Bulls’ leadership void starts in GM’s office

Once Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman finally came out of hiding Tuesday night, his coaching staff expected him to honor his private insistences with a public acknowledgment. This had been the plan. Vinny Del Negro’s boss had a chance to make a most minimal pledge: Management supports its coach.

Forman sputtered, danced and deflected. The words wouldn’t come out of his mouth. For the first time, two sources with direct lines to the coaching staff said, Del Negro finally realized what he had refused to believe: Yes, the GM does want him out.

Bulls GM Gar Forman has continued to call about possible replacements for coach Vinny Del Negro.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

“To say the least,” a close associate of Del Negro said, “the staff was disappointed by Gar’s failure to step up in an embattled moment.”

As textbook undermining goes, Forman has delivered a clinical performance. The players were listening on Tuesday night, and the message was unmistakable: Despite the back-to-back wins since Tyrus Thomas’(notes) return, the coach is a short-timer.

Forman has sworn to people that he hasn’t made one call about a replacement, and multiple sources insist that simply isn’t true. Just Tuesday, Forman was on the phone asking about exiled NBA coach Eric Musselman. He’s telling people he needs a long-term solution for the Bulls. He had already called the Nets two weeks ago on Lawrence Frank. Another report linked the Bulls to Doug Collins.

The Bulls have every right to fire the coach, but do it already. This saga has become an embarrassment, an amateur hour and for all the discussion of Del Negro’s fitness for the job, there’s been too little about Forman’s. As a scandalized college assistant and, eventually, a behind-the-scenes pro personnel man, he’s been ill-prepared for the public nature and scrutiny of the job with which the Bulls promoted him a year ago. He’s never managed something so big, never engaged in the dynamics of a public platform so immense.

No one does the indignant denial like Forman: From trade talks to coaching searches with a coach still on the job, his reputation has become the executive few trust, whose words and assurances ring hollow when confronted with his clandestine operations. Few will tell you they ever feel Forman has been straight with them, and finally, sources say the coaching staff has started to feel the same way.

Del Negro isn’t beyond scrutiny, nor blame. Yet, where did Bulls management expect him to be this season? They lost Ben Gordon(notes) to free agency. They’ve been pounded with injuries to starters, played the league’s fifth-toughest schedule and they’re 1½ games out of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. No one expects a parade for Del Negro, but management has been fuzzy on the expectations. Yes, the loss to the Sacramento Kings was a historic collapse, but no one gets fired based on one regular-season game in December.

Del Negro has made his share of novice mistakes on the sidelines, but he did get the Bulls to .500 a season ago and he did push the defending champion Boston Celtics to a seven-game series. Listen, there were a lot of people who never considered Del Negro coaching material. Some of his former teammates in San Antonio considered him the last Spur they ever thought would become a coach, but the Bulls hired cheap and hired Del Negro out of a player personnel job in Phoenix.

All along, Bulls management had articulated a plan that understood they would take a step back this season without Gordon, preserve cap space and go heavy into the summer of 2010 for a Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) or Joe Johnson(notes). Yet, now Forman is overselling the talent on his roster to make a case for his own front office genius. He overpaid Luol Deng(notes) and undervalued Gordon. Thomas has made terrific strides, but Forman couldn’t persuade the Knicks to take the young forward for Al Harrington(notes) this season and couldn’t get the Nets to take him for Yi Jianlian(notes) over the summer.

Just get those kids better, they kept telling Del Negro this summer, and you’ll be fine. Be a good company man, the organization suggested. Play the Taj Gibsons and James Johnsons and you’ll be rewarded. The Bulls were fortunate they didn’t have a veteran coach these past weeks and months, because he wouldn’t have been so eager to pitch management’s message about all the terrific young players that you can win with now. Well, it isn’t true, but Del Negro played all along for Forman and John Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf. His bosses told him his loyalty would be repaid, that the growth of Derrick Rose(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes) would come with a just reward.

The Bulls are the seventh seed in the East today, and teams with more talent and more accomplished coaches – Toronto and Washington and Philadelphia – are even, or chasing them in the standings. No one is suggesting Vinny Del Negro gets a standing ovation, but he’s handled this in a way where he deserves a stand-up guy. For now, he’s the easy scapegoat for the Bulls, reddest meat to toss to the Chicago masses. His boss had promised him a public decry of support, something to solidify him in the locker room, in the arena, and Gar Forman couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The best GMs relentlessly back a coach until the moment he’s fired, until he no longer has to stand before a locker room of millionaires and convince them he has the clout to do the job. They can declare Del Negro a coaching novice and all, but just understand something: The biggest Bulls amateur came out Tuesday night, tried to cover his own behind and returned to hiding again. Gar Forman has been telling people the Bulls need to find a long-term solution on the sideline, and well, whatever he thinks, it shouldn’t be too long until they come to his office looking for one, too.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Dec 30, 2009