The Chicago Bulls are entering a brand new era after announcing the firing of head coach Jim Boylen Friday morning. This was a move months in the making for the Bulls, as Chicago spent the last few months cleaning house in its front office. When a new regime comes in, it's always expected that a new coach could be brought in and with Boylen, it wasn't exactly a difficult decision considering he recorded an abysmal 39-84 record in a year-plus on the job.
A preliminary list of prospective candidates has been reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and the Bulls have also had their sights set on some specific names since newly-hired vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley took over back in April. The coaching search will begin immediately for the Bulls, as Chicago hopes to make progress toward contending for the playoffs in the East next season. Working off of the list that Wojnarowski provided, as well as some names that have been linked to the Bulls, here is a breakdown of the top candidates for Chicago's next coach.
1. Ime Udoka
SportsLine has Sixers assistant head coach Udoka as the odds on favorite to land the Bulls coaching position, as the franchise has been widely rumored to be interested in him for months now. He's been linked to the Bulls primarily because of newly-hired general manager Marc Eversley, who was an executive with Philadelphia before taking the job with the Bulls. One of the most enticing aspects about Udoka is that he comes from the Greg Popovich coaching tree. He spent seven seasons under Popovich's wing in San Antonio and coached the Spurs' Las Vegas Summer League team twice. Udoka was on Popovich's coaching staff during two NBA Finals appearances, including San Antonio's 2014 win over the Miami Heat, and has been able to see firsthand how a legendary coach works.
Before transitioning into coaching, Udoka enjoyed a seven-year NBA career after going undrafted out of Portland State in 2000. He hopped around several teams in the league, including the Spurs, Kings, Knicks and Lakers, and spent time playing overseas as well. Udoka's been a highly sought after coach recently, garnering interest from the Knicks for their coaching vacancy but the team ultimately went with Tom Thibodeau for the position. Chicago will have to wait until the Sixers are out of the postseason to hire Udoka, but he's been the franchise's main target for some time now, and with Boylen gone, he could be next in line.
2. Kenny Atkinson
When Atkinson was hired by the Nets in 2016, he helped instill a sense of culture with a young Brooklyn team, and after two seasons, made it to the playoffs with D'Angelo Russell as his best player. He helped develop relatively unknown players like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris into guys that any team would love to have. He built the Nets into a winning franchise and was the architect behind why this team was able to lure Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to Brooklyn in the first place.
His firing from Brooklyn is still a little fuzzy but according to Nets general manager Sean Marks, the decision was mutual. Whatever the reason, though, Atkinson is now free to take his talents elsewhere, like Chicago. The Bulls have been spinning in circles for years now, unsure if their current core can actually amount to winning.
We know Zach LaVine is one of the most gifted scorers in the league, but it hasn't translated into success, and Atkinson could help change that. He's been touted by his former players, like Joe Harris, for being a genuine motivator and someone you want to win for. "It's hard not to be motivated with Kenny, because everything he does is so genuine," Harris said via NBA.com. "Some coaches will give you the rah-rah stuff and it's just for show. But it doesn't matter what Kenny's doing, he's trying to kick people's a--."
"He's a competitor, and you can feel that," Harris continued. "You can feel that when he's talking, when he's going through film, when he's talking about the Nets' identity and those things. You know that it's not BS. That's what gets guys going and why he's able to do what he does."
The Bulls need to build from the ground up in terms of winning and finding a new identity outside of Michael Jordan's inescapable shadow. Atkinson could be the perfect guy to do that. Boylen was a very my-way-or-the-highway coach, whereas Atkinson is more player-friendly. He's not a pushover, but he's not going to rule with an iron fist to the point where he installs an old school punch clock to keep track of players' hours. (Yeah, Boylen actually did that.)
