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Running with the Bulls: The Future of Del Negro

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Running with the Bulls: The Future of Del Negro

Friday, April 30, 2010
4:27 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

With the recent end to the Bulls seasonanother in which they showcased their immense potential, but still came up short in a first-round playoff exit, the most immediate hot topic at hand (behind free agency, but that doesnt officially begin until July 1st) is the future of head coach Vinny Del Negro.

Throughout the season, it was more of a question of when Del Negro would be fired (beginning in December, when an in-season termination seemed imminent), rather than if. After leading Chicago to consecutive 41-41 regular-season marks, eighth seeds in the postseason and admirable opening-round showings, some national observers have openly questioned why Del Negros job is in jeopardy. Since many believed Del Negro would be out of a job the day after the Bulls season endedvarious team sources have said that no official decision will be made by team management until after the weekend, at the earliesteven more anticipation has surrounded the coachs fate.

However, when taking into consideration the ugly late-season drama involving Del Negro and managementdisclosure of alleged physical altercations between Del Negro and both team executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, as well as the controversy regarding center Joakim Noahs minutesit is likely that Del Negros departure is still a foregone conclusion. Added support for that theory was built when recent reports detailed that Chicago wont attempt to fire Del Negro for cause, resulting in the coach not needing a lawyer to either defend himself or sue the team for the salary he would receive on the last year of his three-year contract.

At the same time, its clear that even through the tumultuous season the Bulls endured, the players on the team are in favor of bringing Del Negro back for another season, as evidenced by their comments to media both following Tuesdays Game 5 loss in Cleveland and Wednesdays exit interviews at the Berto Center.

I would vote yes, said Bulls All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, when asked in his postgame press conference Tuesday night about where he stands on Del Negro returning for the final year of his contract. Thats a guy where we both came in, he let me have my freedom, but still coached me.

Del Negro let me make my mistakes, watched film with him almost every day, told me a lot on just defense and offensewhat Im supposed to dobut the decision isnt really up to me, continued Rose, whose arrival to the Bulls coincided with Del Negros and described the potential firing of his only NBA head coach as devastating. Its up to the front office, so Im going to let them worry about that and just deal with it.

Yeah, I endorse Vinny, added Noah, who was regarded as a potential bust before Del Negros arrival, at the Berto Center on Wednesday. He did a lot for me as a player, gave me my chance to play.

Chicagos pair of rookies, Taj Gibson and James Johnson, expressed similar sentiments Wednesday.

Hes been great to me, said Gibson, who was today named to the NBA all-rookie first team. Hes a players coach. Any other coach, I dont know if they could have weathered that stormtrade talks, injurieshe just kept coaching. Look at him every gamehes still standing up, going after itand it was good for our team. Even late in this series, he just kept coaching usno head down, no worrying about if hes going to get firedthats why I respect him. Hes a good coach.

Thats not my job to determine it. I just say how good of a person I feel Del Negro is, continued Gibson, when asked if Del Negro should return. If the guys upstairs the Bulls front office feel different way from meIm a rookieI really cant say anything. Im just going to go with the shots.

I learned a lot from Vinny this year, added Johnson, whose minutes fluctuated throughout the season. I cant really cant touch on whats going to happen to him. My rookie year wasnt a bad experience.

Id take Vinny Del Negro back. He taught me that not everything comes easy, he went on to say. I was always used to being a starter in college and high school, then going to not playing built my character up a little bit more.

Regardless of the players support for Del Negroand being such a young team, its not clear how much weight those comments hold with the front office, as they could be easily dismissed as opinions of mostly professional neophytes on the scant experience theyve had on the NBA levela coaching change seems to be in the cards, as any job where management seemingly cant coexist with an employee, no matter what position that employee holds, usually results in a change.

Its always been somethingin the beginning of the year, there was talk about he might get fired, then the whole incident with Paxson and all thatand as a player, you cant look at those things. Thats up to you guys the assembled media at present at Wednesdays player exit interviews at the Berto Center to bring up and write about, but as for me, right now Vinny Del Negro is my coach, said veteran small forward Luol Deng. Thats the mindset I have right now. Whatever happens upstairs, like I said, whoevers the coach, thats whos going to be in charge and thats whos going to lead us next year. If its Vinny, its Vinny. If its not, its not.

After two years, I think hes been trying to get better. Hes been working hard, but its always changes. Ive had teammates who played really hard and now theyre not here anymore, so the organization is always going to try to get better, continued Deng, who expanded about Del Negro the most of any player on Wednesday. He was the head coach, he talked to a lot of players about staying positive and keep playing hard.

