Tag Archives: jerry reinsdorf

Bulls begin coaching search; here’s a list

So now the Bulls need a new coach with the official announcement Tuesday of the firing of Vinny Del Negro.

I suppose if you are looking to get to the so-called Point C, then, literally, you might need a C for Collins. But that ship has sailed and I don’t believe the former Bulls coach Doug Collins is in the mix to be the next coach.
Other Cs? Casey, Cleamons, Cartwright, Cheeks? No, I don’t think that’s what the Bulls have meant about going to Point C, which, actually, GM Gar Forman avoided referring to in his Tuesday press conference.
The question not only is who, but what. What makes a good coach?
There are several principal elements and several particulars that apply to the Bulls.
Forman Tuesday talked generically about accountability, teaching and leadership, and I didn’t take that as a direct shot at Vinny, but more general qualifications.
Still, Vinny was not so much a so-called accountability coach, as was Scott Skiles. Those guys say play defense. You don’t, you sit until you do. But since the Bulls had one of those and fired him, the next guy tends to be a bit looser, more so-called player friendly, which Vinny was. Plenty of good coaches are–Flip Saunders, for example.
There’s also experience. Though Forman said he wouldn’t exclude anyone, I’d assume the Bulls would this time want a coach who knows the NBA, which Forman did refer to, and a coach who didn’t require on-the-job training. That would be a former head coach or, at least, a veteran assistant with longtime experience and leaguewide respect.
There’s what I’d call equanimity, something of the ability to work with management and avoid the pitfalls of competitors going at one another. That obviously became a late season issue with the dustup between Del Negro and Executive VP John Paxson. The issue is these guys are together virtually all year with training camp, the season, draft and summer league. When they can’t comfortably get along and talk basketball for fun, the job becomes a chore, which it should never be.
Then there’s presence, someone who commands respect with the team for what he knows and/or who he is as well as with the community. That also being a person who communicates being in charge, so-called leadership.
As Rick Pitino once famously said not long before he was being fired, “Bird, McHale and Parish aren’t walking through the door.” Neither are Sloan, Popovich and Jackson, though more on that later.
Most of the great ones are taken, but it’s not like you have to settle as much as perhaps your choice cannot be everything to everyone.
This is where I think the Bulls are, though I have no actual evidence: I think they have an idea of candidates, which is what all organizations have. Don’t fool yourself. Everyone organization keeps a list of prospective head coaches and assistants, as well as players. It’s what they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.
The classic story is one of the reasons the Jerry Krause/Doug Collins dynamic split. Krause, as we recall, was something of a Mr. Malaprop, saying the wrong thing the wrong way, like when he said organizations win championships. He was trying to say a good thing and commend all the support staff, and, well, that was Jerry.
So this one time he’s talking to Doug and tells him something about, what if Doug were unable to coach perhaps from an accident or something and there being staff to step in. Jerry was trying to make a point of how good the staff was, but Doug took it as Jerry trying to line up his successor, which, I guess, eventually happened.
I suspect the Bulls want to avoid this parade of candidates they had last time, so maybe they’ll edit their list down to four or five, maybe check out a few more, cut it again and maybe interview three or four and make a recommendation to managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf, who always said he holds only veto power.
People ask me about the organization structure and I see it as sort of a bicameral legislature, theories that went back to ancient Greece and like the U.S. government. To my thinking, Forman, the guy who worked up the scouting ranks, is the House and John Paxson, the former Finals hero, is the Senate, and they try to come together in conference. Reinsdorf is the president and has veto power. I see each with sort of a line to the president, but having to come together before presenting something.
Forman left open the time frame, and, certainly, there are unique situations which could lead to an extended time period. After all, this is draft/trade/free agent time, and the coach has minimal involvement. Phil Jackson used to go home after the season and skip the draft.
I don’t believe the coach is a make or break for a free agent, but, I’d guess, you wouldn’t want to have P.J. Carlesimo if you were going after Latrell Sprewell. Just hypothetically, of course. Maybe you’d take LeBron’s uncle if LeBron would commit, but you wouldn’t know that until July.
So what would I do?
Factoring in what I believe the Bulls wouldn’t do and what seems feasible and I could be excited about, I’d go with Mo Cheeks.
He has head coaching experience, and won 49 and 50 games in consecutive seasons in Portland. He’s a Chicago native from DuSable High School. He’s one of the great point guards ever, ranking in the top 10 alltime in steals and assists, a perfect guy to tutor Derrick Rose with his biggest weakness. He started for a championship team, the great ’83 Philadelphia 76ers, and is one of the alltime good guys ever in the NBA. Any doubt, check out the YouTube video of Cheeks with the girl stumbling over the national anthem.
He’s not regarded as great in so-called accountability, as he’s more the good guy, but I can see Cheeks with tough assistants, like Larry Bird had at Indiana, particularly close friend Ron Adams, who transformed the Thunder defense.
But I’m not sure Cheeks, who is now on the Thunder staff, is even on the Bulls’ list. So here’s a rundown of all the possibilities I can think of. And I’m sure the Bulls have a secret one or two. The hope is the Bulls don’t have to interview them all.
— Doug Collins: The former Bulls coach is a great turnaround specialist whom I think will get the 76ers job, assuming he wants it. I’ve heard he had a knock-your-socks-off interview. The Bulls passed on him two years ago and usually one veto is all you get.
— Larry Brown: The other great turnaround specialist, though the Bulls don’t exactly need turning around. Brown’s play-the-right-way defensive philosophy, though, would make a difference, at least in the short term. But Larry also wants a front office role and no one is giving theirs up. Plus, it’s one thing for Michael Jordan to let him go to Philadelphia, but back to Chicago? I see Brown getting the Clippers job as he also owns a home in Malibu and is close with Clippers owner Donald Sterling and with a high draft pick and Blake Griffin presumably healthy that could be a great job.
— Kevin McHale: The former Wolves executive did interim stints twice and actually did well. He’s good working with players; they respect and like him. But Kevin’s never liked the grind of coaching with travel and all the film work. Perhaps he’s ready. I’ve heard he’s very interested.
— Lawrence Frank: Same with him. Actually same with a lot of guys as far as interest. There was all this media talk about front office issues, but I’ve heard coaches and agents inquiring for months about the job. With Rose and Joakim Noah, the cap room and a major market, the Bulls job is considered perhaps the best open one. Frank is regarded as hard working and well prepared and excellent with X’s and O’s and strategy. But he had a losing record with the Nets, played a slow game heavy on coaching control  and never was regarded as very demanding of the players, especially the stars. You always worry about those control oriented coaches like Frank who don’t allow assistants to speak to anyone.
— Byron Scott: He’s had two jobs and also a losing career record, though not by much. He’s expressed open interest in the Bulls, but there’s some talk he’s also waiting to see what happens with the Lakers, as he’s close with Kobe Bryant. He’s had a rap as not a very hard worker with players and preparation with Eddie Jordan getting behind the scenes credit when he took the Nets to two Finals. Though that seemed unfair.
— Avery Johnson: The “Little General” was not necessarily always a term of endearment as he’s been regarded by some teammates as somewhat overbearing. He’s supposedly pushing hard for the New Orleans job and may be trying to leverage himself in by pushing for Philadelphia.
— Jeff Van Gundy: He seems satisfied to stay in TV for awhile, but it would be hard to see the Bulls going for him the way he went on ABC and ripped the organization for two hours during one playoff game with the Cavs. At least you have to credit him for not pandering for the job. Little known fact: His brother, Stan, played against Forman when they were growing up in California with Jeff at the games.
— Tom Thibodeau: The perennial runnerup. The Celtics’ defensive guy should get a look, but he’s probably at a disadvantage without having had a head job. There always are vague questions about relating to players, but I know him and find him good to get along with and have asked players and they seem to like him.
— Ron Adams: Another longtime assistant and regarded with Thibodeau as one of the best defensive minds in the league. He was on Scott Skiles’ staff as the defensive guy when Skiles was Bulls coach. There are a lot of latest hot assistant names you hear in these searches like Monty Williams, John Shumate, Mike Budenholzer, Elston Turner, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin and Brian Shaw. I’d go with Adams before any of them, but it’s uncertain if the Bulls will go the assistant route.
