May 04, 2010
Leave it to the Chicago Bulls to make a sympathetic figure out of Vinny Del Negro.
Vinny Del Negro was fired Tuesday -- or last night, or last December -- because he did a poor job of coaching the Chicago Bulls. His minute allotments were curious, his teams were wildly inconsistent and his outfits executed quite poorly on the offensive end. Also, Chicago was oftentimes less structured and efficient coming out of timeouts than it was heading into them, and any bit of player development can be more or less pegged on the expected growth you usually get from an athlete in his early 20s.
He was not a good coach. He might be a good coach someday, but in spite of a .500 record over two years filled with injuries, turmoil, roster upheaval and underachieving players, Vinny Del Negro was not a coach who deserved to keep his job.
And yet, the Bulls made it so they'll appear the bad guy in all of this. Mainly because they are.
Oft-criticized just days into his tenure, Del Negro received absolutely no public front-office support that warmed beyond the point of tepid. Chicago's curious arrangement involving general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson never seemed to be in any sort of charge, which allowed Del Negro (who had no prior coaching experience when Chicago hired him) to take the brunt of all sorts of issues regarding this strange organization.
Toss in Jerry Reinsdorf's unyielding influence, hands-on in every way that doesn't involve paying proper money to coaches, or the right amounts of money to the right players, and you have a miserable mix that probably only a group featuring Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson could win with.
The Bulls were designed to tread water, at best, this season. And that's exactly what happened as the team peeled off another .500 year while making the playoffs, all while retaining cap space and trying to forget 2009-10 ever happened -- even if that brand of amnesia happened 45 games into 2009-10. And that's where you get into the uneasy takes on VDN's tenure. Because on paper, it seems as if he did his job.
The team willingly let its top scorer sign with another team for no compensation, it signed what turned out to be possibly the least-effective free agent on the market last year in Jannero Pargo(notes), and yet Del Negro's team still made it back to the playoffs, coming through on what I just referenced as an "at-best" situation. So why is he gone?
Last year, the Bulls somehow turned into a white-hot offensive machine down the stretch, making the playoffs and taking the defending champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. That was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and Del Negro's team nearly made it to the second round. So why is he gone?
Well, we're going to get into that "causation doesn't equal correlation" bit, because the Bulls made their hay down the stretch of 2008-09 against an easy schedule featuring terrible teams on most nights and an incredibly lucky array of squads who were without important parts on others. To say nothing of teams working the typical late-season weariness. And they took it to the Celtics because they should have. Boston was without its best and certainly its most irreplaceable player in Kevin Garnett(notes).
This year? Well, Toronto fell apart, which allowed the Bulls to move past them and into the playoff bracket. Toronto hated playing with each other by the first month of the season; and though a midseason streak against an easy schedule helped the team get into the playoff bracket, a normal schedule to finish the year, and a season-ending injury to its (here we go again) best and certainly its most irreplaceable player allowed the Bulls to sneak in. Along with the fact that Chicago, when healthy, still had .500-in-the-East talent.
Did the Bulls do everything they were supposed to do and more over the last two years? Working through massive roster upheaval around both trade deadlines, working through injury, working with that holding pattern that the front office put in place?
Yes, "the Bulls" did. Not Vinny Del Negro. Not with his deer in the headlights approach to late-game strategy. Not with that offense that can only be described as "um, I think they run the flex, but I'm not sure." Not with all those minutes to the wrong guys. Not with those huddles that were just rife with non-sequiturs, words meant to inspire that were really just taken from the names of several minor league basketball teams. "Attitude!" "Intensity!" "Desire!"
No, it wasn't there. Vinny just didn't have it. He might, someday, with his (forgive me) attitude, intensity and desire. But it wasn't happening in Chicago.
And it certainly wasn't happening after Adrian Wojnarowski first reported that Paxson harassed Del Negro into an altercation, following a game that saw VDN playing Joakim Noah(notes) for longer than the Bulls' medical staff had allowed.
Del Negro was absolutely in the wrong to play Noah past the agreed-upon limit. It's his job as a leader to not give in to the whims and pleas of people he's supposed to know better than, and anyone who has suffered from plantar fasciitis can tell you about the agonies of overuse. The first time Del Negro let Noah play, Noah had to sit for a few weeks, the forward/center missing the next 10 games. Not coincidentally, Chicago lost all 10. Causation equaling correlation.
But Paxson was an absolute prat in his approach to the situation, which involved approaching Del Negro, yelling at him, grabbing his tie and pushing him. As wrong and as short-sighted and as selfish an act as Del Negro had performed in letting Noah play in some misguided attempt to save his job, Paxson somehow trumped it 25 times over by getting physical with the man he hired. Your Chicago Bulls.
They'll have a new coach at some point. They took eight weeks to hire VDN after ticking off Mike D'Antoni and letting Cry-a-Day Doug Collins go after the former Bulls coach agreed to return. The pickings this time will be cheap, as Reinsdorf refuses to deal with coaches with prominent agents (save one). He'll still be paying Del Negro his relatively small salary next year, and deferred payments to Scott Skiles remain the rumor.
So, no Collins. No Jeff Van Gundy. No Avery Johnson. Not that the Bulls need any of those guys. The alternatives (Tom Thibodeau, Dwane Casey, Lawrence Frank) are all much, much more preferable.
Instead, assistants, former head coaches, those who would have to come in humbly and accept Reinsdorf's terms before Reinsdorf trades for a left fielder that will make three times as much in 42 games of work for the White Sox.
And it will all be a waste. Because no NBA team has made more money since 1999 (that's the year after Michael Jordan's final season with the Bulls, mind you), and that stadium has been full throughout this entire mess.
And they'll have Derrick Rose(notes), they'll have Joakim Noah, and the team will attempt to sign a big free agent this summer. And they'll have their eighth sideline patroller since 1999 working the roster.
And they'll have lost the respect of anyone who was paying attention.