The curious future of Vinny Del Negro

The Bulls are in the midst of their patented early-season slump — going into tonight’s matchup the Golden State Warriors, they’ve lost nine of their last 10 games — and the villagers are lighting torches and sharpening their pitchforks.

“Fire Vinny!” has become a popular refrain. And he knows it.

Naturally, the press wants to know whether Vinny is worried about his future in Chicago. His take: “You guys worry about that stuff; I don’t. I talk to Gar [Forman, the Bulls’ general manager] every day. They understand how hard the staff’s working and what we’re trying to do. ‘That’s all you can do. You have to keep on moving along. As bad as it is, it’s still pro basketball and there’s a lot of positives. There’s no question there’s a challenge, but that’s what makes it interesting and worthwhile.”

Ever notice how often the word “interesting” pops up when bad things are happening? “Interesting” is almost never good.

More Vinny: “It’s easy to sit back on the sidelines and everyone has these great ideas and people think they know what they’re talking about. ”But until you live it and do it, no one has an idea. ‘All you guys have to write and do your jobs and come up with stories and things, and that’s all great and you have to do that. But you guys really don’t know what it’s like — you know what I mean? — because you’ve never done it.”

Fair enough. Of course, I’ve never actually slipped on a banana peel either, but I still know enough to avoid doing it.

Anyway, it’s not surprising to see the guillotines going up all over Chicago. When a team underperforms, the coach is usually called into question in various demeaning and sometimes profane ways. Those questions are often followed by an unceremonious axing by management. You know, the same guys who hired the coach and assembled the talent. Just ask Tim Floyd (who “resigned” on Christmas Eve in 2001), Bill Cartright (who was canned before December in 2003), or Scott Skiles (who got fired on Christmas Eve in 2007).

But although Del Negro hasn’t exactly set the coaching world on fire — and some of the rookie coaching mistakes he made last season were both obvious and embarrassing — here’s a question worth asking: Are these Bulls really underachieving?

Think about it. Even on paper, this wasn’t going to be a great team. In a best-case scenario, the Bulls had aspirations of above-averageness. The general consensus was Chicago could win 40-ish games and maybe compete for an “upper-lower seed” in the East (say fifth or sixth).

But even so, it was well-known that the Bulls had to 1) adjust to life without Ben Gordon and therefore develop a new team identity, 2) work Luol Deng back into the mix, 3) deal with any injuries that popped up (such as the ones suffered by Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas, plus the lingering aches and pains of Jannero Pargo), and 4) contend with a rather brutal schedule that was front-loaded with road games and includes a league-high 22 sets of back-to-backs.

Considering all that, it’s actually understandable the Bulls are struggling in the early going.

Of course, it hasn’t just been the losses that has the natives feeling all restless, it’s been the way the Bulls are losing. Blown out (and badly) at home by the Raptors, losing at home to the 1-19 New Jersey “Nyets,” not even competing after the first quarter in a loss to the Hawks in Atlanta. With the way they’ve played in their last few games, the these Bulls have been drawing rather fair comparisons to the Tim Floyd-era teams that failed win 50 games over three vomit-inducing seasons.

Losing is one thing. Appearing not to muster even a half-hearted effort is another.

So…what’s Rose’s take? “I don’t really know what to do. It’s all mental. Either you want it or don’t. It’s not about what plays we run or nothing. It’s about hustle. If want it, defend people and rebound. It’s all mental now.” When asked whether the players “wanted it” against the Hawks, Rose added: “It speaks for itself. We’re just not playing hard, not rebounding the ball as a team and playing our regular game.”

For his part, Rose doesn’t sound like somebody who’s quitting on his coach. Are the rest of the Bulls doing it, though? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just quitting on themselves, which can happen when a team is slumping. It’s hard to go all-out when everything is going wrong and everyone is out-of-sync.

That’s not to make excuses for the players, or for Vinny. But expectations must be grounded in reality. And the reality is: this was a poorly constructed team (no low post presence, loads of players who rely on forced, long-distance two-point jump shots) that has been set back by injuries, scheduling, and a crisis of confidence.

Look, if the team management wants to go out and hire a better coach — assuming there’s someone who’s capable, ready, and available — I’m fine with that. More than fine, even. But firing Vinny without someone really good and very proven waiting in the wings is nothing more than prestidigitation, a way to distract fans from the many non-Vinny problems facing the Bulls, not only as a team, but as an organization.

Let’s face it, Doc Rivers looked like a bum of a coach before Danny Ainge gave him Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play with. I’m not defending Vinny…I’m just sayin’.


7 Responses to The curious future of Vinny Del Negro

    TexasBullsFan December 11, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    You know, I’ve called for Vinny’s head just as much as the next guy, but you actually make quite a few good points here. This team is pretty poorly constructed, and has been for years.

    Granted, I think Vinny will get the axe, and that right quick. Mostly because when a team is this bad, you can’t fire all the players. The coach is just a convenient scapegoat.

    All that said, I don’t like his coaching style, or lack thereof. Can anyone say what his strategy is? He wants the team to gang rebound, yet he also wants them to run. Those are two mutually exclusive ideas. Gang rebounding teams can’t run, and running teams can’t gang rebound. There are so many times in the half-court set where the ball just kind of sits there, no play running, no screens, no nothing. Everyone just kind of mills around like a 5th and 6th grade boys team just learning how to play as a team. So many times we settle for a wild jumpshot from deep 2-point range with 17 or 18 seconds on the clock. It’s like we didn’t even try to drive to the hoop or go down low.

    Suffice it to say, this team isn’t a champion without Del Negro. But the sure as hell aren’t champions with him.

    Tre Exel December 11, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    It pains me to watch the Bulls now. Though I think he deserves more of a fighting chance, his ego is definately a tad large. The guys look tired. And why James Johnson isnt getting meaningful minutes is beyond me. Maybe he’ll finally allow Tyrus Thomas to play ball when he returns.

    Tony C. December 11, 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    “Are these Bulls really underachieving?”

    Yes, unequivocally. They are underperforming individually, and as a team.

    No one is suggesting that a better coach would magically transform the current roster into a deep playoff team, but VDN’s weakness are both numerous and glaring. And frankly, I think the team would be better off without him even if they don’t find a reasonable replacement until the off-season.

    Vic De Zen December 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm #

    This is exactly what it sounds like just before a coach is fired.

    Kevin December 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    You make some terrific points, Matt. Although I do like the fact that us Chicagoans like to settle for noting but the best, I do prefer it when we see things for what they are – not what we want them to be. I whole-heartedly expected us to take a step back – such as we did in 06-07 (when some experts thought we might go to the Finals). I’m one of those guys that sees a team that can go the Finals or one that can’t – and this is one that can’t. This is a team that has some good pieces in place for the future. Let’s look at what we can do to mold this team to look like the ones that can go to the Finals now (Boston, the Lakers, the Magic, etc.) Vinny or no Vinny…..


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