PER Diem: April 21, 2009
Vinny Del Negro is making rookie mistakes on the big stage. But he's in good company
It's a fitting irony: On the day when Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro ran out of timeouts for the second straight game, Cavs coach Mike Brown was named the league's coach of the year.
You see, in a lot of ways, Brown used to be Del Negro, and I think we can learn something about coaches from these two examples.
Three years ago, it was Brown who was running out of timeouts at the end of virtually every playoff game. And he was in a situation similar to the one the Bulls are in now -- his underdog Cavaliers were unexpectedly pushing Detroit to seven games in a second-round playoff series, and it was his first year on the job.
While he was doing that, of course, he also was being raked over the coals for several other dubious moves, and the second-guessing extended into questioning his moves even when they made sense.
Now in his fourth season, Brown doesn't make those kinds of blunders. Del Negro, as a rookie coach who has had no prior experience, does. Burning through timeouts has been a problem for him all season, as were his lineup choices until injuries and trades whittled his team down to a seven-man rotation that was virtually impossible to screw up.
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And on Monday night, his play calls out of timeouts weren't exactly complex things to diagram. You don't need a 30-second huddle to communicate "get Ben Gordon the ball and get the hell out of his way" to your team. Every NBA playbook has a "2 up" call or something similar that accomplishes this.
The reason I bring up Brown is to point out something a lot of fans don't consider: Coaches can be a lot like players. They have strengths and weaknesses, develop tendencies and can improve from year to year. Sometimes, they have good years and bad years -- a point driven home to me by living in Atlanta, where a single coach has been working for the past half decade.
Nonetheless, most fans and many analysts have but two piles for coaches: good and bad. Our views on players are far more nuanced, but for some reason coaches can be only geniuses or idiots. In truth, there's a whole lot of gray. Virtually every coach has a few things he does really well, and a few other areas where he's behind the curve.
Look at Brown. For three years, he was unmistakably a below-average offensive coach. He had a tremendous impact on the Cavs at the defensive end right from the get-go, but his offensive system basically consisted of slow-developing screen-and-rolls and isolations for LeBron James and the occasional post-up for Zydrunas Ilgauskas. When it worked, it was mostly because of James' brilliance, but even with LeBron in the lineup, the Cavs were around the league average in offensive efficiency during his first three seasons.
Brown's solution this season was to outsource the offense to assistant John Kuester, much as Doc Rivers turned his defense over to assistant Tom Thibodeau a year ago to spark Boston's march to the title. Brown's move has worked brilliantly -- the Cavs finished this season fourth in offensive efficiency and improved by 21 games.
Yes, it helped Cleveland's offense to insert Mo Williams and have more or less the full roster available, without the damaging holdouts of the previous season. But beyond that, the Cavs' offense is visibly more active, more flowing and less predictable, and that has made James even more of a threat than ever.
What we don't know, of course, is whether Del Negro will reach that point. Some coaches, just like some players, never progress.
And of course, there are a great many elements of coaching besides timeout management. The teaching that happens at practice leads to day-to-day improvement, and demanding accountability produces maximum effort. These things are completely out of view to most of us, yet are probably the most important pieces of a coach's job.
This isn't to excuse Del Negro's rookie mistake Monday night -- the Bulls had a great opportunity to take a 2-0 lead back to Chicago but never got a good final look at the rim thanks to their lack of a timeout at the end. But let's not forget that Del Negro's team finished the season 18-11 and won the series opener on the road against the defending champs, or that young big men Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas have improved noticeably during the season. Presumably, there were reasons for this.
Coaches need repetition as much as players, especially when it comes to game strategy, and Del Negro didn't have any coaching reps at any level entering his maiden season as Bulls coach. Clearly, there were going to be some bumps along the way, and most likely more will come.
But if there's one thing Bulls fans can take solace in, it's that one of the league's premier coaches was making a lot of the same mistakes just three years ago. With any luck, Del Negro will show similar progress.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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