Champagne and Cam Payne: The Fred-less Horsemen

Credit: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Bulls coach Jim Boylen speaks to reporters during practice in Mexico City Wednesday. 

By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

Any illusions that the Chicago Bulls might have a smooth transition to their next defining era are gone at this point. The previous coach is gone, and the organization’s new choice — not an interim, not a caretaker, but the head coach — is so abrasive to the players that they went to the union about him after ten days on the job. Ten!

The secret that was only really discussed in Chicago sports media is now national news:

THE CHICAGO BULLS ARE A GOT-DAMNNED JOKE. LITERALLY.

I mean it. The organization is an actual punchline. Just ask my big homie Zach Harper:

How Did We Get Here?

Just for masochistic kicks, let’s revisit the milestones from Jim Boylen’s tenure as Chicago Bulls head coach:

Dec. 3 – Two days after Lauri Markkanen plays his first game of the season in a loss to the Rockets, Fred Hoiberg is fired as Bulls head coach. Boylen is immediately named permanent head coach.

At introductory press conference, according to NBCSports’ Mark Strotman, Boylen says, “…From the experiences that I’ve had and where I’ve been, who I’ve been with, I’m going to try and use all that to make us into a better ball club and build our culture in a positive way.” (Gar Forman, who hired Hoiberg, is not present.)

Dec. 4 – The Bulls lose to the Pacers, 96-90, in Boylen’s first game as head coach. The 96 points are the second-fewest they’ve allowed all season, and the new head coach is happy with the team’s effort, especially on defense.

Dec. 5 – Multiple outlets report that Boylen, who was “disappointed in the team’s conditioning,” ran two-hour practices the day of and the day after the Indiana game. In a sign of things to come, star Zach LaVine offered a lukewarm response when asked about the extra work:

“We’ve had some runninng….some running,” he said. “It’s OK. He wants to make his mark.

You have to understand that. I think things will slow up as the season goes on.”

Dec. 7 – Boylen gets his first win as the Bulls hold off the Thunder, 114-112. Markkanen, LaVine and Holiday all score 20 or more, and the Finn hits a tough game winner over Steven Adams to seal it. (When Boylen is asked the next day how he celebrated his first win as a head coach, he says he ate a bowl of cereal with his kids. Weird, but cute.)

Dec. 8 – The era of good feelings is short-lived, as the Bulls are waxed by the Boston Celtics, 133-77. The 56 points is the worst loss in franchise history and marks the second Bulls blowout at the hands of Boston this season.

After the Celtics start the game on a 17-0 run, Boylen removes all five starters, and repeats the move at the start of the second half. Remember that information, it will be important later.

Dec. 9 – Things come to a head on this Sunday, when news breaks that the Bulls players refuse to practice after the previous day’s loss and go so far as to contact the players’ union to complain. Players hold a private meeting, then speak with Boylen and the rest of the coaching staff about their grievances.

Boylen later states that the meetings were his idea. Several outlets describe the events as a “mutiny.”

Dec. 10 – The Bulls hold a halftime lead over the faltering Sacramento Kings, but a second-half burst from De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield sends the Bulls to another embarrassing loss. Kings players reportedly joke on the Bulls at the end of the game, saying “uh oh, another 2.5-hour practice for them tomorrow.”

Dec. 12 – John Paxson reaffirms the team’s commitment to Boylen going forward. In a report from Chicago Tribune reporter K.C. Johnson, Paxson actually says “this week has been good for the team.”

So, in a ten-day span, the Chicago Bulls got a big win over a quality team, absorbed their worst loss ever, called the NBPA on their head coach, had multiple team meetings, and the man in charge says it was a good week for everyone involved.

We’re only about two months into the season.

Parallels

It’s an awful situation when the sports franchise you follow is in a state of disarray. Watching the Bulls’ inner turmoil fully exposed to the world like a pulsing wound has been painful, but mostly for the amount of empty talk and posturing it has generated.

Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the English soccer team I support, is in a similar situation as the Bulls. They had a recent run of success a few years ago under Carlos Carvalhal and twice were on the cusp of promotion to the Premier League, but fell short both times. After a slow start to the 2016-17 season, Wednesday fired Carvalhal and have been mired in underachievement since.

The daily talk from fans of the team has vacillated between sending off all the players to, recently, calling for the owner to sell the team. This is the same owner who was celebrated three years ago for the success they had.

Not only are the social media cries about how to fix Sheffield Wednesday unfeasible, they’re also not the correct solution. With Wednesday and at most soccer clubs, it’s pretty easy: a quality manager, patience and savvy transfers will fix most problems. The Bulls present a tougher challenge.

What Must Change

Outside of the 1970s run of success with Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, the Bulls have only the Michael Jordan era to credit to their worldwide fame. That’s 11 years (13, if you count the baseball sabbatical where the Bulls were still competitive) of top-tier contention out of 51. Not bad, but in the NBA, where one player can swing the fortunes of a team for a decade, the Bulls simply have not had the right plan in place. That plan must start from the top rather than the bottom.

For all Boylen’s faults, he’s not to blame. For all the players’ faults, they’re not totally to blame. (Shoot, Jabari Parker has actually been trying harder on defense since the coaching change.) The fault lies with Paxson, and with Jerry Reinsdorf.

Reinsdorf has long been criticized for his love of baseball over basketball, embodied in the oft-repeated quote “Jerry Reinsdorf has always said that he would trade his Bulls championship rings for one World Series ring.” Well, Reinsdorf has a World Series ring and looks like he’s trying to get another one, but what about the Bulls? Does he just not care?

BlogABull’s Ricky O’Donnell thinks so, as he implored John Paxson to “fire himself.” Once you get past the illogic of that statement, he makes the most reasonable point I’ve heard from anyone with a platform.

Paxson has presided over a stretch of Bulls basketball that, while it’s not close to the worst in team history, has never reached its full potential. The last four years of roster moves reflects very badly on him, and only one of the head coaches he’s hired had an overall winning record with the team.

Making Jim Boylen the permanent head coach was a mistake. Bringing in Jabari was a mistake. Signing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo was a mistake. Hiring Fred Hoiberg and firing Thibs was a mistake. At some point, all the mistakes are an indicator of incompetence. John Paxson must go.

Will he go? No, because he was a loyal player who didn’t make waves and Jerry Reinsdorf rewards quiet loyalty. It’s the same reason Harold Baines will never be unemployed in his lifetime. As long as the Bulls are making money, Reinsdorf won’t want to do much.

So it falls to Bulls fans to make the owner move. Stop giving the Bulls your money. Stop going to games, stop paying for merchandise and stop giving your money to an inferior product. Until you do, no amount of screaming on paper or into a microphone is going to make the Chicago Bulls any better.

Beast of the Week: By default, it has to be Lauri for his performance against the Thunder last Friday. Stats aside, his runner over Adams was a scintillating possible look into the future.

Predictions: Oh, who the hell knows?

Dec. 15 at Spurs – L

Dec. 17 at Thunder – L

Dec. 19 vs. Nets – L

Dec. 21 vs. Magic – W

One Last Thing: Considering all that Boylen has said about his time in San Antonio, I wonder if he’s going to ask Pop for any advice. Can’t you just hear Pop’s gruff voice saying, “Don’t fucking make players run suicides?”

Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR
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