The Trial of Coach Del Negro
The Chicago Bulls exited the Playoffs after a 1-4 series defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls’ 2009-10 campaign may have closure, but certainly there are only questions when it comes to the fate of head coach Vinny Del Negro’s future with the Chicago Bulls.
During his tenure with Chicago, Del Negro has a 82-82 regular season record, and a 4-8 post-season record. This record isn’t outstanding. But it certainly is not a miserable failure by any stretch of the imagination either. Despite acquiring the newly-drafted Derrick Rose last season, the Bulls had a roster which many expected was not going to be good enough to make the Playoffs, following their disappointing 2007-08 campaign; the team completely missed the Playoffs after sweeping the defending Champion Miami Heat in the First Round in the previous (2006-07) season.
Jerry Reinsdorf then decided to take a chance on Vinny Del Negro and hired him in the summer prior to the 2008-09 season. Many thought the move was very unwise due to the utter lack of any coaching experience on Del Negro’s part, and criticized the Bulls’ front office by claiming that they were simply being cheap by not going for a more-seasoned coach (for whom they would have had to open their pocketbooks). The political response to this criticism, by Bulls’ management, was that Vinny blew them away in the interview and was very passionate about coaching and winning. And this is the supposed reason that he was hired. Many fans did not expect much from the Bulls and some NBA analysts were surprised to see them finish with a 41-41 record and make the Playoffs. They were predicted to be ousted handily by the defending 2008 Champion Boston Celtics (despite lacking an injured Garnett), but instead the Bulls fought and clawed their way into an epic 7-game war.
The following season (this past 2009-10 campaign), the Bulls were expected to easily make the Playoffs, and threaten the top teams in the Eastern Conference, despite losing their leading scorer Ben Gordon in free agency. The reasoning for these basketball “experts” predicting Chicago to do this well is beyond my comprehension. ESPN ranked Chicago as the 12th-of-30 teams entering the season. Chicago did struggle as the season stretched on-ward. They seemed to lack effort against sub-par teams while boasting victories against teams such as Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Antonio (both times), and coming close against the Lakers and Nuggets. For instance, there was the infamous game where Del Negro sat his starters in the second half and allowed the Kings to comeback from 35 points down and steal a game – by far the most embarrassing loss of the 82-game stretch. It was near this time in which the sports media all but confirmed that Vinny Del Negro would be gone sooner, rather than later. It was reported that the Bulls were already taking names as to who would be the next head coach – which was never confirmed or denied by the Bulls’ front office. But nevertheless, Del Negro was not fired and Chicago made then actually NBA history for the right reasons. Bulls fans were very pessimistic (and rightfully so) before a 7-game Western road trip. They began by losing to 2 bad teams in the form of the Clippers and Warriors. But then they surprised everyone and became the first team to win 5 consecutive road games against teams with winning record on a road trip – defeating the Suns, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and Hornets in their long Western Conference tour. Derrick Rose was elected to the All-Star team (the first Bulls since Jordan in ’98 to make the squad) and credits Coach Del Negro for much of his improvement:
‘I would vote yes,’ Rose said late Tuesday night when asked if Del Negro should stay.
‘That’s a guy where we both came in (in 2008), he let me have my freedom, he still coached me, let me make my mistakes, watched film with him every day, taught me a lot on offense and defense. But the decision isn’t up to me. It’s up to the front office.’
The roller coaster continued after the Bulls traded away John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for essentially Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick. This was obviously a down-grade in talent and depth in order to gain capspace for the Summer of 2010. But indeed the Bulls did go onto lose 10 straight games. Del Negro took much of the brunt for that blame as well – but Chicago was undeniably a team in transition; they just lost 2 players and were trying to adjust Murray and Warrick into the system. Not to mention, during that 10 game losing streak, the Bulls lacked Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Derrick Rose to injury. Kirk Hinrich even missed a game during that stretch as well. If you don’t count this period of time in the Bulls’ season, Del Negro was 41-31. After that streak, they all started returning and the Bulls finished their season a very respectable 10-4. And they fought hard. John Paxson and Del Negro fought because of Vinny played not-100% Joakim Noah extra minutes in an OT-victory against the Blazers – despite an irritating case of plantar faciitis. Noah supposedly was begging to play. If you are a head coach of a professional sports team, and one of your best players says he can play, don’t you think you might play him too?
The Bulls rolled into the 8th seed and started to play consistently hard against all teams – good and bad. They fought hard against the 1st seeded Cavs too, despite losing in 5 games. They threatened the Cavaliers in the Quicken Loans Arena during the first 2 games of the series, and played nearly flawless basketball in Game 3. The Cavs offense shot the lights out again in Game 4 and rolled to a victory. However the Bulls refused to just lay down and die in Game 5 back in Ohio, and it did not go unnoticed by the Cavs’ superstar:
“I think they were well-coached,” James said. “Vinny and that coaching staff had those guys ready. They have a group of young talent that loves to play the game of basketball, and they play hard. There was not one point where they kind of laid down. I think in Game 4 in the third quarter, we just kind of willed ourself to that big lead and just kept getting stops. I’m not trying to make a pitch for Vinny or that [coaching staff]” he said. “Because I know what’s going on with, “Is Vinny in? Or is Vinny out?” That’s not my job. But this team that we played in this series played hard.”
The Bulls barely turned the ball over in the Cav-series at all. Rose went nearly 90 minutes of action without even one, during a stretch of time. Nobody can deny that Del Negro made mistakes in his rookie season as coach. It seems like having former Lakers’ coach Del Harris as an assistant definitely helped with his decisiveness and confidence. All coaches make mistakes during a season, and Del Negro has always been accountable for his and owned up to them. He has definitely learned plenty and made great strides.
With coaches available such as Byron Scott, Avery Johnson, Lawrence Frank, and Jeff Van Gundy, it definitely looks bleak that Vinny Del Negro will be back as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls next season – especially after every said and done by the media and the Bulls organization itself. Tensions are pretty high and it’s obvious that nobody in Chicago likes being under the spotlight for this reason. No pro sports organization likes the media scrutiny that comes along with being under the microscope. The longer they keep Vinny, the longer the story will be in the headlines. That cannot be good when attempted to draw in star free agents. Keeping Del Negro just seems like a huge risk to take at this point. He has been a very good coach for this team, but both parties should be satisfied with how the last two years have went. Del Negro gained an opportunity that he probably would never have gotten if it was not for the Chicago Bulls. It worked out as well as it possibly could have had worked out. It might work out if the Bulls do the unlikely and decide they want to keep Del Negro. He is a young, passionate coach with knowledge of the players and team structure. Then again, so do most of the other potential coaches for next season – and they all have coached an NBA Finals game.
Time will be the judge.