Vinny, Vidi, Arrivederci
Del Negro may be out soon, but is he the real problem in Chicago?
by Bryan Crawford
I think it’s pretty obvious that when it comes to Vinny Del Negro, it’s not a matter of if, but when he’ll be let go as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. After going .500 in his first season as a basketball coach on any level, and then taking the defending world champion Boston Celtics to the brink of elimination in the Playoffs, the choice the Bulls brass made in making him the teams head man didn’t seem so bad after all.
Now in season two, Del Negro has a record of 11-17 and his coaching seat has suddenly become white hot and the calls for his firing have become deafeningly loud. I’ve done my share of Vinny bashing like everybody else, but I also recognize that what’s going in Chicago isn’t entirely his fault. Yes, he deserves a large share of the blame for the Bulls underachievement on the court, but looking at in anatomical terms, management is the brain, the coach is the heart, and the players are the body. The brain controls everything and if that ain’t right, nothing else works properly. This is the issue with the Chicago Bulls. They’re about to do another—albeit necessary—heart transplant on this very young body, but the real problem is up top where the decisions are made.
Vinny Del Negro walked into a situation in Chicago where he was given the keys to—for arguments sake—a pretty good team. Yes they missed the playoffs in ’07-08, but they did make it to the postseason the previous three years and the core of the squad was pretty much the same. Vinny also walked into a situation where the Bulls had taken Derrick Rose with the top pick in the NBA draft which isn’t a bad situation to be in either. Finally, Vinny walked onto a team that had Ben Gordon who was far and away his best player and one of the top fifteen or twenty guys in the entire league. I mean, there aren’t a lot of guys in the NBA who can get you 30+ on any given night and VDN had one of those guys in BG. It wasn’t a great situation mind you, but there have been a lot of first year coaches who’ve inherited worse.
Those were the positives. The only real negative working against Vinny when he took the job—other than his lack of experience—was the situation his best player had with management that caused a big time rift and caused the relationship between the two to suffer irreparable damage. Like Allen Iverson in Detroit then and Shaquille O’Neal in Cleveland now, Ben Gordon was essentially a one year rental for Chicago last season. He wasn’t playing for the organization or its new coach; he was on a different mission. He was going for dolo. He was playing for zeroes. He wanted to show the front office what they had and what they were about to let walk out of the door. That situation had nothing to do with Vinny, but you have to play the hand that you’re dealt.
On July 1, 2009 the Chicago Bulls lost Ben Gordon in free agency to the Detroit Pistons. It’s one thing to see your best player walk away, but it’s another to watch him walk to a team not only in the same division, but to a team who’s been your mortal enemy for the better part of twenty years! But that’s not on Vinny, that part of the blame goes straight to the top to Jerry Reinsdorf, John Paxson, and Gar Forman who all failed to recognize and fairly compensate BG for what he brought to the team and all that he’d done for it. They tried to downplay Gordon’s departure by publicly declaring their faith in the ability of the other guys on the squad to be able to step up and fill that void. They made Vinny sing the same song. But anybody with common sense knew that this team didn’t have one single guy who could do what Gordon did for them offensively. Not even the new face of the franchise, Derrick Rose.
To make matters worse, that summer the front office sat back and watched as other teams throughout the League got better and they didn’t make one single move in the direction of being able to field a competitive team. Instead, they put all the pressure on the existing guys to work their tails off over the summer and to the player’s credit, they did just that. But hard work broke the tractor and killed the mule. Yes, you have to work hard, but sometimes you have to work smart too and the guys wearing the suits and making all of the decisions didn’t do that and they put their team at a competitive disadvantage in the process.
Former Bulls GM Jerry Krause famously said that organizations win championships, and he was almost right. Players win championships, but organizations build championship teams. The squad that Reinsdorf, Paxson, and Forman all had a hand in putting together is like looking at a house that was built without blueprints. Eventually, it’s going to fall down.
This current group of Bulls players isn’t exactly what you would call a team either. It’s an assembly of random parts that don’t mesh or work well together. But this is the point where the head coach becomes responsible. Yes, you can only work with what you’ve been given and yes, you can only coach what you have, but you want to know the difference between a good coach and one who isn’t? A good coach makes adjustments and Vinny hasn’t done that at all in year two. The basic, HS style, three man weave offense that he installed last season was perfect because it all ran through Ben Gordon. In fact, it was an offense tailor made for a guy like Gordon who with his bounce, could come off those quick screens and make something happen for himself or open things up for other guys to make plays because he was such a threat and defenders had to honor him.
But when you’ve already spent a year coaching this team and you know that you don’t have a weapon like Gordon coming back, you should at least be familiar enough with your existing personnel to be able to put together lineups, and draw up plays and sets to capitalize on the strengths of your team. This is where Vinny fails as a head coach and where the blame starts to fall on him.
Over the summer, he asked his players to work hard but he didn’t work hard on making one single adjustment to his system (if you want to call it that) that would capitalize on the strengths of guys like Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. Instead, he’s running the same offense (if you want to call it that) with John Salmons in Ben Gordon’s old spot and there’s no way he can produce offensively the way BG can. To make matters worse, instead of recognizing his own failures as a coach and taking responsibility for them, he’s started placing all of the blame on his player’s shoulders like he did on Monday night when the Bulls collapsed and lost a 35 point lead and the game to the Sacramento Kings by declaring, “Players win games. You have to execute.”
Those kinds of comments won’t endear you to a group of guys who have long since stopped playing for you Vinny. Besides, there’s plenty he could’ve done himself not just in that game, but in a number of others too.
When teams fail to reach their potential, all of the blame is placed on the head coach’s shoulders and he’s the guy on whom the axe falls first. But in the case of the Chicago Bulls, to find the source of their struggles, one needn’t look any further than the top. It’s the seeming incompetence of the guys calling the shots in the Bulls front office that have created this mess, which includes hiring a guy who’d never coached basketball a day in his life.
My guess as to what the Bulls do next is just as good as anybody else’s, but clearly changes need to be made throughout the organization, not just in the head coach’s seat. Vinny Del Negro has received his share of criticism and deservedly so, but he is nothing more than a symbol of the dysfunction and disorganization that is Chicago Bulls management. This team can change coaches until the cows come home but they will continue to struggle until a front office staff is assembled that actually knows what it takes to build a winning professional basketball organization, not just a winning basketball team.