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Columnist
Coaching staff has pulled Bulls together after rocky start
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist

Coach Vinny Del Negro and his staff may finally be getting their message across to the Bulls.

 

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Published: 2/2/2009 12:05 AM

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There was the potential for some symbolism in the Eastern Conference standings about a week ago.

The Bulls had been passed up by New York and Charlotte in a low-level race of three teams that hired new coaches last summer. The Bobcats invested in the proven track record of Larry Brown, while the Knicks outrecruited the Bulls for Mike D'Antoni.

The Bulls were faltering behind their unconventional and inexperienced coaching choice, Vinny Del Negro. But this week's three-game winning streak demonstrated the danger of jumping to early conclusions.

Funny, just as chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was calling the season a disaster and taking indirect shots at the coaching staff, the Bulls pulled together out west and showed signs of a turnaround.

Granted, the opponents were nothing special. The Clippers are short-handed, the Kings are awful and the Suns have won just three of their last 10 games. All 3 victories were decisive, though, and it's obvious the Bulls are playing far better.

Three weeks ago, this team was reeling. The low point probably came when the Bulls botched 3 fast-break layins by refusing the share the ball and ended up losing in overtime to Oklahoma City.

The return of Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng from injury is probably the biggest reason for the improved play, but it's also clear that Del Negro and the coaching staff are getting through to these players.

The coaches didn't click right away and that might be understandable. Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff had volumes of experience on their resumes, but Harris was used to working with a championship contender in Dallas. His intricate offense was no match for a rookie point guard and big men who were already struggling to pass NBA 101.

Bickerstaff hadn't been an assistant in more than 20 years and no one could be certain what Del Negro needed to know in order to do his job well.

After a promising start to the season, the Bulls hit a deep slump. They seemed to have no concept of team defense, something that should have been established during training camp. Give the coaches credit for realizing that their methods weren't working.

With input from general manager John Paxson, the coaches got together and worked out a new game plan. They simplified schemes on both ends, structured practice differently, clarified everyone's duties and tried to figure out how the veteran coaches could be of better assistance to Del Negro.

It's too soon to say the playoff push has begun, but as someone who watched the shocking turnaround of 2004-05 unfold, there are some similar signs. Back then, confidence grew slowly, effort stayed consistent and eventually the wins began to flow.

The Bulls are 5-5 since Jan. 14, the second game with Deng and Hinrich back on the floor, but 4 of those losses were by 5 points or less.

One reason the Bulls chose Del Negro is because they felt these players needed someone who would pat them on the back, not tear them apart. When things were falling apart a few weeks ago, that appeared to be a mistake. These players needed a screaming drill sergeant. If not Avery Johnson, then the character from "Officer and a Gentleman" might work.

But just when the owner - and no doubt thousands of fans - expressed disgust, the Bulls have shown that if nothing else, it might be smart to withhold judgment on this season.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com