turnovers through steals.

The Offensive Versatility

I touched on this in the Markkanen section, but the Bulls shooting profile was highly predictable with most shots coming off of simple P&R action or rolls to the rim. Chicago needs to diversify their playbook and get experimental with regular season schematic decisions.

I’d like to see the Bulls employ more offensive sets run through Wendell Carter Jr. on the elbow, or via big/big P&R action between Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen. I’d like to see Coby White, Zach LaVine, and Tomas Satoransky used as screeners occasionally. Until Chicago lands a primary initiator (LaMelo Ball or Killian Hayes fit very well), they’ll need to rely more on savvy team passing than anything. However, I believe the Bulls can accomplish it if Boylen and Fleming can get creative. They’re lucky to have bigs with a high level of feel, and Coby White, Otto Porter Jr., and Satoransky have proven to be able to make reads and react quickly.

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