— Phil Johnson: The one-time, long time ago Bulls interim has basically been Jerry Sloan’s co-coach for years. He was coach of the year in 1975 for the old Kansas City/Omaha Kings and who knows if he wants his own team anymore. But he’s a good one.
— Mike Dunleavy: He was fired from the Clippers this season, but has more than 600 career wins for four teams and a Finals loss to the Bulls in 1991. He’s been close with Reinsdorf as a fellow Brooklynite.
— Eric Musselman: His name popped up in rumors several months back when there was talk about Del Negro’s job. He’s a hard driving guy like his late dad and had a rough go in one lamentable season coaching the Kings. Who knows if he’s mellowed with time away.
— Reggie Theus: The one-time popular Bull is on the bench with the Timberwolves after doing a decent job with the Kings for a few seasons. He’s popular in Chicago and a great ambassador, though he got rejected for the DePaul job. He’s got some connections with Forman as both worked at New Mexico State, where Theus had a nice NCAA run. The question at times has been his work ethic.
— Dwane Casey: He was close two years ago when Del Negro got the job. He had a good start at Minnesota, where he was replaced midway into the season and the team collapsed. He’s been on the bench at Dallas and has been a respected, if low key guy.
— Mark Jackson: The ABC broadcaster and former top point guard has been fishing around for an NBA job the last few years, though he’s had difficulties after having developed, fairly or not, something of a clubhouse lawyer reputation during his playing days.
— Mike Woodson: If the Hawks go out as expected and quickly after barely getting by the Bucks and having coached into his final season without an extension, he seems like the next to be available. But he’s way too much one-on-one coach and for all the criticism Del Negro got for his offense, Woodson’s and Mike Brown’s in Cleveland were way less complex or interesting. For some reason, the national media had it in for Vinny.
— Isiah Thomas: Just kidding, though he never had a losing season coaching the Pacers.
— Tony Barone: The Chicago native and former Creighton coach had an interim stint with Memphis, where he now is personnel director. He ran an uptempo, open game the Bulls need to play, though the defensive identity was questionable.
— Mark Price: The great Cavs point guard of the late 1980s was a head coach in Australia and has been a top shooting coach for several teams and working with a number of players. He’s also involved with a basketball teaching academy and specializes innwork with point guards. He’s also been a prep coach and coached Atlanta’s Josh Smith.
— Mike Fratello: The famed “Czar” from Marv Albert’s broadcasts would like to get another shot. He got something of a bad rap as a slowdown coach in Cleveland after having an uptempo Atlanta team with Dominique. He’s been away for a while and has been regarded as a bit too controlling of point guards and the offense, like Van Gundy and Avery Johnson.
— Sam Mitchell: He’s a name I like. Definitely a hold accountable, demanding tough guy. He was to be replaced when Bryan Colangelo came to Toronto, but then won coach of the year. Oops. Colangelo finally dumped him and the team has tanked since. He’s got some rough edges which seem to worry teams.
— Dick Versace: He’s also been out awhile but trying to break back in. He had a head stint with the Pacers and did front office work for the Grizzlies before Jerry West took over. He’s been popular and well known in Chicago, but away from the game and even tried a congressional run a few years back.
— Rudy Tomjanovich: He’s one of the great guys, but the game finally became too much when he was the guy between the two Phil Jackson runs in L.A. He quietly reverted to scouting and personnel work and has seemed much happier.
— Jim Cleamons: The longtime Jackson assistant had one run with the Mavs before Don Nelson added him to his list of guys he undercut. He’s a triangle guy, and I don’t see that offense very good for this Bulls personnel.
— Brian Hill: He had a couple of runs with the Magic and got to a Finals, though he’s mostly settled into assistant work, lately with the Pistons.
— Darrell Walker: Also an assistant with the Pistons after working under Scott with the Hornets. If Brown leaves the Bobcats, I can see Michael Jordan making a run at Walker, a Chicago guy who’s an old school type demanding coach who once had a run with the Raptors as Jordan likes guys he knows.
— Patrick Ewing: Also a Jordan guy. He’s the assistant most passed over of late, sort of like the best golfer never to win a major. He’s a bit on the quiet side, which has hurt his chances, though he’d be a good tutor for Joakim Noah given the way he developed from a defender into an offensive player. He’s been working under a terrific coach in Orlando in Stan Van Gundy.
— Tom Izzo: I don’t see the Bulls going the college way with the likes of ego maniacs like Pitino, who apparently pursued the New Jersey job earlier this season, or John Calipari. They’d be insufferable to work with and having been in college so long know little of the NBA even though both previously coached in the NBA. Izzo is the one guy I can see making the transition given his defensive style and the way he’s trained coaches like Skiles.
— Mike Kyzyzewski: No, he’s not going to the NBA. He’s got the Olympic team and he’s fine with that, plus his health wouldn’t permit an NBA lifestyle after the time he took off a few years back. He’s already turned down the Lakers and Kobe a few years back and I’ve heard the financial overtures from the Nets would make Phil Jackson’s $12 million annually not even close to being the highest paid coach.
— Bill Cartwright: I’d hope the longtime Bull and former Bulls coach would get another shot, as he’s done great things with the Suns defense as an assistant, but his voice issues might preclude that.
— P.J. Carlesimo: A bit more the college guy even though he had several jobs and a nice run on the bench with the Spurs. He was with the Sonics when they moved and fired after a 1-12 start in Oklahoma City.  He’d mellowed some over the years, but just a bit too terse with this era’s players and never with enough results to justify.
— Paul Silas: A guy who fell off the radar and probably has left the game a bit behind. He was LeBron’s first coach and had a few celebrated runins and seems to have settled quietly in North Carolina.
— Dan Issel: The Batavia native had a great run with the Nuggets, was popular and effective until one of those politically correct days got him. He’s been in the horse business in Kentucky and pretty much stayed away from the NBA in recent years.
— Bill Laimbeer: He’s on the bench in Minnesota, and you ask why. Perhaps the most disliked, detested player in the history of pro sports, an arrogant, condescending, cheap shot artist. Yeah, he should be high on a lot of lists.
— Bob Hill: He was a 60-game winner when he was replaced by Popovich in San Antonio, and the rest is history. Though lucking into David Robinson and Tim Duncan helped. He also had a good run as Pacers coach, but I always was suspicious as he wore loafers and no socks in winter, was always tanned and highlighted Pat Riley’s books.
— Dave Cowens: He finished up as a Pistons assistant after the WNBA in Chicago. He had a good run with the Hornets and Warriors as an old school, hustle guy, though wasn’t great with the subtleties of dealing with today’s youth. He once left the Celts in the middle of his career to clear his head and took a job as a cab driver. You don’t find guys like that anymore.
— John Lucas: There was talk the Houston rehab guy to the stars now on the Clippers bench would replace Dunleavy as interim. Lucas had head coaching runs with the Spurs, 76ers and Cavs and players train with him often in the summer, but probably has passed his coaching prime.
— Doc Rivers: He’s under contract another year with the Celts and I cannot see the Celts letting him go to join another team, especially without major compensation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did take a year away and I think he’d love to get in with the young Bulls back in his hometown and he certainly is a guy with that coaching presence.
— Erik Spoelstra: Pat Riley left a big enchilada out there with that tease the other day about coaching again if some free agent demanded it. Spoelstra has gained a lot of credence for his work as a defensive leader for the Heat the last two years, but as many coaches find out, the jobs aren’t guaranteed and life isn’t always fair.
— Brendan Malone: He’s Stan Van Gundy’s top guy with the Magic and was the Raptors first coach and had an interim stint with the Cavs. He’s a solid pro while his son is a rising star assistant with the Cavs now.
— Chris Ford: He’s an old school hold accountable guy who had jobs with the Celts, Bucks and Clippers before running afoul trying to actually get Allen Iverson to practice in Philadelphia. He knows the game and is credited with the first three pointer ever in the NBA. So he started it.
— Phil Jackson: This is the fantasy choice and would be a bit too complicated. If the Lakers win, Phil says he’s coming back. The Lakers want him back, but not at so much money. I’ve long thought life was too good in L.A. living on the beach, wearing his sandals to work every day and dating the Playboy posing daughter of the owner who has a crazy crush on him. If he were to leave, I could see him taking that huge payday with the Nets new owner as they could get the No. 1 pick and Phil started his coaching career there. But if LeBron would come to Chicago….The problem is that couldn’t be until July and if the Bulls wait and Phil stays or goes elsewhere there may be no one left. Is it worth playing for the jackpot? And only the jackpot?
So whom do you like?

