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All signs pointing to Thibodeau as next Bulls coach

Boston Celtics associate head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently has emerged as the top candidate for the Bulls head coaching job to replace Vinny Del Negro.

Although the Bulls privately are saying there is no agreement and they are only talking seriously with Thibodeau, at least one Boston newspaper is reporting Thibodeau will be the Bulls’ next coach.

The Boston Herald Friday night quoted an anonymous source saying Thibodeau is the Bulls choice to be their next head coach and a contract offer is being formulated.

There have been other reports of a three-year deal similar to the contract Del Negro worked under and that former Chicago prep star and 76ers All-Star Mo Cheeks and former Bulls assistant Ron Adams, both now on the staff of the Oklahoma City Thunder, could work with Thibodeau. Another source, whose information could not be confirmed, said Thibodeau has been given an informal offer in preparation for working out an official deal.

There also are media reports circulating the New Orleans Hornets, who were first to pursue Thibodeau as a potential head coach, have turned to Portland assistant Monty Williams and will likely hire him as coach.

Thibodeau reportedly also has received strong consideration to fill the open New Jersey Nets coaching job. Nets sources say Thibodeau indicated a preference, instead, for the Bulls job.

There also remains the possibility Celtics coach Doc Rivers could take a leave after this season to spend more time with his family and replace Doug Collins on TNT broadcasts. Would Thibodeau replace him? Boston sources said Thibodeau is more interested in the Bulls situation because of the young core and salary cap flexibility and what he believes is a bright future for the team.

Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson met with Thibodeau earlier this week in Los Angeles and reportedly came away impressed over the meeting. Team officials also have learned that despite having the chance for two different head coaching jobs after a career as an assistant, Thibodeau apparently passed on both and risked having no offer so he could only just have a chance for the Bulls position.

Thibodeau has been mentored in his coaching ambitions by his longtime colleague Jeff Van Gundy, who despite criticism of the Bulls’ decision with Del Negro, advised Thibodeau the Bulls job would be the most desirable, sources said.

Thibodeau also is represented by the Creative Artists agency, which also represents potential free agent LeBron James. The Cavs Friday after previously firing coach Mike Brown accepted the resignation of general manager Danny Ferry. That led to speculation both of an organization in crisis on the verge of losing James or preparing a management team opening for James to return and fill, perhaps someone like Larry Brown or John Calipari.

But it may work to the Bulls’ advantage to have someone like Thibodeau, who has a close working relationship with some of the top business advisors to James who will be helping James get his next contract.

Although Thibodeau never has been an NBA head coach, he is one of the most experienced assistants in the league and an expert on defensive system play who has been on the sidelines as the associate head coach, as he is in Boston, or top assistant in more than 125 playoff games and three NBA Finals. While no one assistant is responsible for all elements of a system, Thibodeau generally has been the defensive coach in 19 seasons in which his teams finished in the top 10 in defense 16 times.

Thibodeau worked for Van Gundy with the Knicks and Rockets and has been with the Celtics four seasons.

There has been a vague criticism of him as a workaholic who finds it difficult to relate to players and staff, though friends of Thibodeau have long been confused about the charge. Van Gundy and Rivers this spring both raved about Thibodeau’s work ethic and relationships with their teams, and I’ll add I know Thibodeau and have always found him relatively pleasant and unassuming, a man who simply likes to talk basketball with a ready good humor. You can only go by how people treat you and I never have had issues with Thibodeau.

He, basically, is a career assistant, a basketball gypsy and lifer who began coaching at his alma mater, Salem State U. in Connecticut. He then was an assistant at Harvard, where he coached President Barack Obama’s Education secretary Arne Duncan, who long has been an ardent supporter of and advocate for Thibodeau as an NBA head coach.

Thibodeau started in the NBA in 1989 working with Bill Musselman in Minnesota, where Thibodeau worked more with the offense. Coaches who worked with him there belied the notion he is only a defensive planner. Thibodeau scouted for Seattle after leaving Minnesota and then was an assistant with the Spurs and 76ers before moving to the Knicks with Van Gundy, who long has championed Thibodeau’s credentials.

