- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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"If you're shocked that Britney was lip-synching at her concert and want your money back, life may continue to be hard for you." - John Mayer on Britney Spears' lip-syncing allegations, via Twitter
CHICAGO --When Vinny Del Negro became the front-runner and, ultimately, the coach of the Chicago Bulls, the collective reaction from the NBA and Bulls fans was a collective "Huh?" followed by a collective "Wow, really?"
In the NBA coaching firmament, Del Negro wasn't exactly a shining star. Prospective coach Mike D'Antoni was the fast-breaking savior, the recognizable face, and Del Negro was just another 40-something ex-player trying to make his name in the Phoenix Suns' front office.
Let's reminisce. After a miserable 2007-08 season that cost Scott Skiles his will to coach the Bulls, the Bulls needed a splash by hiring a coach to turn things around. They settled for Del Negro, a nice enough guy and a pretty good player. No one thought it was the long-term solution, not in a league in which coaches come and go like some kind of interchangeable salary-cap refugee. I was a little surprised when Skiles left the team, but if Del Negro were axed before his contract expires, I'd be just as shocked as John Mayer was when Britney was busted for lip-syncing.
With the team already planning for the 2010 free-agent bonanza, Del Negro was the cheap alternative, with a three-year deal. If it worked out, great. If not, oh well, there's more where Vinny came from. Then the Bulls lucked into Derrick Rose, traded Andres Nocioni, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden, and wound up in the playoffs.
But now, one-quarter into the second season, Del Negro is already on the public hot seat and is a strong candidate to get axed before the end of 2009. Will the humbug Bulls pick Christmas Eve again, the holiday where they fired Skiles and all-time flop Tim Floyd? Will assistant Bernie Bickerstaff assume the throne, as some have speculated? In January, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called the Bulls' season an embarrassment, so it's not as if Del Negro is his guy to begin with.
If it's going to happen, bet that it will happen soon or not at all. The Del Negro watch is in full effect, and the man himself fired back against the critics Thursday.
"It's easy to sit back on the sidelines, and everyone has all these great ideas and all these things that people think they know what they're talking about," Del Negro told reporters at the Berto Center on Thursday. "But until you live it and do it, no one has an idea.
"All you guys have to write and do your job and come up with stories and things, and that's all great, and you have to do that, but you guys really don't know what it's like because you've never done it."
That's true, and that's fair. It's not Del Negro's fault that he had never done it, coach, that is, before last year, but his inexperience doesn't bode well for his future with the Bulls because NBA jobs don't provide much of a learning curve. Has the criticism been unfair?
"Oh, yeah. Absolutely," Del Negro said in Deerfield. "But that's part of the deal. You can't take a position like this and not think you're going to get criticized. It's part of the deal. If you can't live with criticism and the heat, then you shouldn't take the job. You shouldn't be in pro sports. That's part of the deal. You got to be able to suck it up sometimes and understand it."
This season started off promising behind the contagious hustle of Joakim Noah and the rejuvenation of Luol Deng, but the wheels have come off. The only blowouts well-coiffed Del Negro was looking for this year were at his hairstylist.
The Bulls have lost nine of 10, and seven of them can be categorized as blowouts, so criticism is starting to mount. While Chicago freezes, Del Negro's rear end looks warmer by the day.
If Del Negro gets fired for his team lying down -- who will forget such memorable games as Toronto 110, Bulls 78 and one-win New Jersey 103, Bulls 101 -- no one, and I mean no one outside Del Negro's immediate family, will shed the smallest tear.
When Del Negro's $1.325 million Highland Park house was announced to be on the market for the past two months, and subsequently pulled off, the prevailing thought wasn't that the coach was moving up, or even downsizing, but that he knew the end of his time in Chicago was drawing nigh.
It's not that Del Negro is some kind of comically bad coach. He has had the Bulls playing good defense at times this season, but his late-game play calls and substitution patterns (last season, especially) have drawn groans. It's just that he's a bit of a public cipher, and for a coaching novice in a Showtime league, that's not a good thing. He gets no benefit of the doubt.
If a Phil Jackson team got off to a slow start, it would be surprising, but he would get the benefit of the doubt. But for pretty much every other coach in the NBA, you're hired to be fired.
Good coaches get fired every season, so what does that mean for untested, unproven coaches such as Del Negro, who never held even an assistant position before winning the Battle of Attrition '08, a Reinsdorf-produced blockbuster disappointment that saw D'Antoni slip away to the Knicks and Doug Collins endure a bizarre courtship. The Bulls wound up with an inexperienced coach to lead a fairly talented, if disjointed team that featured No. 1 draft pick Rose.
Del Negro didn't do a terrible job in his first season. The Bulls finished 41-41 and got into the playoffs as the eighth seed and gave basketball fans a series to remember, taking the defending champs to seven games. After a full offseason to digest his first season, Del Negro seemed relaxed and confident in his team, which lacked a go-to scorer but had plenty of energetic players, a resurgent Deng and of course, Rose, the reigning rookie of the year.
The season even started out OK, as Noah, now a legitimate NBA big man, sparked a rebounding revival while Rose worked his balky ankle in shape. But it has all gone downhill these past two weeks, and in the NBA, struggling coaches don't get the chance to turn it around, fair or not. Once you're on your way out, you're already gone.
With Ben Gordon in Detroit, the Bulls have had trouble scoring (28th in the league). They've played pretty good defense, but not good enough to make up for their dearth of points. And bad games keep snowballing. They have a league-high 22 back-to-backs this season, and already they are 0-4 in the second game of such situations and are 1-3 in the first game. Already depth-challenged, the Bulls have been playing short-handed, with Tyrus Thomas missing the past month with a fracture in his forearm and Kirk Hinrich missing six of Chicago's recent losses with a sprained thumb.
''It speaks for itself," Rose told reporters in Atlanta after the Bulls' season-low 35-point loss to Atlanta on Wednesday. "We're just not playing hard, not rebounding the ball as a team and playing our regular game.''
Rose's statement was crystal clear. The 7-13 team is in a real funk, and all the promise of another building season, as in building toward the 2010 free-agent class, is looking like preseason false hustle. Everyone is frustrated.
After the loss to the Hawks, Noah told reporters his team is "not competing together at all."
"Either you want it or you don't," Rose told the media. "Hustle, if you want it. Rebound. The score tonight speaks for itself. We're just not playing hard."
At practice, Deng, who has been through this before, was realistic about the situation.
"When things aren't going well," he said. "Change is going to happen somehow. It's just the way it is."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist with ESPNChicago.com.
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss