By Marc Stein
Has the worst passed for Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro?
Yes and no.
The Bulls are 5-4 since the home disaster against Sacramento when they couldn’t hold a 35-point lead. Coaches rarely survive losses like that – especially when faced with daily speculation about job security even before the capitulation – but Del Negro has handled the scrutiny admirably and his young team has managed to regroup.
That’s the good news.
The bad news: Only five of Chicago’s 16 remaining games before the All-Star break are at home. Worse yet: Del Negro has to deal with that tough schedule knowing deep down that he doesn’t have the support of his bosses . . . and that everyone in the league has known it since this report from my ESPN The Magazine colleague Chris Broussard and the Bulls’ subsequent refusals to publicly stand up for their under-fire coach.
It’s undeniably true that Del Negro is occasionally betrayed by his inexperience on the bench, which results in regular second-guessing of his in-game decisions. It's also true that the Bulls gave him a head-coaching opportunity when pretty much no other team regarded Del Negro as a head-coaching candidate.
But his Bulls superiors simply haven’t backed him. They’ve actually done more to undermine him, which has surprised even Del Negro's critics after the team publicly acknowledged Del Negro's lack of experience when it hired him and made it sound as though they'd work through the growing pains together.
Whatever shortcomings you wish to cite, Del Negro certainly deserved better after Chicago’s second-half surge last season and its epic seven-game series with Boston. That’s especially true when you hear sources close to the situation saying that Del Negro had assurances going into the season that Bulls front-office chiefs John Paxson and Gar Forman concurred with Del Negro’s assessment that the team would take a dip this season after letting Ben Gordon go in free agency.
The mutually agreed plan called for Chicago to sit out free agency last summer and allow Gordon to join the Detroit Pistons to preserve salary-cap space to pursue a marquee name in the summer of 2010. Yet sources say that Del Negro has since been getting some heat internally for a supposed failure to develop the Bulls’ young players, even though Derrick Rose is the reigning Rookie of the Year and Joakim Noah has emerged as a legit Most Improved Player award candidate.
Another source says that early season defensive struggles also hurt Del Negro, because of the local whispers that Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's concerns about defense – as opposed to Reinsdorf's own lack of decisiveness and reluctance to pay top coaching dollars – are why Chicago moved so slowly on Mike D’Antoni and ultimately squandered the opportunity to trump New York in the D’Antoni Sweepstakes. But take a look at the league’s stats on D.
Del Negro’s Bulls had quietly risen into the top 10 in defensive efficiency entering Sunday's play.
The Bulls will return to work Monday with a record of 15-20, just a half-game out of the eighth spot in the East. Who was realistically counting on more after the loss of leading scorer Gordon and the long-term injury absences of Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas?
"They've kept the target moving on Vinny," one source said.
You'll also recall that ESPN.com reported before Christmas that the Bulls had begun to look at recently dismissed New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank as a possible Del Negro replacement. Broussard’s report revealed that Paxson was asked to move downstairs as interim coach and that the Bulls had reached out to TNT’s Doug Collins, who was close to returning for a second stint as Chicago’s coach before Del Negro was hired. There have been subsequent media reports that the Bulls have done background work on Eric Musselman as well.
The way Chicago has played since the Sacramento nightmare and all of the above emerged is why we nominated Del Negro for the mythical Comeback Coach of the Year award in last Monday’s Power Rankings. Chicago’s run of blowout losses on the second night of back-to-backs, which finally ended with Saturday night’s win over Minnesota, becomes less of a mystery when you consider how often Del Negro’s players have been hearing and reading about the lack of support he has from above.
Amid the various player-related rumbles in circulation last week during my stay in Boise, Idaho, for the NBA’s annual D-League Showcase, I heard a fair bit of sympathy for Del Negro, too.
“They’ve hung a good man out to dry,” said one rival team official.
A veteran player agent in Boise added: “The Bulls were overhyped [after last season’s playoff run] and lost their second-best player. What could anyone expect?”