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With free agent chase looming, pressure is on Del Negro, Bulls
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/24/2009 2:40 PM

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There is one overwhelming question facing the Bulls this season, but it won't be answered during training camp:

Can they improve on last year's 41-41 record without Ben Gordon's offense?

The team's leading scorer for the past four seasons jumped to Detroit on the first day of free agency. But the Bulls prepared for that departure by adding 6-foot-6 swingman John Salmons from Sacramento last February.

Other than the shooting guard swap, the Bulls will pretty much pick up where they left off last spring after dropping the memorable seven-game playoff series to Boston.

There will be smaller, individual issues when the Bulls open camp Friday at the Berto Center. Will forward Luol Deng deliver his first healthy and productive season since 2006-07? Can Salmons duplicate his career-best performance? Is it possible for Joakim Noah to start fast for a change or Tyrus Thomas to give a more consistent effort? How much will rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson contribute?

If anyone should be singled out for being under pressure to perform, though, it's not a player, but coach Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls took a chance by hiring a first-time coach last year and his on-the-job training should be over by now.

For one thing, the defense must improve. As an undersized shooting guard, Gordon could be a liability at times, but that's no longer an excuse.

Gordon's defense was often a scapegoat of convenience anyway. Derrick Rose has acres of room to improve defensively, Deng usually struggles against more athletic small forwards, and the interior defense needs to stand up. The Bulls repeatedly made an average center such as Boston's Kendrick Perkins look like a perennial all-star.

Del Negro's second order of business is to maximize the talents of Rose. The NBA's reigning rookie of the year should make a nice jump in his second season and figures to replace Gordon as the team's late-game shooter.

Rose needs to increase his scoring while still keeping his teammates involved. He should get to the line more often and realize that the best late-game shot is usually a jumper.

Del Negro lost 40 years of experience on the bench when assistant Del Harris retired, but he should have learned plenty from Harris already. Remember, twice in late-game situations against Boston, the Bulls ran plays out of timeouts that created wide-open lanes to the basket.

Neither paid off because Brad Miller got fouled in Game 5 and Kirk Hinrich missed an easy lay in in Game 6 (maybe it was goaltended). But those plays showed that Del Negro should be equipped to handle late-game strategy.

There were plenty of mistakes during his first year as a coach on any level, but Del Negro deserves credit for keeping the team together after a rough middle of the season and reaching a peak at playoff time.

Here's the biggest reason why Del Negro is on the hot seat: By letting Gordon go, the Bulls cleared salary-cap room to pursue Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer next summer. Will any of those stars get excited about being coached by Del Negro?

Some Bulls insiders believe a huge problem in the failed free agent chase of 2000 was coach Tim Floyd. Not that a 15-67 season was any fault of Floyd's, but he was an unknown commodity in the NBA.

Del Negro has the playing credentials Floyd lacked. Players will have a built-in respect for someone who lasted 12 years in the league without ever being a star.

The Bulls should be in great shape to lure free agents next summer because they play in a big market and have a rising star in Rose, plus some other good pieces, already in place.

He doesn't have a long-term contract, so Del Negro is well-aware that he needs to win more than 41 games this season. Confidence on the sideline will be important, too, because there's no doubt Wade, Bosh, Boozer and other possible additions will be watching closely.