Del Negro grateful for opportunity, proud of accomplishments

Moments after GM Gar Forman and EVP-Basketball Operations John Paxson met the media to officially announce that Vinny Del Negro had been relieved of his head coaching duties, Del Negro made the following statement outside the Berto Center:

“I want to say how grateful I am to Jerry Reinsdorf and the Chicago Bulls. They have a lot of great people in the organization. I’d be remiss not to say how grateful I am to the players, as hard as they worked and developed. I feel very strongly that the organization is in a much better place now than it was two years ago when I started. I’m proud of the things we accomplished as a team. I’m proud of the players; they put the work in and they have a bright future.

“I know how hard my assistant coaches worked to support me, to support the players and to develop the players. I think there were a lot of positives with the development of the young core of guys that you have here. I’m very happy, pleased and proud about that.

“Last is the fans. The United Center, playing in front of sellout crowds, number one in the league in attendance; they’ve always been very supportive and passionate about the Chicago Bulls and they should. There is a great history and tradition with the organization.

“And that’s it. I just want to come out and tell Jerry and the Bulls how grateful I am for the last few years. Now, you move forward and grow from experiences. I just want to say thank you to Jerry and the Bulls.”

Listen to Del Negro’s full statement (05.04.10):

Audio—General Manager Gar Forman announces the dismissal of Vinny Del Negro as head coach, talks about the organization’s coaching search, and how it might impact free agency this offseason (Parts I & II – 05.04.10):

EVP-Basketball Operations John Paxson apologizes for an incident between him and Vinny Del Negro on March 30 and discusses his role within the organization moving forward (05.04.10):

Del Negro out as Bulls coach and here is why

It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was close. They’d gone through one date after another and nothing really was mutual. Until one day, John Paxson ran into Vinny Del Negro at the Chicago draft camp and they began talking hoops. And things seemed to click between the two former court rivals. This seemed different.
So Paxson and Gar Forman brought Vinny home, or, more precisely, to the home of their professional dad, Jerry Reinsdorf. And Jerry gave his blessing.
But once they started living together, it just wasn’t the same. It happens. It happens all the time in life, and it happens in basketball.
So Tuesday, the Bulls and coach Del Negro are expected to announce their official divorce.
The Bulls get the kids, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Vinny gets the settlement, about $2 million from his three-year contract to get on with his basketball life.
There’s no great explanation.
Each side has its own story.
Irreconcilable differences, as the explanation generally goes
It’s like when the movie stars announce a divorce and you are shocked that he/she could walk away from someone who looks like that.
But, hey, you didn’t have to live with them.
And that’s pretty much how I see the conclusion of the relationship between the Bulls and Del Negro. The Bulls sent out a notice late Monday night that general manager Forman Tuesday morning will address “the organization’s head coaching change.”
They did give it one last gasp at some counseling over the weekend with Del Negro meeting with Bulls chairman Reinsdorf Sunday and Forman Monday. It was too late. Too much had occurred already.
No, it wasn’t the altercation in March between Paxson and Del Negro, once close, and who actually was the one who plucked Del Negro out of candidate obscurity to give him a chance at the job. Del Negro certainly wasn’t on any list Reinsdorf had prepared.
There really was no one overplayed incident.
Vinny wasn’t who they thought he was, which is something Chicago teams run into with Phoenix guys. For his part, Vinny was on the NBA hamster wheel, running as fast as he could to catch up with the NBA game going at light speed, doing all he could and feeling he’d make big progress.
It was Vinny’s first ever coaching job, and it was a risk for the Bulls.
It was well chronicled they didn’t want a deal with Doug Collins. But I’m convinced has Mike D’Antoni waited a few days instead of running to the Knicks within hours of his first meeting with the Bulls he would have been hired. D’Antoni has since told friends he regretted his decision.
The Bulls will begin a search with the usual suspects for now, though nothing is imminent as there only has been the kind of vague discussion that goes on in all organizations.
Sure, Del Negro played and was a team executive and personnel guru. But like those rookies always say, the thing that surprises you is how fast the game is compared to watching it. It’s the same with coaching. It goes by a lot faster than you think, and millions of eyes are ready to second guess: Why didn’t you foul? You had one to give. Foul to play the free throw game down the stretch or let them shoot the three? When do you sub and who? When do you take them out and how long do you leave them in? Call a timeout? How many timeouts to keep for the end? What’s your offense? What’s your defense? Trap? Zone? Switch?
OK, bring in some veteran coaches to help. So Del Negro got Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff. Too bad they had different philosophies on the game, Del in one ear and Bernie in the other. Foul, don’t foul? Time out, no timeout. Shoot the three, drive.
The Bulls were hoping—fantasizing, really, though they knew that was unrealistic–they might strike gold, a new millennium version of the next Phil Jackson, who’d replaced the popular Doug Collins. But Vinny wasn’t ready.
So there were disputes. Why was Rose left out of games at crucial times? Why wasn’t Noah getting more time to develop? What’s with those big minutes? What’s with the tight rotation? Where’s the defense?
Del Negro said it was coming, and it was. The defense was improving, the rebounding was getting better. The young guys, Rose and Noah, were better. Taj Gibson, the rookie, had come on fast. The team played hard and finished strong for the second consecutive season.
So what’s the problem?
Yet, Rose’s defense had gone nowhere. The offense remained simplistic and predictable, the pick and rolls constantly using a poor shooter. There was too much standing around. Sure, Gibson had contributed, but where was James Johnson? How come guys played 20 minutes then two?
And then there was the minutes limitation for Noah.  Was it even necessary? Del Negro was endangering the future. Or was Noah always ready to play and showed it in the playoffs?
But life, as we all know, is not always fair.
It wasn’t about only those things.
The sides had dug in.
The Bulls didn’t feel the man they hired was the man who came to work. Del Negro believed despite the changes and priorities toward the future, the present had developed as well as could be expected.
The Bulls gave Vinny a chance when no one else would or did. His own Suns passed on him and hired Terry Porter.
The average life of a coach, especially in the Eastern Conference, is about two years. Of the 15 teams in the East, only five have coaches hired in seasons before the Bulls hired Del Negro.
This has happened before with the Bulls as well. Collins was fired after making it to the conference finals. Stan Albeck took the team to the playoffs the year Michael Jordan missed 64 games with a broken foot, and Albeck was then fired.
But it also happens all over basketball.
Sam Mitchell, Hubie Brown, Avery Johnson, Byron Scott and Rick Carlisle were fired or left within two seasons of being named coach of the year. Carlisle was fired in Detroit after two 50-win seasons and second round playoff appearances. For Hubie Brown, ostensibly for health reasons, it was 12 games into the season after he won the award. Larry Brown was fired in Detroit after taking the team to the Finals for the second straight season. Del Harris was fired by the Lakers 12 games into the season after he won 61 games. Mike Fratello was fired by the Cavs after six straight winning seasons and never a losing season.
Del Negro, by the way, was the fifth coach fired this season. The coaches of Atlanta, Toronto, Miami and Golden State are hardly secure.
These jobs are as much about results as they are communication and relationships.
Plus, their priorities are at variance.
The coach’s job is to win today’s game and win as many games as he can. The GM’s job is to develop a team for the long term and, if necessary, sacrifice the present. So there was that, Del Negro playing to win every game to assure his return or status, thus limiting one rookie and the bench, relying on the starters for big minutes, perhaps playing Noah more than recommended. And there was the organization hoping to see more of Johnson, preferring players like Luol Deng coming off serious injury not playing the second most minutes in his career, hoping to see defensive advancement from Rose and some more care for Noah.
Each had a point. But the relationship began to deteriorate.
From the outside, it appeared Vinny had done what he could given trades and Ben Gordon leaving in free agency. From the inside, there seemed perhaps a different agenda.
Vinny no longer was the right guy for this time.
It was no one’s fault. It happens. It happens all the time in pro sports.
Vinny gets his contract fulfilled, which was all he was promised. After all, it wasn’t like when he was hired anyone said this was coach for life, that this was the next Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach. The Bulls get the benefit of two years development, which has enhanced the status of Rose and Noah and with a good summer of work, the Bulls could be in an excellent position to move forward and become a true contender. Vinny gets the asterisk taken off his name. He’s a coach with experience now, which moves him to the head of the line and opens up the future if he wants to coach again.
Win/win? Perhaps not, but it is the way of life in the NBA. The game moves on. So will Vinny and the Bulls.

LeBron is coming, LeBron is coming; is he alone?