Ironically, one of the issues that led Mike D’Antoni to leave the Suns and go to the Knicks was management’s request that D’Antoni hire Thibodeau as associate head coach for defense.

Van Gundy has chosen to remain a TV broadcaster, but most around the NBA regard him as one of the most astute minds in the game and don’t believe he’d damage his reputation or push for Thibodeau for so long unless he believed Thibodeau could be a high level coach. And you have to start somewhere to be a head coach as coaches like Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Van Gundy were little known assistants before getting their first chance. The key for them was they got good teams and top players.

If Thibodeau is able to attract someone like Cheeks to his staff along with holdovers Pete Myers and Randy Brown, the Bulls would have a strong mix of veteran NBA minds and popular and tough former players to comprise an enviable staff.

The Celtics gave teams permission about a month ago to begin talks with Thibodeau after denying him a chance to interview two years ago when Boston was last in the Finals. That probably most hurt Thibodeau’s chances with the Bulls, who were not permitted to interview Thibodeau. This time the Celtics agreed to give Thibodeau a chance and two of the more respected GMs in the league, Jeff Bower in New Orleans and Rod Thorn in New Jersey, quickly made him their top priorities.

Of course, all this could be for naught as no official deal has been struck. But it seems clear that Thibodeau holds the chance to coach the Bulls in highest regard. It also doesn’t appear the Bulls are as close to making a decision with any other top candidate. Plus, Phil Jackson has taken himself out of the mix and Rivers with a year left on his deal after going to the Finals certainly is not going to be allowed by the Celtics to leave and join a conference foe.

The Bulls have indicated they’d talk with other candidates, including Hall of Famer Kevin McHale. But in Forman’s initial remarks about what the team is seeking in a coach he stressed a thorough knowledge of the game and the players, a teacher and someone with a strong defensive system of play.

Plus, the reports in the Boston media strongly suggested the offer to Thibodeau is imminent. There is no deal until there is a deal, and many NBA deals have disappeared before being signed.

But the Boston Herald is known to be close with Celtics coach Rivers and was the publication that first reported Rivers’ interest in perhaps sitting out next season. It would be expected Thibodeau would inform Rivers since the Celtics are in the NBA Finals and Thibodeau would be expected to finish the series on the Celtics bench before joining the Bulls if a deal is forthcoming and finalized. But with the draft upcoming and planning for free agency probably becoming urgent once the Finals concludes, it would make sense to have a coach in place before too long.

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Draft Lottery result raises more free agent questions

What do you suppose LeBron James said Tuesday when he watched the NBA Draft Lottery and saw the No. 1 pick, expected to be Kentucky guard John Wall, go to the Washington Wizards and the 70-loss New Jersey Nets fall to No. 3?

