Del Negro out as Bulls coach and here is why


May 3

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It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was close. They’d gone through one date after another and nothing really was mutual. Until one day, John Paxson ran into Vinny Del Negro at the Chicago draft camp and they began talking hoops. And things seemed to click between the two former court rivals. This seemed different.

So Paxson and Gar Forman brought Vinny home, or, more precisely, to the home of their professional dad, Jerry Reinsdorf. And Jerry gave his blessing.

But once they started living together, it just wasn’t the same. It happens. It happens all the time in life, and it happens in basketball.

So Tuesday, the Bulls and coach Del Negro are expected to announce their official divorce.

The Bulls get the kids, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

Vinny gets the settlement, about $2 million from his three-year contract to get on with his basketball life.

There’s no great explanation.

Each side has its own story.

Irreconcilable differences, as the explanation generally goes

It’s like when the movie stars announce a divorce and you are shocked that he/she could walk away from someone who looks like that.

But, hey, you didn’t have to live with them.

And that’s pretty much how I see the conclusion of the relationship between the Bulls and Del Negro. The Bulls sent out a notice late Monday night that general manager Forman Tuesday morning will address “the organization’s head coaching change.”

They did give it one last gasp at some counseling over the weekend with Del Negro meeting with Bulls chairman Reinsdorf Sunday and Forman Monday. It was too late. Too much had occurred already.

No, it wasn’t the altercation in March between Paxson and Del Negro, once close, and who actually was the one who plucked Del Negro out of candidate obscurity to give him a chance at the job. Del Negro certainly wasn’t on any list Reinsdorf had prepared.

There really was no one overplayed incident.

Vinny wasn’t who they thought he was, which is something Chicago teams run into with Phoenix guys. For his part, Vinny was on the NBA hamster wheel, running as fast as he could to catch up with the NBA game going at light speed, doing all he could and feeling he’d make big progress.

It was Vinny’s first ever coaching job, and it was a risk for the Bulls.

It was well chronicled they didn’t want a deal with Doug Collins. But I’m convinced has Mike D’Antoni waited a few days instead of running to the Knicks within hours of his first meeting with the Bulls he would have been hired. D’Antoni has since told friends he regretted his decision.

The Bulls will begin a search with the usual suspects for now, though nothing is imminent as there only has been the kind of vague discussion that goes on in all organizations.

Sure, Del Negro played and was a team executive and personnel guru. But like those rookies always say, the thing that surprises you is how fast the game is compared to watching it. It’s the same with coaching. It goes by a lot faster than you think, and millions of eyes are ready to second guess: Why didn’t you foul? You had one to give. Foul to play the free throw game down the stretch or let them shoot the three? When do you sub and who? When do you take them out and how long do you leave them in? Call a timeout? How many timeouts to keep for the end? What’s your offense? What’s your defense? Trap? Zone? Switch?

OK, bring in some veteran coaches to help. So Del Negro got Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff. Too bad they had different philosophies on the game, Del in one ear and Bernie in the other. Foul, don’t foul? Time out, no timeout. Shoot the three, drive.

The Bulls were hoping—fantasizing, really, though they knew that was unrealistic–they might strike gold, a new millennium version of the next Phil Jackson, who’d replaced the popular Doug Collins. But Vinny wasn’t ready.

So there were disputes. Why was Rose left out of games at crucial times? Why wasn’t Noah getting more time to develop? What’s with those big minutes? What’s with the tight rotation? Where’s the defense?

Del Negro said it was coming, and it was. The defense was improving, the rebounding was getting better. The young guys, Rose and Noah, were better. Taj Gibson, the rookie, had come on fast. The team played hard and finished strong for the second consecutive season.

So what’s the problem?

Yet, Rose’s defense had gone nowhere. The offense remained simplistic and predictable, the pick and rolls constantly using a poor shooter. There was too much standing around. Sure, Gibson had contributed, but where was James Johnson? How come guys played 20 minutes then two?

And then there was the minutes limitation for Noah.  Was it even necessary? Del Negro was endangering the future. Or was Noah always ready to play and showed it in the playoffs?

But life, as we all know, is not always fair.

It wasn’t about only those things.

The sides had dug in.

The Bulls didn’t feel the man they hired was the man who came to work. Del Negro believed despite the changes and priorities toward the future, the present had developed as well as could be expected.

The Bulls gave Vinny a chance when no one else would or did. His own Suns passed on him and hired Terry Porter.

The average life of a coach, especially in the Eastern Conference, is about two years. Of the 15 teams in the East, only five have coaches hired in seasons before the Bulls hired Del Negro.

This has happened before with the Bulls as well. Collins was fired after making it to the conference finals. Stan Albeck took the team to the playoffs the year Michael Jordan missed 64 games with a broken foot, and Albeck was then fired.

But it also happens all over basketball.

Sam Mitchell, Hubie Brown, Avery Johnson, Byron Scott and Rick Carlisle were fired or left within two seasons of being named coach of the year. Carlisle was fired in Detroit after two 50-win seasons and second round playoff appearances. For Hubie Brown, ostensibly for health reasons, it was 12 games into the season after he won the award. Larry Brown was fired in Detroit after taking the team to the Finals for the second straight season. Del Harris was fired by the Lakers 12 games into the season after he won 61 games. Mike Fratello was fired by the Cavs after six straight winning seasons and never a losing season.

Del Negro, by the way, was the fifth coach fired this season. The coaches of Atlanta, Toronto, Miami and Golden State are hardly secure.

These jobs are as much about results as they are communication and relationships.

Plus, their priorities are at variance.

The coach’s job is to win today’s game and win as many games as he can. The GM’s job is to develop a team for the long term and, if necessary, sacrifice the present. So there was that, Del Negro playing to win every game to assure his return or status, thus limiting one rookie and the bench, relying on the starters for big minutes, perhaps playing Noah more than recommended. And there was the organization hoping to see more of Johnson, preferring players like Luol Deng coming off serious injury not playing the second most minutes in his career, hoping to see defensive advancement from Rose and some more care for Noah.

Each had a point. But the relationship began to deteriorate.

From the outside, it appeared Vinny had done what he could given trades and Ben Gordon leaving in free agency. From the inside, there seemed perhaps a different agenda.

Vinny no longer was the right guy for this time.

It was no one’s fault. It happens. It happens all the time in pro sports.

Vinny gets his contract fulfilled, which was all he was promised. After all, it wasn’t like when he was hired anyone said this was coach for life, that this was the next Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach. The Bulls get the benefit of two years development, which has enhanced the status of Rose and Noah and with a good summer of work, the Bulls could be in an excellent position to move forward and become a true contender. Vinny gets the asterisk taken off his name. He’s a coach with experience now, which moves him to the head of the line and opens up the future if he wants to coach again.

Win/win? Perhaps not, but it is the way of life in the NBA. The game moves on. So will Vinny and the Bulls.

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