Let's be Frank about Bulls' search
Former Nets coach fits all the criteria Chicago is looking for in its next coach
CHICAGO -- I'm not sure if the day before Cinco de Mayo is considered a holiday, but for many Bulls fans, it will be known as Día Vinny fue despedido.
Vinny Del Negro was officially, cleaning-out-his-office dismissed on May 4, which falls in line with the Bulls' day-before-a-holiday trend.
Those who wanted crystal-clear answers and a deathbed confessional on the March 30 John Paxson-Del Negro altercation at the Bulls' Vin-sanity news conference Tuesday were left wanting.
Surprisingly, Paxson, the vice president of basketball operations/High-Paid Consultant/No. 1 Vinny Accoster, did make a long-delayed appearance in front of reporters and was about as candid as he could be, given the situation. He seemed genuinely sorry that he embarrassed the organization, and probably his own legacy, by confronting his coach. He apologized for his behavior and lightly praised Del Negro for the job he did.
Before Paxson spoke, Gar Forman, the titular general manager in some minds, continued to make the case that he was leading the team this summer in its searches for marquee free agents and a head coach.
Forman didn't sound like a man in a hurry to select a new coach, telling reporters, and by proxy, the coaches and agents who had been clogging his inbox, that this search could stretch into July.
"In my mind, there's really not a rush to make a decision," Forman said. "I would hope we have something done by the time free agency comes around. But really I don't want to put us in a box. First of all, I've spent very little time thinking about that."
Really? Barely crossed your mind? I doubt that. Forman reiterated that the team wasn't looking to replace Del Negro in December, but if the organization really had faith in Del Negro then, when the Bulls went through a 1-9 drought, it would have squashed the rumors internally through leaks and background information. But now in May, you're saying the search could go two months?
July 1 is, of course, when the most awaited free-agent class in league history becomes free to mix and mingle with its lecherous suitors.
Are the Bulls really planning on waiting that long to hire a coach? Are they waiting out Phil Jackson, who is in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers?
Maybe. Or perhaps they're just setting the bar low after a dizzying 52-day search in 2008 that resulted in the hiring of Del Negro.
Paxson said of that 2008 search, "nobody knocked us out," which is another way of saying, "We settled for the cheap guy."
This year's list of free-agent coaches doesn't exactly correlate with the group of free-agent players. But there are some intriguing names on there, from Byron Scott to Maurice Cheeks to a guy who hasn't been getting a lot of attention, but should be, former New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank.
While everyone has known that Del Negro was a dead man coaching, the free-agency hunt has been a lot more fun to speculate about. But now that the Bulls are financially set for a big-name player, the decision is still largely out of their hands.
Forman can't convince Dwyane Wade to leave the life he's built in South Florida, away from his family and sheltered from a media blitz into his personal life (don't think that divorce won't be a major news story if he comes back), or convince Chris Bosh that playing with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah will result in playoff success. Forman can't hypnotize LeBron James into leaving his home of Akron/Cleveland for a chance to take on Michael Jordan's legacy.
What Forman and Paxson can control is who coaches this team. It's not as important as who plays for it, but it matters.
Personally, I'd be happy with Scott or Cheeks, two ex-players who have experienced some success as coaches; specifically Scott, who took New Jersey to consecutive NBA Finals and did a nice job at New Orleans before being the first coach axed this season.
But for some reason, I keep coming back to Frank. Maybe it's because I vividly remember his story in 2004, when he took over as head coach of the Nets for Scott.
Frank went to Indiana University specifically to be a student manager for Bobby Knight. If he wouldn't have gotten the gig, he would have transferred, he once said.
After graduation, he worked his way up the ladder the old-fashioned way, hitching his wagon to a coach's star, specifically the peripatetic Kevin O'Neill at Marquette and Tennessee. He then joined the coaching staff at the Vancouver Grizzlies until joining the Nets in 2000.
Frank, who turns 40 this summer and was recently in the news for an accidental swearing incident on ESPN's "First Take," has a career record of 225-241, though that number looks worse than it actually is. Frank was let go this season after an 0-16 start with an injury-riddled, talent-deficient team. The previous two seasons ended with identical 34-48 records. So that's 44 games under .500.