I assume he said he wasn’t going to any franchise with that kind of luck and would probably sign with the Bulls, because while John Paxson was going to the bathroom back home two years ago, the Bulls got the No. 1 pick and Derrick Rose in the lottery.
Now that’s the kind of lucky franchise anyone would want to be with.
Of course, you know for the next two months we have to consider what LeBron would have said and done almost any time of day and night.
I heard he looks marvelous.
I, for one, now wear my WWLD—What Would LeBron Do—bracelet, thinking constantly WCIDTGL—What Can I Do To Get LeBron.
In any case, if you’re keeping score, it probably was a good night for the Bulls, as the Nets have been considered one of the contenders for prize free agent James. The theory was they’d get Wall and then be able to do a sign-and-trade of Devin Harris for another free agent, perhaps Joe Johnson.
Now if the Nets have to keep Harris, as there are no other top point guards in the draft, they don’t have much to trade. They’ll still get a good player in the draft, probably George Tech forward Derrick Favors and, nevertheless, have potentially a formidable roster with Harris and Brook Lopez. But it figures not to be quite as attractive assuming Wall is all he is supposed to be.
Does scoring the top pick put the Wizards in the mix for James, as they have cap room to spend on almost two max free agents?
Unlikely, since the Washington roster was stripped down after the suspension and subsequent jailing of Gilbert Arenas on a gun charge.
However, Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld says nothing has changed and they still expect Arenas with the team next season, it would seem more vital than ever for Washington to try to move Arenas.
He has the big contract averaging about $20 million per season for the next four years, which is a disaster. But I can see two potential suitors, the Knicks and Heat.
Both desperately need a point guard, and there’s a strong chance even the normally knuckleheaded Arenas will come back from his arrest much more stable. He’s only 28 and has been an All-Star.
I can see the Knicks making a move and then still having enough money to add two maximum contract free agent. You figure the Wizards would do about anything to get out from under that contract and allow Wall to grow with a new team without the shadow and controversy of Arenas hanging over them, which it surely would be every day.
Arenas is an actor and extrovert and could thrive in New York.
I could see the Wizards taking maybe Eddy Curry with a year left and Danilo Gallinari. Then you present to James Arenas at point and maybe Chris Bosh to come along. That’s three stars and you fill in with minimum guys, and New York always can come up with a few veterans in that range. So maybe the Knicks become bigger competition.
Perhaps even the Heat are a possibility. They, also, don’t have a point guard. To get out from under Arenas, you could see Washington taking on Michael Beasley and some of the old, bad deals the Heat have, like James Jones, and maybe throwing in a short term sign and trade for Udonis Haslem to equalize the money. So then you have Arenas, Dwyane Wade, you add James and you still have money for a mid level type free agent or even better.
You know Pat Riley thinks big and he’s going to gamble aggressively to secure James.
So what about the Bulls?
Could they take on Arenas?
I’d doubt it, though you could easily work it out financially for Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. But I don’t see the Bulls wanting a ball control Arenas in the backcourt with Rose, especially since Arenas is one of the poorest defenders in the NBA. I’d rather keep Deng and Hinrich, especially because the Bulls have a point guard, and a better one than Arenas ever has been. And that gives the Bulls perhaps the deepest roster of any of the teams potentially pursuing James.
So how does the draft go?
I’d assume the Wizards take Wall. Though some GMs mention Evan Turner or even Derrick Favors, you never pass the consensus No. 1. It’s too risky and will always cost you your job.
My guess given their roster is the 76ers at No. 2 take Ohio State’s Evan Turner to pair in the backcourt with Jrue Holiday, their young point guard the 76ers like. It would give them a potentially exciting young backcourt to grow with and with Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young could return to being the quicker and more successful team they were a year ago.
The Nets fall to No. 3, essentially wasting a season of 70 losses, underlying the basic inequity of the lottery as the Wizards and 76ers moved up.
You figure the Nets go with a big guy in Favors or DeMarcus Cousins to support Lopez.
Then comes the Timberwolves and Kings, who were the losers in falling back, the Timberwolves from second poorest record and Kings from third. Golden State also falls back two spots from fourth to sixth.
The Bulls have the No. 17 pick. They fell back two spots from No. 15 under the terms of the John Salmons deal as the Bucks were given the option to swap draft picks. With the Bulls making the playoffs, it ended up as a negligible change. And no one from the bottom moved up to the top, so if the Bulls had missed the playoffs they would have been at the bottom of the lottery, maybe four picks higher in a draft in which most GMs say after the top seven or eight it’s a crapshoot among the next 20 picks.
Though I wonder what LeBron would say?

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.

Bulls season ends with loss and questions begin

LeBron James was waiting for it, the subtle knuckleball of a question coming his way after his Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday eliminated the Bulls in five games with a tough 96-94 victory in the opening round playoff series.

