Firing Del Negro convenient but wrong
Paxson-Vinny relationship is broken, but dysfunction isn't always bad
Don't do it, Pax.
I know you want to. I know it's the easy thing to do. I know you probably made up your mind months ago. But firing Vinny Del Negro would be a mistake that will come back to haunt you and the Chicago Bulls.
Nine times out of 10, I'm a John Paxson guy. I liked the way he played, liked the way he did color commentary, and generally have liked the way he's run the Bulls as general manager and now executive vice president of operations.
But Paxson and Del Negro are almost certainly headed to basketball divorce court because of supposed irreconcilable differences. Dumb move. Find a marriage counselor.
Generally speaking, it isn't a team-building moment when your executive VP angrily confronts your head coach after a March 30 home game and later grabs him by the tie and shoves him, as Yahoo! Sports first reported.
And, as ESPNChicago.com's Melissa Isaacson reported Wednesday, Del Negro has reportedly had his meltdown moments too, including a heated confrontation with Bulls GM Gar Forman. An in-house investigation is under way.
Still, this strangeness shouldn't automatically mean the relationship, whatever is left of it, can't be repaired to working condition. At the very least, a truce can be reached.
By now everyone knows Paxson was steamed that Del Negro violated a minutes limit on Bulls center Joakim Noah's playing time. Noah, almost as vital to the Bulls as Derrick Rose, has dealt with plantar fasciitis injury issues for large chunks of the season.
It wasn't the first time Del Negro had played Noah longer than ordered. And it wasn't the last time this idea of putting a stopwatch on Noah's minutes would create chaos and tension.
Think about the dynamic: Noah, who's wired to compete, wants to play as much as he can -- and said so publicly and privately. Del Negro, who's clinging to his job and the Bulls' playoff hopes, wants to win. Paxson, who's juggling the present and the future, wants to win without jeopardizing the long-term health of one of his best young players.
The problem is that Paxson and Forman attached Del Negro to a clothesline last December and hung him out to dry. When reports surfaced that Del Negro was history at season's end, Paxson and Forman barely waved a fly swatter at the story. Del Negro fumed.
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So what do you do four months later if you're Del Negro, and you're trying to squeeze your team into the playoffs as the eighth seed, and you're fighting for your job, and you know a couple of extra minutes of Noah here and there can make a difference? And how exactly are you supposed to coach a team when you have to call your bosses during a game to ask for permission to play Noah in overtime?
The entire arrangement was doomed to fail. Paxson and Forman put Del Negro in a lose-lose situation. If he plays Noah too much, he's selfish and wrong. If he doesn't play Noah, though, he gets beat and he's wrong.
Paxson could have diffused this situation in December by either firing Del Negro then or offering a much, much stronger endorsement of his coach. And if you're worried about Noah that much, then either shut him down or let him play until he says he can't. This other way -- having team doctors dictate his exact playing time -- was guaranteed to create problems.
Somehow Del Negro has kept the Bulls in the playoff chase. He lost his best scorer (Ben Gordon) to free agency. He lost the guy (John Salmons) who was supposed to replace the best scorer in a February trade to Milwaukee. He lost the former No. 4 overall 2006 draft pick (the enigmatic Tyrus Thomas) to injury early in the season and then to a February trade to Wednesday night's opponent, the Charlotte Bobcats.
He lost Noah (18 games), Rose (four games), Kirk Hinrich (seven games) and Luol Deng (12 games) to assorted injuries during the season. Total Bulls player games missed to injury and/or illness this season: 158. He started a rookie (Taj Gibson).
And somewhere during all of this, Del Negro lost Paxson's support. The reasons have to be -- or better be -- more complicated than Noah's minutes, right?
Back in 2008, Paxson saw something in Del Negro that convinced him to hire a guy who had never spent a nanosecond as an NBA head coach. Now, before he does something he regrets, it's time for Paxson to remember those same reasons.
Paxson, better than anyone, should know that dysfunction isn't necessarily a terrible thing. He played on three Bulls championship teams that thrived on the creative tension.
Phil Jackson versus Jerry Krause.
Krause versus Michael Jordan.
Krause versus everyone.
And as a former Bulls assistant coach and then broadcaster, Paxson saw the Bulls win three more NBA titles. They did it with nut job Dennis Rodman. With Steve Kerr and Jordan trading punches in practice. With the Phil/MJ versus management backdrop.
It happens. It probably happens more than we ever know. It happens because a basketball team and management are attached at the jerseys and pinstriped suits. Everything is tugged tighter than Del Negro's tie knot. Add in the pressures of trying to reach the playoffs and you have a Molotov cocktail. Noah's time limit was the match.
The convenient solution would be to fire Del Negro. Convenient, but wrong.
Don't you want a guy who keeps getting better as a coach? Don't you want a guy who clearly handled his situation with more grace and dignity than the people who hired him? Don't you want a guy who never complained, not once, about a roster compromised by injuries and management's miscalculations?
Del Negro isn't perfect. Not even close. But the same goes for Paxson, Forman and the team they assembled.
If Paxson, Forman and Del Negro are willing, this can be fixed. It won't be easy, but it will be worth the effort.
Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.