In December 2007, following a blowout loss to the Rockets, John Paxson fired Scott Skiles and promoted Jim Boylan to interim head coach.
Eleven years later, following a blowout loss to the Rockets, Paxson fired Fred Hoiberg and promoted Jim Boylen — who once worked with Boylan at Michigan State — to head coach.
There’s no interim in Boylen’s title because he’s under contract through next season, and the Bulls plan to give him every opportunity to become the long-term answer for a management team that in 15 years has now hired five coaches: Skiles, Vinny Del Negro, Tom Thibodeau, Hoiberg and Boylen.
“Jim will bring a strong voice to our locker room, and he’s a lifer,” Paxson said, alluding to Boylen’s 21 seasons of NBA experience. “He’s been in a lot of situations. You guys can go down the list of head coaches he’s sat next to over his time as a coach — Jud Heathcote, Tom Izzo, Gregg Popovich, Rudy Tomajanovich. He’s earned this chance.
“We’ve seen him operate for several years here. We know what he’s like every day. He’s done a great job forming relationships with our guys. As a head coach in this league, you have to be able to form relationships and gain trust with players in order to coach them hard. When players know you have their best interest at heart, even when you’re pushing them to certain limits, players will respond to that.”
In touting Boylen’s strengths, Paxson made clear what he viewed as the weaknesses of Hoiberg, who, upon replacing Thibodeau in 2015 was presented as a creative offensive mind and the missing piece to a championship-ready roster.
Instead, that season quickly devolved because of a divided locker room and a team on its last legs. Jimmy Butler called out Hoiberg to coach harder and hold players accountable, and the Bulls missed the playoffs as the difficult circumstances that landed on Hoiberg’s plate were too much to overcome.
“You can have a team that plays hard every night no matter who you put out there,” Paxson said. “That’s energy and passion right there. You have to get your guys to buy in and be connected. Fred was here for three-plus years. Unless you’re in it every day and you’re in this building and you’re on airplanes and in locker rooms after games, there are many intangibles. For us to sit here and think that just because we’re getting (injured) guys back, I think that would’ve masked the problems that we’ve seen. Then we wouldn’t have made good decisions going forward.
“We gave Fred opportunities. And he did a lot of good things for us. But I’m tasked with, (general manager) Gar (Forman) is tasked with, looking at the underlying things in an organization. And if you don’t think competitive spirit is important for an organization or basketball team, then you’re wrong. And we were lacking that.”
Hoiberg, who compiled a 115-155 record with one first-round playoff exit, arrived at the team’s practice facility Monday morning prepared to run the 11 a.m. practice. Despite knowing he’d be under the microscope this season and feeling some recent isolation from management, Hoiberg was caught off guard by the firing, working under the impression he’d at least get time to work with a relatively healthy roster.
Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen each have played one game this season. Bobby Portis has played four. And Denzel Valentine is out for the season following left ankle surgery.
“It wouldn’t have been based on if we’d gotten guys back and gone on a winning streak. That’s not what it was about,” Paxson said. “It was about what we were seeing internally and the vibe and the energy that was in this building.”
The widespread injuries forced Hoiberg to play back-of-roster players, some of whom are more suited for the G League than the NBA. But Paxson disputed a question about how Hoiberg’s player development, which was lauded by management last season, the first of a full rebuild following the Butler trade, could be judged now with so many core players injured.
“He did a good job with the individual players,” Paxson said. “But it’s about more than individual development.”
Boylen said he found out about his new job Sunday night. According to sources, the Bulls wanted to give him time to prepare for Monday’s practice while waiting to fire Hoiberg face-to-face to offer a human element.
“(The decision) was made most difficult because all of us in this organization like Fred Hoiberg a lot,” Paxson said. “He’s a great person, handles himself with class, he was respected by everybody. We also acknowledge that Fred had to deal with a lot of difficult circumstances.
“But this decision wasn’t based on our record. We were in a similar situation last year at this time. Poor record. But the entire energy about this group was different then. … You have to be able to get your identity across to your team.”
For Hoiberg’s second season, management added Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in free agency. Neither player was well-suited for Hoiberg’s preferred offensive philosophy that emphasizes outside shooting. Nevertheless, Hoiberg guided the Bulls to a 2-0 lead in a first-round playoff series over the second-seeded Celtics before Rondo fractured his thumb and the Celtics won four straight.
Last season, the Bulls finished 27-55 but drew praise throughout the league for their competitiveness and player development. Hoiberg also adroitly managed the preseason fistfight between Portis and Nikola Mirotic, when Portis drew an eight-game suspension for breaking two bones in Mirotic’s face. Mirotic missed 23 games, but both players played well after that until Mirotic was traded to the Pelicans in January.
Perhaps that’s why so many coaches rallied to Hoiberg’s defense.
“Fred never had a chance without really any talent to work with to build something,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
Hoiberg initially will decompress but still wants to coach, preferably at the NBA level, a source said. His five-year, $25 million contract runs through next season and is fully guaranteed, sources said, which means he’ll be paid by the Bulls until he lands another job.
Hoiberg once worked as an assistant GM for the Timberwolves and is still highly regarded by owner Glen Taylor. That franchise is weighing the dual executive and coaching roles of Tom Thibodeau, who regularly is booed at home games despite winning since his own Butler trade.