The Bulls plan, and I agreed with it, has been to keep those other guys out of the game because James knows he needs them and tries desperately to get them going. James couldn’t in Game 2, so he took over.
It was impressive.
“The goal is for him to take jump shots,” Kirk Hinrich said after Bulls practice Wednesday. “He did that and made them in Game 2. He hit them fading away. We’re going to challenge him to take tough jump shots. We can’t have him in the paint getting wide open looks for those other guys, getting in transition.
“We want to win this series,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully, we’ll get on our home court and get some momentum and get a game.”
So, in other words, if you’re so good, LeBron, let’s see if you can get 50 on the road in Game 3 at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Perhaps he can as it was an awfully efficient 40 points for James in Game 2 on 23 shots.
Though the secret to playing the Cavs, I believe, is making LeBron beat you.
It was much the same with Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980’s. Jordan would go off for huge 40-point type games. He’d win a few like that, but never quite enough.
I remember talking to Isiah Thomas about Jordan during some of those games and he said if Jordan even truly included his teammates the Pistons would have no chance. Once Jordan accepted that fully in 1991, it was over.
Maybe James doesn’t need that to get by the Bulls. But James understands you don’t win championships trying to score 40 or 50 a game. He doesn’t want to. In effect, the Bulls want him to, though I expect there’ll be some adjustments from that strategy in Game 3.
Reserves generally have more difficulty in the playoffs on the road, so the Bulls job will be making sure the starters don’t get involved as much.
O’Neal had in this era for him a big game in the opener with 12 points and five rebounds. He’s obviously, even with a Big Invisible performance in Game 2, a concern, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday sent his subtle message.
“We’ve got to somehow stay away from Shaquille’s elbows,” said Del Negro, “get our heads away from those elbows a little bit.”
Since the NBA is harsh regarding questioning officiating in the playoffs with huge fines, Del Negro was cautious. I told him to ask management for $35,000 and rip away. He laughed and said he should check with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“Shaquille, obviously, is difficult to referee and play against because of his size and where the elbow starts coming,” noted Del Negro. “The referees need to be conscious of that and hopefully we’ll be getting some calls going our way in that aspect and be aggressive to the basket.”
But there are no such limitations regarding gamesmanship on me.
It’s an embarrassment for the league the way they allow O’Neal to catch and turn in with his elbows out. It should be an offensive every time. At one time when O’Neal could jump and was graceful—OK, a little bit—he could make an athletic move on the turn. No more.
We’ll see if that changes and if Derrick Rose, who got just six free throw attempts with 52 shots in 86 minutes, gets a bit more aggressive back home.
“Derrick has done a better job attacking the basket with floaters and things. We need to continually attack,” said Del Negro.
Rose missed practice Wednesday with a personal, family issue but will play in Game 3 Thursday.
It was mostly a routine day for the Bulls at the Berto Center, though with considerably more media.
The Bulls players are not difficult, but at home practices don’t hang around much to chat. The coach is generally required by the league to talk to reporters, and Del Negro did for about 10 minutes after the closed practice.
By the time he was done, most of the players left for treatment and weight work, which are off limits areas to reporters. Hinrich stuck around and answered a few questions, and that was pretty much it.
Are the players confident? They insist yes and are looking forward to seeing if the Cavs will sweat if they lose.
Or have they mentally packed it in after playing a good game Monday despite falling down 2-0 and getting some national respect? And then maybe avoid a return trip to Cleveland next week.
Of course, it was the joke of the weekend with Joakim Noah having some fun knocking down Cleveland.
James addressed it after Cavs practice and said he loves Chicago.
“It’s an awesome city. Great restaurants, great shopping,” said James, who said he spent three summers in Chicago while in high school working out. “I have nothing bad (to say) about Chicago. I’m not saying that because of what he said about Cleveland. I’m serious. We all love Chicago.”
James drew some laughs at Noah’s comment about no one vacationing in Cleveland when he offered he vacations in Chicago.
“You all are making it a joke,” James said. “I’m being very serious. I love Chicago. I love Cleveland and love Akron, too.”
Good this is Chicago and not New York. The tabloids in New York would turn that into “LeBron Coming to New York” headlines.
I raised the possibility in my Bulls.com column Wednesday of James leaving the Cavs as a free agent and coming to the Bulls this summer if he is serious about winning long term. After all, who among the Cavs rivals either Rose or Noah?
Though after watching the Heat and Celtics Tuesday, I’d have to save Dwyane Wade is the most likely to get out of town. If James’ supporting cast isn’t that much, well, Wade’s is a nightmare.
Look, this is a tough one for the Bulls for a lot of reasons other than finishing 20 games behind the Cavs in the regular season. And that was with the Bulls straining to the finish to get in and the Cavs’ regulars taking most of the last two weeks off.
The Bulls need to get over 100 to be in the games. When they had 83 in Game 1, they were out early. When they had 102 in Game 2, it was close.
The problem is a faster game forces the Cavs to bench Shaq and the Cavs were 45-5 in the regular season when they scored at least 100 points. They were 16-16 when they didn’t. The Bulls were 22-8 when they scored at least 100 in the regular season and 19-33 when they didn’t. The Bulls want to run. The Cavs love to run.
There’s no question James beat the Bulls in Game 2 when it was close and the pressure was on. Cavs fans, as we know, have seen that picture before.
“We have to pick our spots and make it difficult for him to score,” said Del Negro.
That suggested to me we will see some more doubles on James at certain times, perhaps a late double when he goes into his move. When he holds the ball with the clock running down he doesn’t like to pass the ball then because it puts teammates in a tough position to make shots.
“We want to keep them out of transition,” said Del Negro. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s young, strong, big. I thought Luol (Deng) was solid. They made plays, but we’ll try to be more efficient and maybe we’ll shoot better at home.
“But the people in Chicago know,” said Del Negro. “You had a guy here a long time was who was pretty good who wore No. 23. You can have all the great defense you want. But some guys just make plays over the top whether you are bringing one, two or three guys. You have to get into him and make it as hard as possible.”
That reference to Jordan opened the door for me to have a little fun with Del Negro and ask who was better, Jordan or James.
I probably shouldn’t have done it.
“That’s impossible to answer,” said Del Negro trying to be diplomatic. “Michael right now because of what his legacy is and what he did to evolve his game.
“Larry (Bird) and Magic (Johnson) took it to a level, Mike to another level,” said Del Negro. “I’m not big on comparing guys because I don’t think it’s fair. Comparing anyone to Michael now is not fair because of MVP’s, championships. LeBron at this stage is only 25. He has a long career left (if he) stays healthy, is consistent. Who’s better (Bill) Russell or (Wilt) Chamberlain?”
Wilt, by the way.
“It’s different rules, different eras, players, different travel,” noted Del Negro. “(Jerry) West, Oscar (Robertson), so many guys you can talk about. Obviously, they both are great players.”
I understood Del Negro didn’t want to get into it because he is playing LeBron now. Don’t make him mad, as LeBron also suggested at practice the Bulls players harassing him from the bench about his shooting got him going.
“I understand a lot of teams would like to make me shoot jumpers and keep me out of the paint,” James said. “That’s what I would do if I was guarding me, but I wouldn’t talk to me if I was guarding me.”
But that’s also the point. James was fabulous in Game 2 with a classic playoff game. But there’s still a big question about his teammates. I believe he worries about that because he knows he’ll need them. So you don’t play off them. Make it difficult. Make them make big shots at big times while defended. I’m not sure they can.
James Johnson likely will get another brief shot at James because he can be physical. Hinrich will some because he can be pesky, and Deng will most of the time and it will be crucial—and two days of between games should help—for Deng to continue to attack on offense to keep James engaged on defense and not playing the passing lanes. Deng also can’t get too deep on shots as James will cheat and try to run out. So the Bulls have to get back and let Noah and Taj Gibson deal with the offensive boards.
The traditional theory often is to let the other guys beat you. But that’s what James wants. Because he believes he always can. So I say let see if he can beat you again and again.
Make James try to prove he’s as prolific as Jordan. It makes for a heck of a show, but it also makes the Cavs a one-man show, and you don’t win that way. Most of the time, anyway.

