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Bulls have plenty of reasons to keep - or to fire - second-year coach
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff

Chicago Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro reacts as he talks about his team's 121-98 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game 4 in the first round of the NBA basketball playoffs.

 

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Published: 5/1/2010 10:07 PM | Updated: 5/1/2010 10:07 PM

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As he meets with Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf this weekend, Vinny Del Negro can make a logical argument that he deserves to finish out his contract and coach the team for one more season.

A decision on the coach's future is expected to arrive Monday or Tuesday.

Del Negro has made it to the playoffs two years in a row. Under his guidance, the Bulls have developed their best player since the championship era ended (Derrick Rose) and also perhaps the most improved player in that time period (Joakim Noah).

The Bulls set a goal of getting better defensively this season and delivered, finishing third in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage.

They accomplished all this despite making two significant February trades in each season. The Bulls also bid farewell to the team's leading scorer (Ben Gordon) in free agency and endured plenty of untimely injuries.

As bad as things looked for the Bulls in December, when they lost at home to the 1-19 Nets, blew a 35-point lead against Sacramento and lost two other games by more than 30 points, it all turned around quickly.

By the end of January, the Bulls won five straight road games against teams with winning records, a feat unmatched in NBA history. Two of the teams that were beaten, Phoenix and San Antonio, are still alive in the Western Conference semifinals.

It's always possible to nitpick game strategy. There were a few times in the past two seasons when a team with a similar record, such as Miami, handled the Bulls with a more successful game plan.

On the other hand, the Heat hasn't gone any farther than the Bulls in the playoffs the last two years, even with a first-team all-NBA player at its disposal. There is no way of knowing whether a different coach could have done any better with this ever-changing group of players.

Could the Bulls hire a better coach this summer? There's a good chance. Whether the job is basketball player, coach, trial lawyer or sideline interviewer, anyone figures to get better with experience.

Del Negro had no formal coaching experience when he was given the job. Now he has two years under his belt, which is something to consider.

No matter how the Bulls assess Del Negro's coaching talents, though, there is a significant problem standing in the way: What happens when Del Negro and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson meet free agent Chris Bosh at the airport to deliver the sales pitch for signing with the Bulls?

Are Bosh and his representative going to buy into the idea that Paxson and Del Negro will work in harmony? After all, the Bulls suffered plenty of embarrassing publicity with news of the physical altercation between the two. They argued after a March 30 game over the number of minutes given to Noah, who was recovering from plantar fasciitis.

Within the organization, there is confidence that Paxson and Del Negro have already moved past their spat. But perception will be important.

One way around this might be to diminish Paxson's role in the process and use general manager Gar Forman as the primary recruiter. The Bulls should be an easy sell to free agents, considering the city, available money and nucleus of rising stars already in place.

The Bulls will be pushing the idea that one or two significant additions can turn the team into an instant Finals contender. That leads to another important question: Is Del Negro the coach who can lead the Bulls to a conference finals victory?

Whether he is or isn't, the free-agent targets need to believe he can. This might be the biggest reason the Bulls are likely to make a change.

According to sources, the team is trying to keep an open mind, and firing Del Negro is not written in stone. The final answer will be announced soon.