Best and worst coaching changes?

Originally Published: August 17, 2010
ESPN.com

Vinny Del Negro & Tom ThibodeauGetty ImagesVinny Del Negro, left, was given the boot for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, but quickly found work in L.A.

This offseason, seven teams, almost 25 percent of the league, changed coaches. To judge the judgment behind all of these sideline plays, we surveyed our panel of 93 NBA experts.

Which teams made the wisest and unwisest moves? Which are forecasted to benefit most and least from their new generals? Which bench rulings make sense, and which don't?

Answers found here:

2010-11 Forecast: Best Coaching Change


2010-11 Forecast: Worst Coaching Change


Chicago Bulls/Los Angeles Clippers

Matt McHale, By The Horns:

In two seasons with the Bulls, Vinny Del Negro led his team to back-to-back 41-win seasons and two playoff appearances. In 2009, VDN's Bulls pushed the defending champion Celtics to seven games in one of the best and most exciting playoff series ever. This year, the Bulls had a much-closer-than-expected five-game series against the 61-win Cavaliers and MVP LeBron James. And that was after management let the team's leading scorer (Ben Gordon) walk away in free agency and then traded away two valuable players (John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas) to create cap space.

Mind you, the year before Del Negro came to town, the Bulls won 33 games and missed the playoffs.

Yet at the end of those two reasonably successful seasons, VDN was run out of town so completely that the only thing missing was an angry mob armed with torches and pitchforks.

Truth be told, Del Negro never really had a chance. His hiring was met with a collective "Say what?!" by NBA experts and fans, and Del Negro never shook the perception that he was in over his head. It didn't help that he made rookie mistakes (such as benching his franchise player, Derrick Rose, during the fourth quarter of some close games) and never figured out how to call successful plays out of timeouts. But when the Bulls were struggling in 2008-09, he won by making them a scoring team. When they lost Gordon in the summer of 2009, he won by making them one of the league's better defensive units. His teams overcame adversity and injuries. They were competitive.

It wasn't enough.

VDN was labeled a stooge -- Larry, Curly and Vinny just sounds right, doesn't it? -- and that label stuck like somebody had slapped it on with Krazy Glue. It stuck in part because his team kept splattering against a glass ceiling -- although it could be argued that the Bulls were facing a talent deficit relative to other teams -- and also because management never fully backed him up, as evidenced from an alleged physical confrontation with executive VP of basketball operations John Paxson.


Now he's the head coach of the most dysfunctional, longest-suffering team in NBA history. In many ways, Del Negro was born to coach the Clippers. Neither coach nor team has ever been able to earn respect. For that reason, it makes sense that Vinny is the loser in both halves of our "best/worst coaching change" survey.

New Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is at the opposite end of the respect spectrum. As it was for Del Negro, the Bulls gig is Thibodeau's first head coaching position. Unlike Del Negro, though, Thibs has a long and storied past as an assistant, most recently as the architect of Boston's iron-walled defense. In the last three seasons, the Celtics have made two trips to the NBA Finals and won a championship and most people credit Thibodeau's defense as a key reason the C's have enjoyed so much success.

So while VDN was seen as a placeholder (at best) or a clownish fall guy (at worst), Thibs is perceived to be a basketball junkie who paid his dues before becoming a defensive genius and proven winner. That perception earned him a head coaching job with the Bulls and has -- along with the acquisitions of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans -- encouraged high expectations in the Windy City.

Perception is a funny thing. In professional sports, there are winners and losers. Losers can only become winners by winning. Four years ago, Doc Rivers was where Del Negro is today. During the 2006-07 season, while the Celtics were stumbling to a 24-58 record, many prominent columnists forecasted Rivers' demise, condemning his coaching skills in critiques similar to those applied to Del Negro now.

Of course, the Celtics never fired Doc. They gave him Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, then watched him rewrite his rep to the point that many people proclaimed Rivers soundly outcoached Phil Jackson in the 2008 Finals.

As for Del Negro? All he was given by the Bulls was his walking papers. Now he's coaching the Clippers. Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon aren't exactly Allen, Garnett and Paul Pierce. And the Clippers are, well, the Clippers, so don't expect to see that stooge label get peeled off anytime soon. If (or perhaps when) the Clippers fail, people will expect it and VDN will get the blame (and probably the ax). On the other hand, every season is a new opportunity. We'll see if Vinny can take advantage of the low expectations.