Bulls dominate Pistons behind Noah, Rose and Tyrus

C’mon. Tell me Joakim Noah’s not an All-Star. C’mon, step up.
Noah did Thursday on New Year’s Eve in Auburn Hills with 15 points and a career high equaling 21 rebounds, his fourth game of at least 20 rebounds this season. So did Tyrus Thomas, off the bench with 19 points as the Bulls won their third straight, 98-87 over the Detroit Pistons, which happened to coincide with Thomas being back three games from a broken arm. And there also was Derrick Rose with 22 points as the Bulls continued in their best stretch of the season.
“Joakim did a fantastic job on the glass,” said coach Vinny Del Negro. “I’m pleased with the effort. Got nice production off the bench, John Salmons with 17 points) and Tyrus. I liked the way Derrick kept attacking. A lot of positives.”
It’s a positive atmosphere around the Bulls all of a sudden in the midst of the ongoing furor over the fate of Del Negro. It doesn’t seem to be affecting the team as with Thomas back, Rose healthy and Kirk Hinrich in the starting lineup the Bulls have more balance, depth and even fire power.
“We’ve got to do this all the time,” said Noah. “We can’t control what’s going on upstairs and what a GM decision will be. Right now we’re playing good basketball and have got to keep improving and getting better and be happy with the result.”
And why not as the Bulls are now 13-17 finishing off 2009, basically the same record they had at the end of 2008 when they were four games under .500. But on New Year’s Eve a year ago the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic, whom they’ll play at the United Center Saturday. The Bulls a year ago then went into their worst stretch of the season, losing 10 of 14 to fall to 18-27 as Managing Partner Jerry Reinsdorf condemned the season.
That is when questions first arose about Del Negro, though the Bulls regained control after the trades for Salmons and Brad Miller and ended the season on a high note in the fabulous seven-game playoff series against the Boston Celtics.
But it was a slow start to the new season with Ben Gordon gone to Detroit (he had 21 points off the bench Thursday) and a succession of early injuries. It’s led to a hysterical media reaction to Del Negro’s circumstance, which doesn’t seem to have affected the team at all.
“Our job is to come in and give our best on the court and get wins and make the organization look good,” said Rose. “It’s up to the front office (to decide what to do). While he’s here we listen to him and play ball. We don’t listen to that stuff.”
It’s really the motto of the true professionals in sports. They know coaches come and go. You job is to play, and the Bulls are putting on their metaphorical hard hats these days.
Though they had 24 turnovers, including eight by Noah, you can excuse that even if it was a concern to Del Negro.
“We don’t care,” laughed Rose when it was mentioned. “The coaches probably care about those turnovers. We’re going to play and play hard when we’re out there.”
The Bulls did play in outrebounding the Pistons 49-33 behind Noah. Thomas was flying all over the court chasing loose balls and misses and went to the free throw line for a career high equaling 14 times, making 11. Rose took over in offensive lulls with strong drives to the basket, drawing contact unlike last season, and also getting to the line, making eight of eight free throws as the Bulls were an impressive 30 of 35 from the line. The Pistons were 14 of 18 and held to 38.6 percent shooting as the Bulls also had eight blocks, three from Luol Deng.
“We are getting our confidence now,” said Noah. “It feels good to win three in a row. We’re playing a really good opponent next in Orlando, so it’s important (Noah is the No. 2 rebounder in the NBA and Orlando’s Dwight Howard No. 1) . We’re just playing better basketball for whatever reason. We’re playing together. No one is playing huge, huge minutes, it’s just better out there.
“I’m just trying to grab as many rebounds as I can,” Noah said. “Every time the ball goes up I try to put myself in position to get extra possessions for my team.  We’ve got to get to the line more frequently. It’s been one of our problems. We did a good job of that. Tyrus was huge for us today hitting the offensive glass and being aggressive offensively. He brings something we don’t have so it’s important to have him back.”
No one’s threatening the Celtics or Cavaliers, but the Bulls are gaining a stronger hold on seventh in the Eastern Conference, shooting a higher percentage, ranking in the league’s top eight in defensive field goal percentage and making a case for go to players like Noah and Rose.
Rose was tough in the second quarter when the bench hit a lull after the Bulls led by 10 in the first quarter. The Pistons tied it at 33 midway through the second quarter behind Gordon and Rodney Stuckey with 22 points, though the Pistons would go on to their ninth straight loss to fall to 11-21. Their team seems a mess with veterans Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince returning from injuries and seemingly in need of a major trade or shakeup. Gordon has been good, though fellow free agent Charlie Villanueva has been a major disappointment and looking like a poor man’s Donyell Marshall.
Rose closed the half attacking the basket, getting six second quarter free throws to give the Bulls a 44-39 halftime lead.
“I’m just trying to do whatever it takes for us to win,” said Rose. “I’m trying to hit shots and make contact with some people. When I shoot a layup if I see someone there I try to make contact so I can get to the line, but I’m going to try to make that layup. As a point guard, I’ve got to get the ball around. I’ve got to get people open so they can get a shot off.
But if I’m open and they give me the shots I’ll take them.”
Rose did because he has to at times with this Bulls team, still lacking a drop dead three point threat and inside post play. But Taj Gibson, who gets better every game, hit some jumpers out of the post and even was the first option out of the post coming out of a timeout.
The Bulls pushed a bit farther ahead behind Thomas in the third, even with a running left handed drive.
“The team started playing better before I got back, so I won’t take credit for that,” said Thomas. “But just to be out here to help feels good for me. I’m trying to stay active and play hard and it paid off today. I got to the free throw line a good bit of times.
And then Salmons had a big start to the fourth and the Bulls blew out to an 87-67 lead. They let down some, as they usually do, as the Pistons began to trap and forced a few more turnovers, though this time the Pistons never got within single digits.
“Sometimes when we get a lead we seem to not want to continually attack,” said Del Negro. “We’ve got to handle pressure better, but I liked the way we got after it defensively, got some deflections, got in the open court. Tyrus had some nice dunks and layups. We stress, ‘Don’t play the score and keep attacking. 
“We have a lot of young players. Young players make mistakes,” said Del Negro. “They get anxious and quick. We have to find a way to keep the turnovers down to give us an opportunity. Tyrus has done a nice job since he’s been back. He doesn’t settle and attacks off the dribble. It’s a big boost for us.
“(Joakim) did lose his balance a few times. He has a tendency to do that,” said Del Negro of some of Noah’s turnovers. “We did talk about that in a timeout: ‘Don’t leave Joakim alone. Everyone has got to get in and rebound the basketball. No leaking out.’ Jo’s been doing such a fantastic job we take that for granted sometimes to get out on the fast break.”
Perhaps we do begin to take him for granted now. But Noah has been a phenomenon on the boards to an extent nobody has seen here since Charles Oakley. Rodman? Sorry. Too many games taken off after hangovers. Tyrus has returned and been consistent with three good active games. Rose is pushing from the start and attacking and getting to the line. Salmons seems to have taken to the reserve role and is making shoots, seemingly with less pressure, Gibson has been dependable and even fellow rookie James Johnson got a highlight baseline dunk that had the bench up cheering and celebrating.
Happy New Year, Bulls. Maybe this will be a good year after all. Happy days are here again? Although I think they first sung that during the Great Depression.