James, who held together a shaky Cavs group that was feeling the pressure down the stretch with 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, called Derrick Rose a special talent who now is one of the top two point guards in the NBA. James said he wasn’t offended by anything Joakim Noah said as Noah was able to back up everything with his play on the court.
So wouldn’t Chicago, LeBron, be a nice place for a free…
James, wearing an oversized white sweater with an “LBJ” monogram bigger than Lyndon Johnson’s ranch, stopped me before I could finish.
“So I want to play with them?” James said with a laugh. I kind of figured that was coming.
“Those guys are great,” said James, going on without prompting. “First of all, I’m a fan of the game of basketball before I was a player. It just so happened with the God given abilities I have I was able to be successful in the game and be part of this league. Even when I’m done playing I still love the game. I watch the game every day. I know talent and those are two talented guys. They are going to be really good for this league for years to come.
“I know,” said James, walking away for the night and heading to Boston for the Eastern Conference semifinals, “I didn’t answer your question.”
And now that this season is over with another fun and entertaining first round playoff series, but again a first round elimination—”I don’t want us to be known as the team that always plays hard in the first round. The goal is to win the series and play in the big games,” said Noah—the big questions remain:
What is the fate of coach Vinny Del Negro?
GM Gar Forman said after the game no decision is imminent and the team, as usual, will do its post season evaluations.
Will the Bulls’ moves of letting go Ben Gordon and trading John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for salary cap space pay off in the signing this summer of a major free agent star to add to the talent base of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson?
“I think I am going to meet with them, the people in the front office, and just talk and see who we are going to get,” said Rose, whose brilliance with 31 points and six assists in Game 5 overshadowed even James with gasps and demands from the crowd to “stop that guy!” “It is going to be fun. We can get any one of them (potential free agents). We’ve just got to get the right one to fit the team. I’m going to have a say-so, but everything is going to be left up to the people in the front office. I wouldn’t say recruit like that, but Chicago is a great place, a great team, a great organization, the fans are great, so why not come there?”
And just who will be around to play with that free agent?
Certainly Rose and Noah. This series, if it wasn’t already clear, determined those two are untouchables. Bulls insiders confirm no offer could get the team to part with either one of them.
As for Hinrich and Deng, the off season will be an anxious one as both know they’ll be mentioned in trade talk and quite possibly be the bait for the sign and trade deal that a major free agent likely would desire.
“I think they’ve got good pieces, Derrick and Joakim and Taj and Luol, good, though guys,” said Hinrich, who has been a constant in trade rumors. “It’s a big summer for the organization. For myself, I’ve had a good time and enjoyed this year. I’d like to be back, if possible, but you never know.
“It seems every summer or trade deadline my name comes up,” Hinrich said with a wry laugh. “I don’t worry about it. This summer I’ll try to improve and get work in and work hard and be ready to go.”
Dressing near Hinrich in a relatively light Bulls locker room given the circumstances—those guys really did seem to like one another and get along well—Deng was getting up to leave. He was pleased to get through the season mostly healthy after a stress fracture last year and will play for the Great Britain national team summer, likely with former teammate Ben Gordon.
“Everybody talks about the future,” Deng acknowledged after an active 26 points and six rebounds with eight of 11 free throws. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a bright future. I’m sure the organization feels the same way. I’d love to be here my whole career. But you have to understand the business side. There’s always going to be changes. As a player and professional you have to work on your game. Every year is different.”
This one sure was with Rose hurt early in the season but playing through it without his usual explosion. Was the kid done already?
That led to a rocky start, a five game losing streak on the “circus” Western Conference trip in November, and then the December meltdown which produced a hysterical reaction and stories of the imminent firing of Del Negro.
The Bulls lost at home to 1-19 New Jersey, then went to Atlanta and lost by 35, lost by 32 at home to Toronto, lost by 26 at home to Boston and blew that 35-point lead at home to the Sacramento Kings and fell to 10-17.
But Rose recovered and so did the Bulls with a five-game winning streak out west in the January/February trip and suddenly the Bulls were 23-22 and moving up on fifth in the East.
Rose made the All Star team, the first Bulls player to do so since Michael Jordan, but Noah’s plantar fasciitis worsened and he went out. The Bulls got to 31-27 after the All Star break, but that game was the turning point as the Bulls beat Portland at home in overtime. But Del Negro played Noah longer than he was supposed to, Noah suffered a setback and had to sit out three weeks. The Bulls lost 10 straight and Del Negro had a confrontation with team executive John Paxson.