Thibs, meanwhile, has two All-Stars in Rose and Boozer, not to mention plenty of complementary talent. If the Bulls have a great season, Thibodeau will get his due credit. But I can't help but wonder: After winning 41 games and making the playoffs with a gutted roster last season, don't you think Del Negro would have loved to coach the Bulls this season?

• For more on the Bulls and Clippers, check out our TrueHoop Network blogs By The Horns and ClipperBlog.



Atlanta Hawks

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion:

It's easy to understand skepticism over the Hawks' hiring of Larry Drew as their new head coach. As with any first-time head coach, Drew carries a certain burden of proof. But a larger share of the doubt appears to be cast upon (and reasonably so) those who made the decision and the degree to which they've presented Drew an opportunity to succeed.

The length of the coaching search did nothing to minimize the impression that Drew was not the first choice for the job. But the nature of the search said more about the organization than it did about Drew. The three fractious groups that collectively own the Hawks simply don't make decisions quickly. Two summers ago, 38 days elapsed between the season's end and the offer of a second contract to former head coach Mike Woodson. This summer, management moved relatively quickly, by its standards, squeezing interviews with Drew, Avery Johnson, Dwane Casey and Mark Jackson into a 28-day period between announcing that Woodson would not be offered a third contract and introducing Drew as his replacement.

That Drew served as an assistant to Woodson for each of Woodson's six seasons in Atlanta hasn't kept the organization from focusing on how different Drew will be. Granted, it's difficult to imagine any head coach being as tactically stubborn and reactive as Woodson was. But it's also difficult to imagine how different Drew can be given that he'll be working with essentially the same roster that has never finished better than 12th in the league in defensive efficiency and failed to put up much of a fight in successive second-round playoff series.

The biggest change Drew promises is a shift from Woodson's isolation-heavy offense to a motion system. Theoretically and aesthetically, it's a welcome change, though there are practical concerns. As stagnant and predictable as Woodson's half-court offense could be, especially late in games and/or against top defenses, over the course of the 2009-10 regular season, the Hawks were the league's third-most-efficient offense. The lack of ball and player movement made turnovers rare, and the Hawks compensated for their rather ordinary field goal shooting with excellent offensive rebounding. Essentially, the Hawks chose shot volume over shot quality and, more often than not, that choice paid dividends during the regular season.

There's the rub. Drew (commendably) is taking a season-long approach to implementing what he envisions as a positive change. But will the players, who appeared quite willing to tune out Woodson in the postseason, stick with something different and difficult if both the rookie head coach and his offensive system fail to hit the ground running? If the players do resist, how strongly will the organization support a head coach signed to the shortest and cheapest contract (just two years and $2.5 million of Drew's three-year, $5 million deal is guaranteed) in the league against those who take up the bulk of the team's cap space through the 2013 season? And, if the team doesn't do a better job of stopping its opponents from scoring, how much will any offensive changes even matter?

• For more on the Hawks, check out our TrueHoop Network blog Hoopinion.



New Jersey Nets

Sebastian Pruiti, Nets Are Scorching:

The hiring of Avery Johnson should bring stability to the Nets at the coaching position, something they didn't see last season when they had three coaches sit in the first seat, including Kiki Vandeweghe, who had no formal coaching experience at any level.

In his four-plus years as a head coach, Avery Johnson amassed an NBA-record .735 win percentage, going 194-70 with the Dallas Mavericks. While Johnson has developed a reputation as a defensive-minded coach, his ability to coach offense usually goes unmentioned, and that is a shame since he excels on that side of the court as well.

In his three full seasons with the Mavs, Avery's team had an offensive rating of 111.8 (first in the NBA), 111.3 (second), and 111.1 (eighth). This wasn't due to a run-and-gun offense, either, as the highest pace (possessions per game) his Mavs played at during his three seasons was 90.2 (24th). This tells me that Johnson can draw up sets with the best of them, and with the Nets being built for the half court, they will have a chance to be much more efficient this season.

So while the defense is getting all the attention, it's what Avery Johnson can bring to the offensive end that should have Nets fans excited.

• For more on the Nets, check out our TrueHoop Network blog Nets Are Scorching.

Click here for the complete list of voters