Air Jordan cleared for landing in Springfield

There’s never an award night anymore. It becomes a weekend, and so it is for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the induction of the Class of 2009, featuring Michael Jordan.
And I had a favorite Jordan moment from Thursday evening, long after Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer were introduced briefly as the honorees for the year.
The gala enshrinement will be Friday night at Symphony Hall here and televised by ESPN at 5:30 (central). The Hall of Fame is moving the ceremony out of its building to the bigger music center downtown here to accommodate the larger crowd expected for Jordan’s entrance.
Jordan is scheduled to appear at a press conference starting Friday 9 a.m. (central) along with the other inductees, and you know this is big for the Hall of Fame. There is planned for the first time a parade Friday evening here before the ceremony of the Hall of Famers in convertible limousines in a sort of red carpet arrival.
Though that remains up in the Air given a questionable weather report.
And my story has to do, appropriately enough, with the air.
During the awards dinner Thursday night to honor onetime Bulls coach Doug Collins with the Curt Gowdy broadcasting award and Bulls legend Johnny “Red” Kerr with the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award, Jordan stopped by to greet Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who was at a table with a large Bulls contingent.
Jordan joked casually with Reinsdorf and said he’d heard an earful of tall tales earlier from Bulls media chief Tim Hallam and Bulls ticket czar Joe O’Neil. Jordan laughed about the stories and said he’d catch up with everyone Friday.
It seems Jordan had called Hallam and O’Neil earlier in the week and asked if they’d like a ride on his jet to the ceremonies here.
Because Michael remembered and was grateful.
No, the plane wasn’t filled with well wishers and celebrities and hangars on and sycophants.
It was Michael, longtime security man George Koehler, a Jordan friend, O’Neil and Hallam.
Both Hallam and O’Neil have been with the Bulls more than 30 years and were there during Jordan’s entire career. Hallam was the media specialist who protected Michael and served as a barrier as the media intensity and demands grew to proportions never seen before in professional sports. Hallam was there to guide Jordan as well, to let him know, gently, when perhaps he needed to do something or speak to someone he may not have wanted to, though it would serve him well later.
O’Neil was the man behind the tickets with the Bulls. Michael always had more demands than anyone, and even this weekend has a huge contingent of friends and family coming. Bulls tickets long have been a treasure in Chicago, and O’Neil always made sure Jordan could get what he needed and where he wanted them so Michael could look good for the people he wanted to impress. It wasn’t always easy and required some fancy wheeling and dealing at times. But it got done.
They are the kinds of guys you need but who are so easy to forget. They’re wallpaper of sorts, lending something special and distinctive, always there and easily taken for granted.
The demands are many; the thanks are few.
Michael moved on a decade ago. But he remembered.
So he called Hallam and O’Neil and said he had a jet going to Springfield for the ceremonies and since they were going, why didn’t they come with him. Just some guys smoking cigars and talking old times. Guys like Hallam and O’Neil don’t do the things they did because it was Michael Jordan. They do them now and did them before Jordan arrived. It’s not only because it was their job. It’s because they’re pros.
Jordan remembered and appreciated and wanted to say thanks.
Now that’s cool.
There were several other awards presented Thursday, including to Bob Lanier and Alonzo Mourning with the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award and Peter Vecsey the print Gowdy award.
But Collins’ comments were the highlight.
Collins talked about persevering through the knee injury that prematurely ended his career and three coaching firings, though Collins also singled out Reinsdorf for his support over the years.
Charles Barkley, who was sitting with Collins, wagered Collins couldn’t finish without crying, and Barkley likely won, apparently among the few wagers he wins if we can believe his gambling stories.
Collins broke down in talking about son Chris, who won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 as part of the coaching staff, the medal that Collins was robbed of in the 1972 Olympics in the refereeing controversy. Collins also introduced his daughter, Kelly, and referenced the Temptations song, “My Girl,” and then brought up two other songs, “The Wind Beneath my Wings” by Bette Midler and “You’re he Best thing to Ever Happen to Me,” by Gladys Knight and the Pips to describe his wife of 37 years, Kathy.
Can’t wait to get a look at Doug’s iPod.
Though the best stories were before the event at the Turner Sports reception for Collins with Barkley talking about the 1992 Dream Team.
I had asked Barkley if he’s staying with the big Jordan group at the Mohegan Sun complex, which the Hall of Fame is using for some events this weekend.
Nah, Barkley said. He can’t keep up with Jordan. On the court or off. So Barkley proceeds to tell about this time during the Dream Team games in the 1992 Olympics when he was out late one night with Jordan.
“The guy is amazing,” Barkley says, shaking his head (I’m omitting the questionable modifiers because this is not cable TV). “We go out at night and do something and he takes this power nap for like an hour and he’s ready to play golf in the morning. We play 18 and then everyone wants to leave to get a nap. We’re, like, ‘It’s a game that night.’ But he stays and plays another 18.
“Then we’re playing Puerto Rico or someone (it was Puerto Rico in the quarter finals) and there was something in the paper their point guard said about Michael,” Barkley goes on. “So Michael says to Chuck (Daly), ‘I got the point guard.’ And Chuck says, ‘Uh, OK.’ So Michael goes out and he won’t let this guy get the ball. He’s all over him, knocking the ball away and the guy can’t even get to the ball. It was like that with him. He’s guarding this guy all over the court and he doesn’t want to come out of the game and he’s dunking and pushing everyone to play harder. I’ve never seen anything like that with anyone. The guy is unbelievable.”
On Friday, Jordan, the most amazing of basketball talents, gets his reward from the Basketball Hall of Fame. They have the old Naismith peach bucket hanging there on display at the beautiful center court area of the Hall. I thought I may have seen an image of the Jumpman on it.

Gar Forman to be Promoted in Bulls Reorganization

It’s nice to see someone like Gar Forman get promoted to Bulls General Manager, which will be made official at a Berto Center press conference Thursday.
John Paxson will remain in charge as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, which is Paxson’s current title. The shorthand for that title around the NBA is General Manager. The Bulls have not officially had that title in recent years. Forman was Director of Player Personnel. So he gets a new title and some additional day to day internal responsibilities.
There was a fuss back in February about an erroneous report that Paxson was resigning.
That never was the case. But Paxson has been trying to get away from more day to day operations with the franchise and concentrate more on personnel decisions. So Forman figures to be involved in more of the daily “office manager” type activities that also fall on a general manager in addition to other responsibilities he’s taken on in recent seasons, including more direct relations with agents in contract talks.
The team’s hierarchy won’t change with Jerry Reinsdorf at the top with Paxson the ranking figure in Basketball Operations.
For Forman it’s a welcome reward for someone who went about his duties the way many of us want to be recognized: For our work ethic. Not just for telling everyone how good we are.
Forman has been the classic, behind the scenes foot soldier for the Bulls, a coaching and personnel lifer who came with Tim Floyd in 1998 as a scout and was the only one of the Floyd group to endure and work his way up quietly in various scouting and personnel jobs.
Forman worked the basketball bushes for years, starting as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Utah State, and then working his way through the less glamorous places like College of the Desert in Palm Springs, Cal Poly Pomona and New Mexico State, where he got to know Floyd. Forman then joined Floyd at Iowa State in 1994 and came to the Bulls with Floyd.
None of that, necessarily, suggests a career path to a top executive position with one of the major franchises in the NBA. But it’s good to see hard work, study and quiet determination pay off. It suggests hope for those who don’t have the right connections, influences or the ability to dunk a basketball.

Paxson Talks About Bulls Making Playoffs

It turns out it was a heck of a Friday for the Bulls.
That’s because after a one season absence, the Bulls returned to the NBA playoffs thanks to an Oklahoma City 84-81 victory Friday over the Charlotte Bobcats.
“It’s important for a lot of reasons,” said General Manager John Paxson, who made the key February trade that propelled the Bulls to win 13 of their last 20. “We felt we stumbled last year. When we got lucky in the lottery and were able to get Derrick (Rose), we all hoped we’d be good enough to make it.
“More importantly,” said Paxson, “it’s good for confidence. It gives Derrick a chance to play in the playoffs. Joakim (Noah) didn’t play last year. It’s still a fairly young group. We all know how different the playoffs are, the intensity and all. The only way to understand is to be involved. So it’s a good thing for us.”
With the Bobcats’ loss, the Eastern Conference playoffs now are set with the Bulls and Pistons the last two teams in. It’s still to be decided whom the Bulls will open against.
The Bulls, 39-40 and tied with Detroit, have an outside chance of moving as high as fifth, which would mean a series with Atlanta, which Friday clinched fourth with Miami’s loss in Boston. It looks like the slumping Magic, losers to the Knicks at home, will be third with Boston the No. 2 seed and Cleveland No. 1.
The No. 8 seed will open in Cleveland, No. 7 likely in Boston, No. 6 likely in Orlando and No. 5 in Atlanta.
“This is a step,” Paxson said. “None of us want to get overly excited because this isn’t the standard we want to have. With that said, there are three games left (Charlotte at home Saturday). All of us would like to get to .500 and play well these last three games. Maybe finish above .500. Our guys should be playing for that.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Paxson. “We’ll be playing one of the top three no matter where we finish. So why not just go out and lay it on the line and play and give it your best shot and see what happens.”
No one will expect—or predict—the Bulls to win a playoff series, perhaps even against Atlanta. But the Magic is stumbling. They are 3-3 in April and have scored more than 100 points just once. And Kevin Garnett remains out for the Celtics. He is expected back for the playoffs, but the Bulls beat Boston last month with Garnett out. The Cavs still are playing the best and beat the Bulls three of four, the last in Cleveland a blowout. But they all were before the February trade and the Bulls did have an overtime win the last time the teams played.
The Bulls seeding should become fairly clear after Monday’s game in Detroit against the Pistons, who currently are tied with the Bulls.
Though making the playoffs seems a small feat for a team that won six titles in the 1990’s and swept defending champion Miami just two years ago. But the Bulls fell in danger of collapse last year with the firing of coach Scott Skiles and then interim Jim Boylan, and then the uncertainty and early season failings with new coach Vinny Del Negro.
The Bulls had an ugly January and fell to 18-27 after losses to Oklahoma City, Toronto, the Knicks and Thunder.
Managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf criticized the team’s play in midseason, and there were rumors and speculation of Del Negro and Paxson being in trouble. But all of that has quieted with the trades for Brad Miller and John Salmons and the team’s much improved play since the All Star break.
“It wasn’t looking like we would be (in the playoffs),” said Paxson. “You’ve got to give the (coaching) staff credit for staying with it every day. The players, obviously, wanted this to happen. They kept battling, and there was no question we’ve gotten better.
“Getting John and Brad on board helped us immediately, especially when Luol (Deng) went down,” said Paxson. “If we were not able to do that we would have been in real trouble. The thing about a season is it’s long. People tend to want to analyze quickly and determine your fate quickly. You’ve still got to play all 82. Everyone worked real hard. It’s good for our players.
“I always like to see players rewarded when they don’t quit and hang with it and buy in,” said Paxson. “I’m really happy for them. And for Vinny and the staff it’s important the positive reinforcement with how much time they put in.
“We’ve done it, and it’s not like we’ve been completely healthy,” noted Paxson. “A lot of teams have had injuries. We’ve had our share. We could have faltered. The guys haven’t. They played through it. Even when we suffered bad losses here and there, we bounced back and righted the ship.
“One thing that happened is with all the injures, a lot of times the rotation was shortened,” said Paxson. “Some guys gained confidence with the minutes they got. So there was some benefit in that. Guys are playing a lot of minutes, but in this case with us it probably was good in finding confidence with the minutes.
“When Lu got hurt, if we hadn’t had John being able to step in and play like he played, I don’t see how we ever would have gotten here,” said Paxson. “He’s been a huge difference. We were pretty lucky there.
“We’ve been good at home,” said Paxson. “And even when we weren’t particularly playing well at home, we found ways to win those games. And I think Derrick’s contribution in those games has been really meaningful. We’ve come back in a lot of games. He’s done his thing, but didn’t really take control until the fourth quarter. He’s made huge plays for us in the fourth quarter to help us win some home games. We haven’t always played great at home, but we found ways to win. Which we could not say last year and early this year. This is a step.”
And somewhat unexpected this season. Now to see where it leads.

