Commentary

Del Negro: Does rally save him for now?

Updated: December 23, 2009, 1:35 AM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Derrick RoseNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerrick Rose and the Bulls scored just 12 points in the first quarter against the Knicks.

NEW YORK -- The Chicago Bulls played poorly enough in the first half to cost Vinny Del Negro his job, then well enough in the second half to save it.

So where does that leave Del Negro on the eve of Christmas Eve -- aka this decade's doomsday for Bulls' coaches?

Just a guess, but an educated one: There's probably a little better than a 50-50 chance that Del Negro is wrapping presents rather than packing boxes on the night before Christmas (which also is the night the Bulls fired former coaches Scott Skiles and Tim Floyd).

I would not have made that strong a statement at halftime, when the Bulls were down by 22 and looking even more lifeless than they were in the closing 18 minutes of their previous night's game, when they blew a 35-point lead and lost to the Sacramento Kings in one of the most epic collapses in NBA history.

But they came back strong in this one after Del Negro benched starters John Salmons and Brad Miller to start the second half, and they pulled within one point in the final minute Tuesday night before losing 88-81 to the host New York Knicks.

"Mentally, as a team, we're not very good," was one of the most damning comments to emerge from the postgame locker room, coming out of the mouth of Joakim Noah after his 10 points and 21 rebounds weren't enough to prevent Chicago from losing for the 13th time in its past 17 games. "I always try to say you can't get too high and you can't get too low, and Monday was very low. Hopefully, we can find a way to get better and find a way to play with high energy instead of just in periods."

It would be fair to say that the Bulls got a full night's effort from only three players -- Noah, Derrick Rose (26 points) and Luol Deng (23 points). Miller laid his second straight goose egg (zero points and just one rebound in 13 minutes), and Salmons made only two field goals in scoring seven points. Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and rookie James Johnson were OK off the bench, but OK isn't cutting it for a team that set the expectations bar fairly high coming into this season after pushing the defending champion Boston Celtics to a seventh game in their first-round series last season.

And in totality, things are far from OK in Chicago.

The Bulls are 29th (out of 30 teams) in scoring and field goal percentage, and the only teams being outscored by a wider margin are the Nets and Timberwolves.

Of Chicago's 17 losses, 13 have been by seven or more points -- including seven by 19 or more.

"It's got to be mental. That's the only thing that's holding us back: mental," Rose said. "You could have told us at the beginning of the year that we could compete with some of the best teams in the league, but for us come out here and let them get the lead like that, or lose last night, that's not the same way we came into this year mentally.

The lopsided nature of many of the recent defeats (especially a 32-point loss against Toronto, a 35-point cataclysm against the Hawks and a 26-point defeat against the Lakers -- and you can't forget about the Bulls' home loss to the woeful Nets) were what left Del Negro's job security hanging by a thread nine days ago. But a good effort against the Lakers and victories over the Knicks and Hawks seemed to stabilize his status.

Until now.

"It comes with the job, it warrants criticism -- especially a game like last night," Del Negro said when questioned before the game about his status. "Oh, I'm confident; I go about my business every day and go to work and try to help this team win, develop our young players, and I feel we've done that on a consistent basis. We've had some bumps in the road, no question, but the guys are playing, we have good character on this team, and I have confidence we'll continue to play well and try to improve every time we step on the court."

But that confidence had to have been shattered in the first half when Chicago managed only 31 points, including a paltry 12 in the first quarter, although the signs of life in the second half were encouraging.

The question now is whether that second half was encouraging enough to keep owner Jerry Reinsdorf from placing a phone call to management to tell those folks it is once again time for a coaching change, the holidays be damned.

If that happens, notoriously frugal Reinsdorf will be paying three coaches -- Del Negro, Skiles (whose buyout was spread over several years) and whoever the replacement might be.

And if you want a guess as to who that replacement might be (and believe me, there is a lot of guessing going on -- even inside the Bulls' locker room), we'll give you five names to ponder: Bernie Bickerstaff, Pete Myers or Bob Ociepka, assistants who can slide one seat over and play the role formerly occupied by Jim Boylan; Byron Scott, the recently fired former coach of the New Orleans Hornets whose presence would be seen as an asset when the Bulls go out recruiting a max-salary free agent next summer; and Doug Collins, who turned down the job two years ago before Del Negro was hired and declared he'd never, ever, ever coach the Chicago Bulls again. According to those close to him, Collins is not speaking in those kinds of absolutes anymore.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.