Because they aren’t immortalized in stained glass like their college counterparts and they aren’t meant to embody some decayed brain atavist’s idea of military leadership like football men, NBA coaches are given a degree of latitude to be themselves, but there’s a hard limit on how much eccentricity their players will put up with. The haughty incompetents (your David Blatts) and the relentless hardasses (your Scott Skileses) don’t tend to last long and so what we’re left with are broadly enjoyable kooks. Nick Nurse does his divorced guitar dad thing and Quin Snyder perpetually looks like he’s into the mob for 45 boxes of ziti and there’s an unspoken agreement in place not to criticize every bad shot and to have at least something approaching a sense of humor about what is in the end only a baroque bit of exercise.
And to keep your sickness to yourself. The disorder that bonds all coaches is a bone-deep neurosis, early morning hours annihilated by tape study and notes that are probably at one point about the Detroit Pistons bench but must, at another, devolve into strange sleep-deprived errata. Going by the physiques and countenances that feature on sidelines, this is not a pleasant headspace to inhabit, and the lifestyle is hell. The good coaches hold back some share of that madness from their players, because it’s not productive for a player to think about the game quite so hard and byzantinely as a coach does, and because nobody likes to be told what to do all the time. The bad ones make their peculiar way of existing everybody else’s problem, and that’s where we get to Jim Boylen.
First, he’s a majestically odd person: shiny and snowplow-jawed, duffing aphorisms and radiating panic. He celebrated his first win as Bulls head coach by eating a bowl of cereal and watching a Family Feud rerun. There is maybe nothing all that exceptional about him except the fact that he’s held down a top job in the NBA for nearly a year while never shaking the impression that he’s merely an overmatched gym teacher trying to get Zach LaVine to play defense and pass trig. He is the father who forbiddingly objects when his daughter calls the president a bozo, not because he even particularly likes the president, but because some lazy, abstracted notion of respect is very important to him. He doesn’t like the way people dress now, in ways he can’t explain.
Boylen and LaVine aren’t getting along these days. It’s doubtful they ever have, or that LaVine is alone in feeling alienated by his boss. This is a guy who took over the job last December, ran his team into the ground with a pair of training camp style practices, presided over the worst loss in franchise history, and sold the players out in the press. Boylen then narrowly elided an open revolt when some of his charges wanted to boycott a practice scheduled for the following afternoon. Instead, a two-hour team meeting was held and Boylen established a players-only leadership committee to which he appointed a few awesome souls to marshal the behavior and communicate the will of what is not exactly a large number of people.
It’s unclear whether the CBLC is a thing that still exists, if it ever truly did, but LaVine was supposed to be “the face of [the] committee” according to an old Sun-Times report. Here’s LaVine this past Saturday, after being abruptly yanked from the first quarter of an eventual loss to the Heat: “I'm trying my best, I'll say that. I'm playing my minutes and trying to do the best I can do. It's tough, especially when you're in a rut. If [Boylen] doesn't trust me, it's hard to trust someone who doesn't trust you.” LaVine further admitted that he kind of sort of understood the substitution, but also c’mon: “I guess I was to blame for it. I've gotten pulled early before by him. I guess that's just [Boylen]’s thing to do.”
LaVine has since met with Boylen and said the two are in “a better place” while also sounding considerably less than thrilled with his coach’s methods. You get the sense that the outcome of their chat was something along the lines of I hear you, I respect you, and absolutely nothing is going to change. Other players in the squad have been demoralized by Boylen’s use of five-man substitutions that are effectively a form of public humiliation. They likely roll their eyes when he tells the media that the Bulls squabble just like families do, or when he claims that his moves are straight out of Gregg Popovich’s playbook, failing to understand that it’s reckless for him to wield his authority the same way a five-time champion whom everybody likes does. Or when he launches into yet another terrifically fraught monologue about toughness and honoring the game and playing the right way. This would all be incredibly exhausting coming from a basketball genius, which Boylen definitively is not.
It’s not wholly puzzling why he is like this, because literally millions of men roughly Boylen’s age and background are like this, but it is something to behold, as the Lowe’s On A Sunday Afternoon energy engulf the United Center night after night. There’s not a good explanation for why it keeps happening, and there’s not a good explanation for Boylen. Contrary to what the looping industrial film projected onto the IMAX dome of his skull says, he has been a basketball coach for his entire adult life. He’s worked for Jud Heathcote, Tom Izzo, and Popovich, but never a floor manager or a foreman. He hasn’t lived a Springsteen song; he’s held a clipboard and yelled at other people to set better screens.
This isn’t to say the coaching grind isn’t difficult, but it’s not the same thing as working construction. In essence, it’s a white collar job: acquiring knowledge and communicating it to the athletes who actually apply it. Maybe what explains Boylen best is that he fundamentally misapprehends his task in the same fashion that a lot of men do, but usually not in this venue. The NBA doesn’t brook this kind of blowhardery. He thinks he knows a thing or two about commitment and effort and everybody around him is like Dude, I don’t care. How do you want me to defend the pick and roll? This is the kind of misunderstanding that can’t be reconciled, no matter how long both sides of the conflict chat or how willing they are to listen to one another. Jim Boylen simply isn’t an NBA head coach. His delusions about himself have come true, and for as long as that lasts, LaVine and his teammates will suffer.