Its kind of a unique thing. We had a loose group and I think Vinny kind of fit the bill for us, added fellow veteran Kirk Hinrich. He lets you be who you are, expects you to go out there and work hard and compete every night, and thats what we tried to do.

Obviously we got to the playoffs two years in a row with a lot going on. The trade we had last year for me coming in with John Salmons and this year with the trades we had, chimed in backup center Brad Miller. Hes done a pretty good job just keeping us together and we had fun, played hard and went from there.

With his two-year record as an NBA head coachhis first coaching position at any level, as he went directly from his playing days to the front officeDel Negro is almost certain to garner future interest from other teams in the league, as the common perception is that he did a good job developing Chicagos young talent, held down the fort through some challenging times, kept the team afloat despite trades that handicapped his situation and always got the Bulls to compete during his tenure, which is especially remarkable because of his lack of experience. While insiders may disagree about some of those assumptions, the reality is Del Negro did a decent, if not overachieving job, coaching Chicago, and while his in-game adjustments and overall coaching strategy may have not measured up to the Gregg Popovichs and Larry Browns of the league, his timing could not have been betteras fans, media and rival front-office types alike from around the NBA observed the Bulls challenge the top seeds in the Eastern Conference two years in a row. Even if the embattled Del Negro isnt back in the Windy City, his rise from novice to at the very least, a coach capable of guiding a team to the NBAs second season will assuredly make him part of the leagues merry-go-round of recycled candidates when its franchises vacancies open.

I think expectations in some ways were almost unrealistic, especially when you factor in Hinrich being injured, Rose being injured and Deng coming back from a year off, said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers in support of Del Negro prior to the Bulls home finale against Bostoncoincidentally, minutes before the report about Del Negros alleged physical confrontation with Paxson broke. Im obviously biased. Vinnys been better than a good friend.

Perhaps an even more valued opinion comes from LeBron James, who was up close and personal with Del Negros coaching during the Cavaliers first-round series win over the Bulls.

I think they were well-coached, said James in his postgame press conference Tuesday, following the Cavaliers series-clinching Game 5 win in Cleveland. 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.

Im not trying to make a pitch for Vinny or that coaching staff, continued James. Is Vinny in or is Vinny out? Thats not my job, but this team that we played in this series played hard.

Various sources and reports have indicated that Chicago will target candidates with previous NBA head-coaching experience and name recognition with young players to replace Del Negro, as well as one with perhaps a defensive-minded approach or a former NBA point guard, who could mentor Rose. Some of the names that have been mentioned include former Bulls coach and current TNT analyst Doug Collins, ex-Nets coach Lawrence Frank (who was mentioned as a possible replacement if Del Negro was fired during the season), Mavericks assistant and former Seattle (now Oklahoma City) head coach Dwane Casey and ex-Hornets head coach Byron Scott, who expressed an interest in the job during a recent radio interview. Others whose names have come upwhether they are seriously being considered or not is a different storyare current ESPN analyst and former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, Boston assistant and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau (long considered ripe for an NBA head-coaching position) and current Oklahoma City assistant and former 76ers and Trailblazers head coach Maurice Cheeks, a Chicago native.

Another twist to this situation is the fact that Chicago clearly put themselves in position to acquire a top free agent this summer, and the longer they dont have a coach in place or Del Negros status looks to be in limbo only further complicates matters. The line of thinking that the Bulls either have to hit a home run as far as making a big-splash hire or select a choice that might have some leverage with one of the players theyre targeting is obviously a flawed approach, but with more credence being given to Chicago being an organization in disarraya tact rival teams competing for the same free agents are sure to use; the aforementioned alleged incidents involving Del Negro and management arm them with plenty of ammunitiona move with the requisite approval factor could be used to overcompensate for any negative buzz.

As for Del Negro himself, hes remained classy about the situation, choosing to either defer or take the high road when asked about his fate, something that could pay off for him in the future, as his local perception of an underqualified first-timer could be erased to his victimization in the alleged Paxson saga, his ability to guide the squad to the postseason in both of his seasons and the support of his young players, who have made considerable progress under his watch.

I dont even think about that stuff, said Del Negro after Tuesdays loss. All those things will take care of themselves.

How anybody wants to judge that, theyll judge it.

A team on the verge, a coach likely on the outs, free agency in the near future. Just because their the season is over doesnt mean episodes of As the Bulls Turn will be on hiatus anytime soon.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

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USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.