Commentary

Full-court mess

Del Negro may be haunted by Bulls' ghost of Christmas past after epic loss

Updated: December 22, 2009, 2:54 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- One of the great benefits of our fast-food news culture is the digital refuse that is left behind. News may come fast and furious, but it leaves a telling history.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
Christophe Elise/Icon SMIBulls forward Joakim Noah couldn't believe his team blew a 35-point lead to the Kings.

On Monday night, Twitter offered a running commentary of a game one had to see to believe, and most probably didn't. ESPNChicago.com Bulls reporter Nick Friedell tracked a game the Bulls dominated from the tip and eventually led by 35 points. Expressing severe boredom at times, Friedell noted the Dunkin' Donuts race on the scoreboard was more exciting.

Turn off the TV, right? There's a "Mad Men" DVD with your name on it. A book that needs to be cracked. A wife who needs attention.

Not long after Don Draper refused McCann Erickson's generous offer in 1960, Friedell tweeted "The Bulls are trying to blow this one ... The lead is down to 7 -- the boo birds are out @unitedcenter ... The strangest game I think I've ever seen. Bulls blow a 35 point lead. Lose to the Kings."

It was a game meant for Twitter, as the highs and lows are documented in real time.

In the second-biggest choke job in NBA history, the Bulls lost a 35-point third-quarter lead -- 79-44 with 8:50 to play -- to Sacramento, ending in an embarrassing 102-98 loss.

Was it the unraveling of the Vinny Del Negro era? A clear sign that the players were tuning out their coach?

As signs go, it doesn't bode well for the beleaguered Bulls coach. After torching the Kings in the first half, the Bulls were outscored 33-10 in the fourth. It takes more than Twitter to decipher that stretch.

But it's hard to blame him alone for the Bulls' epic collapse. In a perfect world, the players should be the scapegoats. How can they allow that to happen?

"It's a nonchalant attitude," Derrick Rose told reporters.

But this isn't a perfect world. In the NBA, coaches are disposable and take the blame when teams struggle. And certainly this loss isn't a blip. The Bulls (10-16), playing short-handed most of the time, have been execrable for more than a month. This is a team that lost 11 of 13 in a stretch, losing by 33 to Toronto earlier this month and giving New Jersey its second win three days later.

Beating Atlanta a few days ago, that was the exception. The Kings loss, as unlikely as it was, is the norm.

"This one stings," Del Negro told reporters after the game. "We stopped being aggressive, got a little complacent there and they jumped on it. We're not good enough to take a minute off, never mind a half."

[+] EnlargeTyreke Evans
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesTyreke Evans scored 23 points to help fuel the Kings' comeback.

Del Negro will get the brunt of the blame, as he should. As head coach, he is ultimately responsible for the individuals who comprise his team. He calls the plays, he makes adjustments. Rose maybe a superstar in the making, but he's a second-year player just old enough to drink.

Certainly after this loss, he deserved one.

NBA games, as the saying goes, are won or lost in the fourth quarter. In the old Continental Basketball Association, the Bulls would have received some points for their efforts in the first half. In the NBA, it's just more embarrassment.

"Everybody's down," Luol Deng said after the game. "It's a tough loss knowing that you should have won, and knowing that you played well [for] three quarters and just didn't finish the game."

The Bulls have been one of the best rebounding teams in the league all season, but the effort in other areas has been atrocious, and in many ways, the team's deficiencies at guard have crippled the on-court chemistry. After all, the greatest play in the world is putting the ball in the basket.

While the Bulls hit the boards hard, they're near the bottom in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage, all signs of a dearth at guard.

The Bulls did just that through three quarters, going into the fourth with a 19-point lead before getting outworked by reserve Ime Udoka and star rookie Tyreke Evans. On offense, the Bulls threw the ball away and forget the aforementioned golden rule.

You can't pin this one entirely on the players or the coach. Del Negro hasn't had a full roster in more than a month. Injured forward Tyrus Thomas could return this weekend, but he's missed six weeks. The Bulls were 3-2 when he broke a bone in his forearm during pull-ups and will get a big boost when he comes back.

Two weeks after Thomas' injury, with Kirk Hinrich temporarily sidelined, the Bulls started their 7-14 nosedive in earnest. The Bulls have little depth, playing a seven-man rotation, with cold-shooting guard Jannero Pargo and rookie forward James Johnson getting scant minutes. Even if the Bulls coalesce, do they have the firepower to matter come springtime?

The Bulls were coming off consecutive wins over New York and Atlanta, so do you blame Del Negro, a curious and cheap choice to coach in the first place? Or do you blame a front office that didn't replace Ben Gordon (or re-sign him and taste the luxury tax) in order to set up the team for the so-called free-agent bonanza of 2010? Or is it the players, some of whom quit on Scott Skiles two years ago?

It would be very easy to fire Del Negro now, and to be honest, the team isn't going to fall apart without him at the helm. When Skiles was "fired" (he was amenable to leaving) on Christmas Eve two years ago, the team was in disarray and the Bulls sleepwalked through the rest of the season when Skiles assistant Jim Boylan was promoted to interim head coach.

The players won't be as shaken this time out. They like Del Negro -- Rose has spoken of his guidance in maturing as an NBA point guard -- but he's not Skiles, and they have little connection to him. Del Negro has a firing-friendly, three-year deal with one more season remaining. The former player had never coached anywhere before getting the gig in lieu of higher-priced coaches, coming from the Phoenix Suns' front office. Before that, he was a radio guy.

Del Negro took the opportunity to realize his coaching goal before he was ready. How many coaches became successes without serving as an assistant? Larry Brown and Red Auerbach come to mind. Maybe he'll be a top-notch head coach one day, but Del Negro is not quite there.

There's no guarantee the team won't dump him if the Bulls land a big-name free agent this summer, a realistic scenario. He has no ties to the organization, no history to back him up.

Tim Floyd "quit" on Christmas Eve and Skiles, too, was jettisoned on the holiday. Would the Bulls Scrooge another coach?

From a PR standpoint, it would look tacky to send Del Negro packing on Dec. 24. From a timing standpoint, it would make sense. The Bulls play at New York on Tuesday (they're 0-5 in the second game of back-to-backs in a season in which they play 22), and then have five of the next six days off, with a home date against New Orleans in the middle. They won't have a break like that until All-Star time in February.

Byron Scott, fired this year after a 3-6 start in New Orleans, is out there, working for ESPN. Former Nuggets and Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff is on Del Negro's staff.

As the Bulls fly into New York, Del Negro must be wondering what he is coming back to.

"It's frustrating. It's difficult," he told reporters. "But what are you going to do, put your head down and feel sorry for yourself? You've got to go play."

The Bulls have to play, but he doesn't have to coach them. That's the reality. After their performance against Sacramento, the Bulls certainly know nothing is for sure.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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