Vinny Del Negro returns to Chicago


Dec 17

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Vinny Del Negro can’t say he’s been looking forward to Saturday when his Los Angeles Clippers come to the United Center to face the Bulls in Del Negro’s first return since being fired as Bulls coach.

“I don’t know,” Del Negro said when I caught up with him the other day on his team’s road trip, haltingly, about coming back, though a win in Detroit Friday night makes it a little easier. “It will be different. I am excited to see some people. But I am there for business.”

But it’s the business of basketball that caught up with Del Negro just as it does for so many coaches, Scott Skiles before him, Doug Collins way before him, terrific coaches both. It’s part of the job and the life of an NBA coach, though it never is easy no matter what they say.

“I feel proud of what me and my staff were able to accomplish in two years,” said Del Negro. “You can see the growth of the players. “But it is a little tough, bittersweet.”

Del Negro doesn’t know, but I expect he’ll receive a warm welcome, as Skiles did and Collins, though some years later when he was coaching the Pistons.

Collins got away for almost a decade before he returned, so the hurt wasn’t as fresh. It has to be for Del Negro. Look, even if they tell you that you are going to be fired, it’s still difficult when you are. These NBA coaches are highly competitive men given most were former players, and you don’t become an NBA player unless you are a competitor.

So the wounds are fresher, even though Del Negro is back at it already leading the Clippers, who are 6-21, but broke their 11-game road losing streak (15 straight overall) in Detroit.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Del Negro said about jumping back in so quickly even though he has offers to work in TV. “I like to see young guys get better. It’s difficult, of course. But it’s supposed to be hard. It’s a difficult job. Growing and teaching takes time, but I enjoy seeing the improvement. I feel we have some good pieces and (cap) flexibility. So it’s how we use it.”

Del Negro doesn’t get into that, but it’s likely for him as it was for Collins. He was Point B. He was the go from Point A to Point B guy. You want to be the guy who gets the team at Point B, like Phil Jackson did and Tom Thibodeau may be doing.

There’s also the question, perhaps subjective, of whether you can be the Point B to Point C guy.

Management gets to decide that and it’s a common debate around sports.

Del Negro says he’s grateful because he knows the Bulls gave him the opportunity when he was not known as a coaching prospect because he had no experience as a coach.

“My job was to get the spirit back and I feel we did that,” he says. “Sure, I made mistakes. I knew I would. It was my job to develop guys. But then you change the team and go after free agents and someone else comes in. That’s tough. But I know how hard we worked and I’m proud of that.”

Del Negro says though he’s disappointed for Joakim Noah now with his surgery, he’s proud to see how far he’s come, to a near All-Star level. That Derrick Rose is an All-Star, how Taj Gibson has developed. But Del Negro says he’s also excited now because of some his potential young stars, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, especially.

Griffin, a sure shot for Rookie of the Year, is one of the most exciting players in the game and already one of the best forwards in the Western Conference. He is averaging 20.3 points and 12.1 rebounds. And take a look at these last three games coming into Chicago:

— 24 and 17 against Detroit Friday;
— 20 and 18 against Philadelphia Wednesday;
— 27 and 16 against Orlando Sunday.

Griffin is on a streak of 14 consecutive double/doubles that began Nov. 20 when he got 44 points and 15 rebounds against the Knicks and several of the dunks regarded as the best in the NBA this season. Already, he’s become probably one of the top five players fans most want to watch.

He doesn’t get many blocks, ranking just 58th in the league, so the Bulls probably should attack him on defense. Make him work on defense to limit his offense. See what Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson can do against what hasn’t been a strong defensive Clippers front line, giving up about 102 points per game and about in the middle of the league in field goal defense.

“We’re trying to build around Blake and Gordon and keep things together,” said Del Negro. “Baron (Davis) and Chris (Kaman), our two leaders we were counting on were out (injured). Eric gets to the basket, but people forget he’s just 21. He hasn’t even hit his stride. Griffin is athletic. The numbers he’s put up are excellent, he rebounds out of his area, runs the break, his ball handling and passing skills are good. Once he gets comfortable with the jump shot the game will open up even more for him.”

Yes, Del Negro is about to coach two rookies of the year in three seasons.

“One thing they have in common,” Del Negro said about Derrick Rose and Griffin, “they are both hard workers and want to improve. You love guys like that as a coach. Now it’s a matter of patience and building confidence. What I try to do is put them in areas where they can learn and improve and move to the next level. That’s what we did with Derrick. They work, they’re great kids to be around and they are coachable. This is something I love.”

Vinny is back coaching another great one. Yes, life and NBA coaching moves on.

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