Johnny Red and Norm Would Have Appreciated This Win

It was a night the Bulls would have made Johnny Red and Norm proud.
The Bulls Saturday had a moment of silence for their first coach and longtime broadcaster Johnny Kerr and one of the stars of their great 1970’s teams, Norm Van Lier. Both died Thursday, and the Bulls players they so loved and agonized over couldn’t have provided them with a greater tribute in the biggest comeback of the season, a game won with tough, rugged, never-give-up defense and heart.
So I can smile a little and hear Red yelling, “Bulls win! Bulls win! with Derrick Rose’s driving pull up seven footer to give the Bulls their first lead of the game with 32.1 seconds left after trailing by 17 points with under six minutes remaining and then going on to beat the Houston Rockets 105-102.
And I can see Norm banging the table and saying how that was more like it with the Bulls’ best defensive stand of the season, a 23-2 run to close the game with Brad Miller brilliantly denying Yao Ming in the post with a blue collar, ditch digging aggressive fronting game and the kind of overall defensive effort that has been all too rare this season.
“Brad Miller did a great job and Joakim did a great job with 15 rebounds,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “Tyrus (Thomas) was active (with 19 points and nine rebounds). We got good performances from a lot of guys. I liked our demeanor. I liked our toughness and I liked our attitude. The bench was doing a great job of supporting the guys. It was a good sign especially after some of our frustrating losses lately.”
There is more possible frustration as Luol Deng left the game with what Del Negro described as a possible stress fracture of his right leg.
“It doesn’t sound very good,” said Del Negro.
Deng said he’d been experiencing soreness for a few weeks and felt something coming down after a first half shot. He said “worst case” he’d be out for the season.
“The x-ray revealed something in there,” said Deng, who was told by team doctors it was a possible stress fracture. “We’ll get the MRI and see. I just hope it’s not that bad.”
Tim Thomas also left with a hyperextended left knee, which he termed day to day.
But the story of this game was a shocking turnaround led by Rose, who had 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals in probably his best overall game of a potential Rookie of the Year season.
“I was just trying to score quickly,” said Rose, who had 16 in the fourth quarter while Ben Gordon added 11 of his 16 overall. “We knew that if we could score and stop them on D, we could come back. Down the stretch, it came together. We came together in the huddle and said the game wasn't over. It was whoever got the ball, just push it. Just push it, pass it, get movement.”
And enough of this giving up stuff, like in Washington Friday, and enough of not playing in the fourth quarter. It’s been a quiet controversy around the team with Rose being pulled often recently late in games. It’s been something of a head scratcher, though Rose would never complain about it and again Saturday reiterated that he had trust in Del Negro’s decision making.
“Of course you want to be out there as a player,” said Rose. “(He) puts the players in who thinks can win the game and that’s what we’ve got to go with. My teammates, we all trust in him and that’s what the coach is doing.”
It wasn’t clear for awhile as the Bulls came out soft on defense again, trailing 31-26 after one and 58-55 at halftime, though Tyrus Thomas had returned to playing more aggressively, diving into the stands to save a ball, picking off an inbounds pass and dunking to close the half in a spirited 10-point second quarter.
But Ron Artest, hitting threes and uncanny shots from all over until giving it back with some forced threes late, looked like he’d drive the Rockets to the win as he finished with 32 points.
Houston took an 88-71 lead after three quarters with a late quarter meltdown by Miller, who gave Houston four free throws to end the quarter with a bailout foul of Kyle Lowry shooting from almost behind the basket and Miller fumbling a John Salmons inbounds pass and fouling out of frustration.
The Bulls gained some life to open the fourth with Noah running out for a score and Rose with a pair of short jumpers. But Houston recovered when Von Wafer ran out after a Tyrus Thomas bad pass, Artest drove past Thomas and dunked and then hit a pair of rainbow jumpers for a Houston 99-82 lead with 5:51 left.
Stick a fork in em, eh?
C’mon, we’ve seen this before. We saw it in Washington Friday night, a time for surrender.
“I did not think we gave up last night,” demurred Del Negro “I just think we did not have the mindset to fight through it. Washington was on a roll. They scored in bunches and we did not react well to it. Tonight we had some turnovers and lost the ball in the lane, but I told the guys we have to keep after it. If they keep working, good things happen. In the fourth quarter, things get more physical. I thought our guys banged and we were getting out and running.”
Just like Johnny Red and Norm always instructed them.
It was a thing of beauty to watch.
Gordon, curiously, had been out almost the entire third quarter and had attempted one shot since about five minutes left in the first quarter. Say what you will about Gordon, and the Bulls will have to consider this after the season. But they have difficulty scoring without him. Salmons did have 12 in another workmanlike effort, and Kirk Hinrich had just seven on three of nine shooting.
Gordon had five points through three quarters.
He doesn’t accept such things.
So it started with Ben.
He drove left hard and put in a running left handed bank and followed that up with a quick pull up three after a Houston miss and suddenly down 12 with 5:11 left didn’t sound so bad.
“I had an overall sense of urgency,” said Gordon. “At that point, I had to come in quick and make a difference in the game. I was waiting there patiently. I didn’t let that stop me from continuing to be aggressive.”
Yes, that aggressive thing.
It’s one of the big basketball cliché words these days like focus and rhythm.
I try never to write them down or say them because they don’t actually mean anything. And it seems what LeBron and Kobe say in answer to every question.
But here’s what happened. For some reason the Rockets were not trapping Rose to get the ball out of his hands. One reason was Gordon was out there. And he was getting hot. You need that kind of weapon when the defense begins to laser in on Rose.
So with just that bit of hesitation, and that Rose do-anything-to-win-the-game mentality, the Bulls had a chance.
They can score with anyone, though usually their issue is defense.
They’d been playing Yao Ming with varying double teams from different angles and it wasn’t working much as Yao had 17 through three quarters. He finished with 17. And on a team that starts its offense going through him. Go into Yao, who is hard to hold off. Double and he’ll find a shooter, like Artest Saturday.
The best and toughest way to defend the post is by fronting the post man. That was the Scott Skiles staple and the key to his team’s defensive successes. The Bulls have not wanted to do it under Del Negro, and it’s left them vulnerable with no great individual defenders. It’s really hard work, especially on someone as big as Yao.
“We said (heck with) it,” said Miller. “We made the adjustment no matter what. They hit all those threes in third quarter, so we changed it up. You had to work your butt off to get around that guy.
“Last night I think everyone had to be a little bit embarrasses the way we finished that game,” said Miller. “Tonight was a big game to show character. We got down, but said to stay with it and kept guys fired up and saying we’re going to get back in this. We just kept fighting.”
The Rockets couldn’t get the ball into Yao with Miller fighting his way around and Noah watching for the lob over the top. So on just about every possession, the Rockets got down to a few seconds left and had someone, usually Artest, force up a shot.
“I take blame for this loss,” said Artest, who had to be escorted by teammates off the court at the end of the game as he protested the lack of a foul call on a potential tying three at the buzzer than Salmons apparently blocked. “I could have been more helpful for us to sustain the lead. The fourth quarter was a big disappointment. You have to put teams like this away and we didn't. They beat us. Give them all the credit. Derrick Rose stepped up and took control. Yes, I was fouled at the end. It was a bad non-call but that wasn't what beat us. This game was like a playoff atmosphere. They played tough defense when they front Yao like that you have to force them out of it and we didn't do that.”
Playoff atmosphere? Why not as the Bulls went to 27-33. Twenty two games left. I’m saying a .500 record gets them in. I know. Not much to brag about. But they still need to win those 10 games.
They will, and perhaps more, if we see more of Rose like that.
I know Del Negro protested again when I asked him about Rose not playing down the stretch recently.
“The thing with Derrick is people forget he is a rookie,” said Del Negro. “He does make mistakes. I have more confidence in Derrick than just about anybody and he has been fantastic all year. You have to go with the peaks and valleys. We have a few young players. There are going to be inconsistencies. As the young guys develop, we are going to have chances to win and more consistent wins.”
Rose is not a rookie, at least not by any standards we’ve seen.
He didn’t hit any so called rookie wall I could see, and as a rookie Magic Johnson was the best player in the Finals and Michael Jordan was averaging almost 30 points and Dwyane Wade was making big game winners. When you have a special player, as I believe Rose is, you should never give him or yourself or the community the excuse of saying he is a rookie. He doesn’t play like one. Some guys in their seventh seasons play like rookies. You judge guys by what you see, and in Rose we see a player who can take over games.
And so he did Saturday with a will as strong as his talent.
He started it off missing a three, following the shot (yes, he knows fundamentals, too) and scoring on a layup. Then came a pull up 10 footer, a floater in the lane, then Gordon fouled for two free throws and Noah hitting Rose cutting for a score and foul. And then after the Bulls again thwarted the Rockets trying to get the ball into Yao and forcing a turnover, Gordon scored over a jarring Noah screen and it was, amazingly, tied at 102 with 1:08 remaining.
“What do you want me to say about Rose,” said Houston coach Rick Adelman. “He got into the paint and killed us on the pick and roll.”
Luis Scola then missed a jumper, which was rebounded by now an everywhere Rose. The Bulls called time with 39.6 seconds left, and Rose came out with Aaron Brooks on him. Noah knocked Brooks off with another hard screen—for you, Norm—and Rose pulled up with Scola and Artest coming at him and hit the short jumper.
It was interesting before the game as reporters talked with General Manager John Paxson about Kerr and Van Lier. At one point, WSCR’s David Schuster asked about Rose, and Paxson said, prophetically, as it turns out, “I just want Derrick to keep doing what he’s doing. If he’s a little more aggressive, that would be great.”
So I got the sense that perhaps Rose heard this before, and this time got the chance again.
“Just attack,” said Rose. “I know there’s no way he should be able to get in front of me if I’m coming in quick, so just try to get the ball up.”
Yes, he’s thinking the game as well.
Artest then missed a pair of jumpers as he was now forcing shots, and then Houston fouled Salmons, who made one of two. It was 105-102 with 11.1 seconds left. The Bulls had a foul to give, but that got lost in the translation as Del Negro said he called for it, but no one gave it as the inbounds pass was deflected into the backcourt. Artest retrieved it and weaved his way into place on the left side for a potential tie. The shot wouldn’t get far. Artest said foul. Clock said zeros. Referees said, “Game over.”
After being dominated by a bad Wizards team Friday, the Bulls outrebounded the Rockets, who had won six straight and are 37-22, 51-40. The forced 16 turnovers for 23 points and dominated on inside points 52-36.
Appropriately, there was much talk about Johnny Kerr and Van Lier before the game, and Paxson quoted team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf as saying the best way to honor the two Bulls legends was to play hard.
“It’s great to hear but it’s better to see,” said Paxson. “I hope they mean it and they show it. Norm did play hard and even though Johnny was never a Bulls player, he was an iron man, played 850-plus consecutive games and both competed, so I do hope our guys compete.”
It was the ultimate homage Saturday.
Thanks, guys.