3. Adrian Griffin
The Raptors top assistant coach has also been in the sights of the Bulls, and he's previously spent time as an assistant coach with the franchise. Like Udoka, he also has ties within Chicago's front office, as he and vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas were teammates in college at Seton Hall. Griffin has a lengthy coaching resume, that includes stops with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks in addition to the Bulls. After playing nine years in the league, Griffin immediately transitioned into a coaching career, starting with the Bucks and working his way up from there.
In 2014, he was a member of the USA Basketball Men's National Team coaching staff that won a gold medal at the FIBA World Cup. His most notable accomplishment by far, though, was helping lead the Raptors to a championship last season. While head coach Nick Nurse is undoubtedly the mastermind behind Toronto's play in the postseason last year, Griffin played an integral role in preparing the team for every game. Griffin was able to coach his first game as the head coach of the Raptors on Wednesday, as Nurse gave him the reigns and, per Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, Griffin did "an incredible job."
On Thursday, Griffin's ex-wife made a series of accusations that she posted to her Twitter account, including claims of physical abuse by her former husband. The Raptors and Griffin both responded to the allegations, with Griffin releasing the following statement:
"This morning, accusations were made against me on social media by my former wife that I vehemently deny. We are involved in a longstanding legal dispute over alimony and child support arrangements. I am disappointed to have to address false accusations in this way, and I apologize for any distraction this has potentially caused for our team at this important time."
4. Wes Unseld Jr.
Unseld is an assistant coach for the Nuggets, so there's an immediate connection to Karnisovas. This wouldn't be the first time that Unseld has been targeted for a head coaching gig, as the Cavaliers were granted permission back in 2019 to interview him for their coaching vacancy, which ended up going to John Beilein. He's spent the last five seasons as the top assistant on Mike Malone's staff, and prior to that coached with the Orlando Magic and Golden State Warriors. His longest tenure was with the Wizards, where he spent 13 seasons with the team and played a key role in player development with guys like Caron Butler. With Unseld's inclusion on this list, the Bulls are clearly targeting younger coaches who have a strong history in player development.
5. Darvin Ham
Ham is considered Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer's right-hand man, as he brought him from Atlanta to Milwaukee when he got the job back in 2018. He's been the lead assistant on both teams for Budenholzer and in the six seasons they've spent together, the tandem has made the playoffs five times, including two Eastern Conference finals trips. Before joining the Hawks' coaching staff, Ham spent two seasons as an assistant with the Lakers under Mike Brown, and was previously the head coach and general manager of the then NBA Developmental League's New Mexico Thunderbirds. Ham also spent eight seasons in the league as a player, where he won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
6. Becky Hammon
Hammon hasn't been linked to the Bulls at all, but she's been garnering interest over the past few years for head coaching gigs. She was rumored to get an interview for the head coaching job with the Knicks, but that never materialized, and previously took an interview for the Bucks coaching job before the team hired Budenholzer to replace Jason Kidd. Some thought that she would be next line to take over for Popovich whenever he retired, but after Tim Duncan was chosen to coach a game earlier in the season over Hammon due to Popovich's absence, it seems that in order for her to get that head coach title she'll have to look elsewhere.
She's previously said that she would be open to a head coaching job in the NBA, but only if it came with a long-term deal. Hammon has coached the Spurs summer league team a handful of times, including to a championship in 2015, and is now the top assistant on Popovich's staff. It's only a matter of time before she becomes the first woman head coach in the NBA, and at the very least, the Bulls should certainly interview her.
7. Mark Jackson
Jackson isn't on the preliminary list of names that Chicago is interested in, however, whenever there's a coaching vacancy it's hard not to include him. He hasn't coached since being fired by the Warriors in 2014, but his success with that team cannot be understated. Similar to Atkinson, Jackson never got to reap the benefits of his labor, taking Golden State from one of the worst franchises in the league, to a team that won 51 games in his final season with the team. He's a defensive-minded coach, which bodes well for a Bulls roster that back in January ranked fifth in defensive rating in the league. However, he was fired because he was considered to be the person holding the Warriors back, which is evidenced by the team winning the first of three championships the following season with largely the same team.