But before Jason Kidd got his wish to be traded in 2008, before the team traded Richard Jefferson to Milwaukee for Yi Jianlian in 2008, before Vince Carter was traded to Orlando in the summer of 2009, Frank made four straight playoff trips to start his NBA career. See a pattern there? (Frank responded to an e-mail that he was in Italy until the weekend, but wouldn't comment on whether he was interested in the job.)
His teams lost twice in the conference semifinals and twice in the first round. Then he was left to deal with a mélange of young and truculent players, and work for an owner in Bruce Ratner so desperate to move out of the Meadowlands, and perhaps land LeBron James to play in Brooklyn, the organization completely alienated what was left of its fan base. The marketing department worked tirelessly to draw people to games, but it was a tough sell.
Frank's demise in New Jersey is a common tale. Eventually players just stop listening and coaches can't find a way to reach them. That's why coaching changes in the NBA should be regarded as unique as tattoos in the league.
But even as the team foundered, there were some bright spots. Devin Harris had a breakout season in 2008-09 and Brook Lopez had a strong rookie campaign. The Bulls have upgrades to Harris and Lopez in Rose and Noah.
Frank is no Phil Jackson, but he's no Del Negro, either. Frank got his first head-coaching gig with New Jersey because general manager Rod Thorn thought the players, led by Kidd, had turned on Scott.
The Nets won 13 straight games to open Frank's tenure, so Thorn was correct. Frank got his veteran team to play hard for him, a trait that continued over the next three seasons.
Frank wasn't known for high-scoring teams, but no one wants this Bulls team to mimic a Don Nelson squad. Any coach would be foolish not to let Rose push the ball.
"We want to play with a flow, we want to be more up-tempo," Forman said. "We think that fits a lot of our players, Derrick in particular."
Frank's team ranked near the bottom in scoring for much of his Nets tenure, though to be fair, Kidd might be a worse jump shooter than Noah. Frank's last good team, in 2006-07, was his most offensively proficient, ranking 15th in the league at 97.6 points per game. The defense suffered a bit that season, going from sixth to 13th. Franks' first three teams were fourth and sixth (twice) in the league in defense. That's a sign of a good coach, and to be sure, Scott has had some great defensive teams as well.
The Bulls' defensive lapses are a bugaboo in the organization, and Rose especially needs to improve in that area. Still, there's promise. The Bulls were 13th in opponents' points per game at 99.1, and their defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was 11th at 105.3, according basketball-reference.com. Chicago gave up 100 or more points 32 times in regulation games, including 12 straight games from February to March, which coincided with a major rash of injuries and a 10-game losing streak.
"Obviously having a defensive base is of extreme importance," Forman said of the coaching search.
ESPNChicago.com Bulls blog
The latest news from Bulls reporter Nick Friedell. Blog
Thorn, who hired and fired Frank, wrote in an e-mail that Frank is a good X's and O's coach, a "leader" who "understands players." Most importantly, he called him an "outstanding candidate" for the job. Thorn basically described Frank as everything Forman is looking for in a coach.
"The main things that I'll look for in a coach are really accountability and leadership," Forman said. "Will experience be necessary? I don't want to put it in a box today ... but obviously a thorough knowledge of the NBA game, a thorough knowledge of NBA players, will be something that is factored into as we go along."
Frank is known as a coaching addict, someone who lives and breathes the game. A New York Times column by Ira Berkow noted that he had no idea who Howard Dean was during the 2004 presidential campaign and once asked his wife who the funny guy was on their airplane TV. It was Jerry Seinfeld.
Frank is never going to be rumored to enjoy the links more than the court, and he's got the relevant experience. I can't say that Frank is the perfect choice to coach the Bulls, but he's certainly not the wrong one.
"The biggest thing for players is a chance to win," Paxson said. "I think we have a great opportunity to present to anyone out there in a position to win for a long time. If we do the right things this summer, we're going to be in a terrific position for a long period of time."
As a famous Chicago coach once said, the pieces are in place. Let's hope it's true this time.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.