Over the past two years with the Chicago Bulls, Vinny Del Negro didn't win any coach of the year awards. But he led all coaches in other categories; hottest seat, most stories about his imminent firing, and most times being physically assaulted by his general manager.
Vinny never got a fair rap. Was it because he suffered from Chris Kaman disease, too goofy looking to be taken seriously? Was it because he always looked scared on the sideline? Was it because he's a white dude with "Negro" for a last name?
Jerry Sloan has said that if a coach doesn't have the full support of the organization, "he doesn't stand a fighting chance." Welcome to bizzaro-Sloan. Vinny was hung out to dry for two years, taking the prominent role as the king lame duck in the pond of NBA coaches.
Management never even pretended to support him. And Ric Bucher reported on NBA Today that "John Paxson punched, or tried to punch, Del Negro twice." It is a fundamental rule in the NBA that when the organization gives up on a coach, the players sulk and underachieve.
Yet that never happened.
Vinny kept stirring his secret sauce.
In fact, when facing bigger and badder competition, his teams were fearless. Two years ago the Bulls engaged the favored Celtics in the greatest first round series ever. Through seven games and seven overtimes that Bulls squad pushed back every time they were challenged and executed under every extenuating circumstance.
They were even competitive against the powerhouse Cleveland Cavaliers this season. Their 4-1 series record, like last years Lakers/Magic Finals, doesn't tell the whole story. The first two games only showed double digit margins of victory because LeBron went all Kobe-oso in the final minutes.
Ryen Russilo said that the Cavs were just toying around with the Bulls in game one, but by game five they weren't having fun anymore. The Cavs eeked out a two point win in Cleveland that could have gone either way.
The question surrounding Vinny Del Negro's strange career is, did his team play like that because of him, or despite of him?
Did the Bulls play so freely because Del Negro was so unintimidating, like an inanimate object on the sidelines, that the players were always at ease?
Had the Bulls been primed and disciplined by Scott Skiles, only needing a break in intensity from the unassuming Del Negro to flourish?
Or were the Bulls simply overachieving because they have Joakim Noah as their heart and Derek Rose as their motor, no matter who the coach was?
He's always been criticized for his simple X and Os, and he did run out of timeouts twice during that Celtics series. Yeah, he ran out of timeouts when the team needed them. When's the last time that happened in the playoffs? Two times the Bulls were forced to take rushed or half court shots in a series dictated by hair thin margins of victory.
But he accomplished the most important two things for that young Bulls team; 1) they played hard and 2) Derek Rose continued his ascent to super stardom and Joakim Noah played better than anyone ever thought he could.
For two straight years, the media focused on his inevitable death sentence instead of his winning record. Management stripped away Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, and John Salmons to cut costs, yet the team rallied down the stretch, showing heart the Toronto Raptors never had to earn their postseason birth.
His firing was the first and most obvious change of the postseason. But the way his team played in the playoffs and the way his young stars progressed under his tenure has lit his unconventional stay in Chicago with intrigue.
Wouldn't you like to see him coach the Clippers? Who cares if he butts heads with Don Sterling and runs a simple offense. If he could get the Clips to play hard it would be their single greatest triumph of this millennium outside of their 2006 playoff run.
Or maybe a chance in Washington, because he's the real wizard.
Personally, I hope he gets another shot because I'm intrigued by Vinny Del Negro's secret sauce.
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