Posted Dec 29 2009 10:49AM
The euphoria after a loss probably did more damage to Vinny Del Negro's future in Chicago than anyone thought at the time. After taking the defending champion Celtics to seven games in what's considered by many as the greatest first-round series ever, the Bulls and their fans came into this season with heightened expectations.
And, maybe, slightly unrealistic ones.
Not living up to those expectations has fueled speculation in the last few weeks that Del Negro's job is on the line. The second-year coach acknowledged and dismissed those rumors again Monday.
"It's funny to me," Del Negro said after practice. "There is nothing to say. You have all these people who have rumors, and they all have their sources. It is just not accurate. I don't have time to deal with rumors."
Del Negro added that he talks with general manager Gar Forman and vice president John Paxson -- the two holding the keys to his job -- every day and that he hasn't changed his day-to-day approach. He's coaching until someone tells him it's time to stop.
"My focus is getting the team ready for [Tuesday night] against Indiana," Del Negro said.
Last season, the Bulls took the then-defending champion Celtics to the brink of elimination in an epic series. Now, Chicago is a half-game out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Judging by the mediocrity that's engulfed the conference below fifth-place Miami, the Bulls could be anywhere from sixth to 14th by the end of next week. Being a fringe playoff team is not what the Bulls or their fans anticipated after the Celtics series.
But does that fall squarely on the coach?
Del Negro, by many accounts, hasn't been a commanding presence on the sidelines and has to shoulder his share of the blame. While he isn't responsible for the makeup of the roster, Del Negro must be held accountable for how the team performs and approaches games.
For Derrick Rose to admit the Bulls had a "nonchalant" attitude in the epic 35-point meltdown to Sacramento last week is tantamount to their young star saying the team does not care. While Rose and his teammates ought to take it upon themselves to care every time they slip on those Chicago jerseys, Del Negro should have a say in it, too. Coaches have to inspire. NBA teams are too good, even the bad ones, to take a nonchalant attitude into a game and expect to win.
Some will argue that Del Negro hasn't been given a winning hand after leading Chicago to a 41-41 mark last season, good for an eight-game improvement. Not re-signing Ben Gordon (he went to Detroit for $55 million over five years) is the right financial move given the franchise's long-term plans. But the basketball ledger has taken a huge loss. Not only did Gordon lead the Bulls in scoring (20.7 points a game), but he took just about every big shot.
Forman and Paxson didn't replace those points or that moxie. Luol Deng and Tyrus Thomas were supposed to help pick up that slack, but Thomas just returned to the lineup Saturday after missing all except the first four games. Kirk Hinrich has been dealing with a bad back all season. Gordon, Thomas and Hinrich were key in Chicago taking Boston to the limit.
"Vinny has been victimized by circumstance," said a league source with close ties to the Bulls. "He's not any less of a coach than he was last year. Hopefully [Bulls management] can understand that and stay the course. I think he can develop into an outstanding coach."
The Bulls might not be appreciably better than their 11-17 suggests, but they should be more competitive. Their 17 losses are by an average of 15 points. Two losses are especially galling to Del Negro's critics. Chicago lost to the Nets at home, one of only two wins New Jersey has. And the Bulls' massive collapse against the Kings only served to fuel the firestorm around the coach.
Again, Del Negro said the rumors of his demise don't impact himself or the team.
"Not as much as you would think," said Del Negro, hired without any previous coaching experience. "It is a little frustrating because I know how hard the staff works. You are judged on wins and losses, and I am not pleased where we are at. We have let a few slip away. We need to play better and do so more consistently."
The Bulls rank near the bottom of the league in points per possession this year. Shooting is the biggest difference in their scoring drop, but they're also turning the ball over more and getting to the line less. Chicago actually has improved defensively.
Del Negro sees progress through the fog of losing.
"I can toot my own horn, but that doesn't do anything," he said. "I know the development of the players. There is still a lot of work to be done. It is a process. We are not that far off."
Del Negro might find that notion a hard sell. That kind of speculation can run both ways.
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