Hired to be fired
Don't pity Del Negro; coaching is transitory, but Paxson better get next one right
If I could use one word to describe the world of Chicago sports, it would be "hype." Well, "hype" and "disappointment." From one comes the other. See Cutler, Jay.
In the City of Big Stories, everything is often more dramatic than it should be.
This was the perfect landing spot for a coach like Mike Ditka, for an athlete like Michael Jordan, for an icon of his time like Sammy Sosa.
Chicago may lack the glitz or worldwide appeal of Los Angeles or New York, but in its own wonderfully provincial way, this is still a headline town. Chicago: Where everything is in 50-point type. Chicago is where everyone is either hero or villain, genius or idiot. There is no in-between. Talk radio and tabloid covers and insta-news only feed our desire for bigger, louder, faster, instantaneous.
Milton Bradley wasn't just a misanthrope; he was the worst free-agent pickup ever. When things got rough, Cutler made Kyle Orton seem like John Elway by comparison. Like the Cubs in 2008, the Blackhawks seem to be setting themselves up for an epic fall.
In this city, you're either Michael Jordan or Kornel David, the best or the worst. Occasionally you have your Alfonso Soriano, who toes the line between amazing and awful.
So what exactly was Vinny Del Negro?
He was certainly not the worst coach the Bulls have ever had. Two playoff berths attest to that, no matter how much talent he had. No one is arguing that he was the best. He wasn't the best and he wasn't the worst, he was just, well, Vinny. That's what I'm going to call someone whose place in life is indefinable: "He's just very Vinny at his job."
What did people expect from him, as a first-year head coach, in the way of game management? I can write a column, but I wouldn't know how to run a magazine. So it's not a surprise he would find himself bereft of timeouts when he needed them most, or that he didn't fully comprehend the intricacies of substitutions.
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OK, there's seemingly no excuse for limiting Derrick Rose's fourth-quarter minutes his rookie season, but look how much Rose progressed under Del Negro. He won a rookie of the year award and was an All-Star in his second year. How much better could he have been?
Del Negro was hired to be fired, and there should be no consternation over the unfairness of the act, which will be announced Tuesday, a source tells ESPNChicago.com. Del Negro's firing does not signify some kind of irrevocable schism in the organization that was heretofore unknown. John Paxson has always been, and will always be, a hothead. That's how he's wired. That he had an altercation with his coach proves only that both of them cared about this team and that they didn't get along.
To that, I say, big deal.
We talk a lot about Del Negro's weaknesses, but what about his strengths?
Mostly, Del Negro let this team blossom on its own and find its own voice. In a talent-friendly league in which coaches can ruin chemistry and careers with micromanagement, that makes him a legitimate candidate for another job. A perfect coach lets his team breathe but knows when to tighten the leash. Del Negro isn't quite there yet. But Kirk Hinrich said Del Negro was the perfect coach for this team at this time, and I believe him, though losses like the one against the Nets late in the season don't do much to enhance Del Negro's legacy as game manager and fount of inspiration.
''We had kind of a loose group," Hinrich said. "Vinny kind of fit the bill for us. He let you be who you are and expects you to go out there every night and compete hard, and that's what we tried to do.''
Down the stretch, as the Bulls fought back to relevance after their injury streak, some credited Del Negro for the team's pluck, even with the head-scratching losses.
Let's be clear here: The Bulls weren't playing for Vinny. They were playing for themselves. They were playing for Joakim Noah, the undisputed leader of this team, and Hinrich, the cagey veteran. They played hard because Rose sets the pace. They played hard because no one wants to be embarrassed, and most still love basketball.
These guys weren't totally indifferent to Del Negro's future. If he had been axed in December, as it was rumored, the scuttlebutt would've carried on for a bit, and then they would've moved on. Now they'll carry on without him during this summer of transition that could catapult this franchise back to contention and national significance.
None of the core players reported any real friction with Del Negro, and nothing leaked out. The organization's beef with him seemed to be his overreliance on using Noah, who was coming back from plantar fasciitis, to win games.
But Noah has consistently talked positively about his Vinny experience, and he should show at least cosmetic loyalty.
Noah had a rocky rookie year playing for a disgruntled Scott Skiles and an overmatched Jim Boylan. Noah blossomed in his two years under Del Negro, going from project to legit post presence and heart and soul of the team.
Rose, perhaps the most important athlete in this city since Jordan, certainly wasn't hampered by Del Negro's tutelage.
If you ask me, the Del Negro experience went better than expected. But I'm sure not crying over his dismissal, which brings me to the contrarians among us.
There are those who think Del Negro is getting the rawest of deals. That he deserves another year to finish out his contract because his teams made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference two years running, and not by much.
The Bulls owe him nothing but the money due to him in his contract. In fact, he owes a lot to this organization, something he's stated time and time again as he cruised the High Road, wind whipping his raven locks. The Bulls did him a huge favor by giving him a chance to coach this team.
I'm still amazed the organization gave a guy with zero coaching experience a job at the top tier of basketball for one of the best teams in the sport. Tape of Del Negro's winning interview should be played on a loop at the Hall of Fame in his hometown of Springfield, Mass.
But in a way, it worked, didn't it? Rose is on his way to stardom, and Noah has emerged as the team leader. Taj Gibson has rounded out into a nice complementary player. Talents like those are rare, while coaches like Del Negro are disposable.
In the NBA, one man's Karrine Steffans is another man's Dwane Casey. NBA teams try them out and kick them to the curb, and on it goes.
If Del Negro were a modern-day Stan Albeck, fired in part because he mishandled Jordan's second-year injury minutes, the lingering question is: Can the Bulls find another Phil Jackson?
Paxson had his man once, Skiles, but that didn't work, another example of the transitory nature of NBA coaches. Paxson, the guard known for hitting big shots, now has his moment in the spotlight -- if he too doesn't get canned, which seems unlikely considering Jerry Reinsdorf's penchant for loyalty. Paxson has to pick the perfect coach and try to land the perfect free agent.
We don't hear much from Paxson anymore, but we'll be able to see whether he has what it takes to make this team a winner once again. And starting Tuesday, we won't have Vinny Del Negro to kick around any longer.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.