Bulls All-Star pot pourri from Stoudemire to Paxson

Amare who?
So I’m headed to All-Star weekend to get the inside stuff on Amare Stoudemire and whether by next week he’ll be a Bull, and suddenly Bulls fans don’t care. Well, don’t care first.
Amare, by the way, was voluminous when he met reporters here Friday, and I’ll have more in a later post.
Here’s a sampling: “I do see them keeping me. It’s possible. I’m leaning more towards 60-40, with 60 them keeping me. I don’t know, man. I would love to stay in Phoenix. My whole career has been here. My fan base is here. I’m totally in the loop on what’s going on. It’s a business. You don’t know how it’s going to play out. You just have to stay focused and positive. They’re saying it’s a financial decision. It’s hard for them to afford all our players. Everyone is on the trading block according to them. I don’t know if they’re giving up on the season or we’re trying to win a championship here. I’m not sure. In the middle (of all the rumors), are you kidding me? I’m on top. There are a lot of rumors about Chicago, Cleveland, Miami. I think any team I go to, I have a lot to bring to the table. I never worry. That’s one thing I do. I know from a basketball standpoint, I’m always going to work hard.”
Stoudemire was eloquent despite being grilled by reporters for at least 30 minutes, especially about the dysfunction facing his Suns.
As I heard him talk and heard the talk going around, it sounded more and more like the Suns might just wise up and keep Stoudemire. The rumors were coach Terry Porter could be let go with assistant Alivin Gentry taking over and a new push with the group that’s there, including opening up the game with Gentry, who worked closely with former coach Mike D’Antoni.
In any case, we’ve got a few days for that one as the bigger rumor, especially for Bulls fans, was the report by the New York Post’s Peter Vecsey that Bulls general manager John Paxson would be stepping down after the trading deadline.
The report produced all sorts of speculation from Paxson being fed up with the team to health problems.
Shortly after that, the Bulls released a statement from managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf that said: “Pete Vecsey is not a credible enough source to comment on. Two weeks ago he had John being fired. Now he has him resigning. Someday Vescey might get something right, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”
I don’t think anything actually happened, and my sense is nothing major has changed. Paxson has expressed concerns about the job for some time since the firing of Scott Skiles last season. Though when I spoke with a number of general managers recently for a story here about the job, just about all expressed reservations. I haven’t gotten the sense that anything is imminent or about to change dramatically with the Bulls, and everything I’ve heard suggests Paxson isn’t going anywhere.
It was just a few weeks ago when Reinsdorf appeared on Comcast SportsNet to give Paxson his unqualified support.
“When you have a team that’s not performing, it’s an organization failure,” Reinsdorf said. “You win and you lose as an organization. But if there’s one person that is not responsible for what’s going on right now, it’s John Paxson. I have tremendous confidence in John Paxson. He’s really one of the best people that I know. He’s a great general manager and a great judge of talent. I just worry that he not be too hard on himself. He takes all of this very, very seriously.”
The first trade of the week came down Friday when the Raptors dealt Jermaine O’Neal And Jamario Moon to the Miami Heat for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. The Heat also get a conditional first round pick and Toronto gets the maximum $3 million in cash, so it, effectively, is like buying a draft pick.
I don’t quite understand the trade for Miami as the move means they, effectively, traded Shaquille O’Neal for Jermaine O’Neal a year removed. The key is the expiring contracts with Marion’s $17.8 million coming off the books this summer and Jermaine’s after the 2009-10 season. It doesn’t put Miami out of the bidding for the 2010 free agents, but I’d rather save the money after this season by letting Marion go. Though Heat president Pat Riley has talked about wanting to get away from the small team he now has.
The question is how big Jermaine is anymore.
He is injured often and doesn’t have much explosion anymore to be a dominant big man. Though with Dwyane Wade, perhaps it’s unnecessary. Riley clearly believes the Heat can make a run this season while Toronto has collapsed with the acquisition of O’Neal and it seems a last ditch effort to make a run for the playoffs with Andrea Bargnani moving to center and Marion at small forward.
Also, in no big surprise Michael Jordan headed a field of 16 finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame. The announcement of the inductees, which is sure to include Jordan in his first time eligible, will be in April. This may be one of the biggest classes ever with other finalists including David Robinson, John Stockton, Don Nelson. Jerry Sloan, Dennis Johnson, Bernard King, Al Attles, Chris Mullin and Johnny “Red” Kerr, just recently honored by the Bulls and the Hall of Fame with the lifetime achievement award.
Meanwhile, there was a rumor the Bulls were talking about a trade involving Zach Randolph. Not true.
So let’s get back to the vital matters of the day: Amare?