But the Bulls came back, winning 10 of their last 14 and the last three straight to make the playoffs, and James Tuesday admitted, yes, he wanted the Bulls.
Maybe a little to pay back the ills the old No. 23 put on the Cavs two decades ago, but more to get better prepared for what lies ahead.
“We knew this (Bulls) team would push us,” complimented James. “Honestly, we’d rather play Chicago more than Toronto. We knew we were going to get pushed a little more. Not taking anything away from Toronto (sure), but with (Chris) Bosh being out the rest of the season, it looked like they didn’t even want to make the playoffs at the end of the season, especially when you see that game in Toronto with Chicago. So with Toronto it probably would have ended the same way as last year (with an opening round sweep).
“When Chicago made the eight seed, I was excited,” said James, who did control his dancing this series. “Because we knew we had to be in tune on every possession. That team plays hard no matter the score or time, no matter what the series is.”
It’s the way you want to be known around your sport, and I didn’t take it as James just being kind to a loser.
Yes, the Bulls had their usual home big loss, as they always seem to do, like last year in Game 3 against Boston or in Game 3 in the conference semifinals in 2007 against Detroit.
And that Game 4 loss left a bad taste for the team about this series.
“It was tough, the games they really won, they blew us out,” said Rose. “If anything, we just wanted to come out here and compete and try to make the game close. I think if we would have made the game close in the other games, it would have been a better series. But, we let them get out and get their runs and they are the type of team where they are too good offensively where, if one person is going, all of them get going. I wouldn’t take anything back, if anything, we can learn from it and try to work on it in the future.”
But the Bulls pushed the Cavs to the brink Tuesday in the game everyone just gave them.
Cavs players were locking up late in the game, seemingly reluctant to shoot as the Bulls kept coming with two Rose jumpers coming out after being halfway down and an amazingly bad continuation basket for Rose being reversed perhaps costing the Bulls the game. James even was yelling at teammates to shoot in the fourth, and there was a scare for him as he finished the game shooting a left handed free throw because he said his right elbow gets numb on occasion.
This was met with near post game panic by the Cleveland media as one reporter suggested James see Dr. James Andrews and another asked if he could reassure the Cavs fans.
“I don’t know, honestly, what’s going on (with it),” Jame said “I’ve done tests to try and figure this thing out, but it almost feels like you hit your funny bone and it kind of numbs up for a little bit. After I shot the first (free throw late in the game), that’s exactly what it did. I’m not concerned. I just want to try and get a better sense of what it may be. But Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. I’m healthy, I’m ready and we are looking forward to the second round. They don’t have any reason to panic.”
I know Noah had some fun with Cleveland with his comments, and it was a tough game for him with eight points, nine rebounds and seven turnovers while Shaq banged his way in for 14 points and eight rebounds.
But you really feel sorry for Cleveland fans, even more so than Cubs fans. Cubs fans generally are so drunk and having a good time, it doesn’t matter much. And they are in Chicago. You are in Cleveland with the Indians failures of the 1990’s, the Browns famous fumble, the Cavs losses to Jordan, and now this and LeBron is a free agent.
And you can almost feel the anxiety in the crowd, especially as the Bulls wouldn’t go away in Game 5.
It really was a fun game with 16 lead changes and five ties. The Bulls again outrebounded the bigger Cavs with Taj Gibson game high with 11 and a big edge in second chance points.
Again, the offensive holes were too much. The Bulls were two of 10 on threes while the Cavs were 10 of 26, making as many as the Bulls shot, and the Bulls had to earn their points with Rose driving and mid range jumpers, the hardest way in the NBA.
Which means: Go for Joe Johnson, a three point threat to spread the court, or Chris Bosh, a postup threat the Bulls never really have had to draw the defense inside. Either way, you open the court with one or the other. The Bulls have made themselves attractive with talent, but it still remains a question how many top players will leave their teams and whether you can out together the right sign and trade as top teams like the Lakers and Mavericks are rumored, as well, to be interested in sign and trade deals for the top talent.
The Cavs got a 27-20 lead late in the first, but Rose came back driving and scooping and shooting just out of reach floaters that were driving the Cavs nuts. It was 27-26 Cavs after one.
The Cavs pulled ahead 55-48 at halftime as they got out running on several Bulls turnovers and James found Williams and Delonte West for threes, a dangerous sign.
But the Bulls were doing some good things with James as Deng was picking him up sooner and forcing the Cavs to run more clock. Deng and Gibson did have some issues trying to contain Antawn Jamison early as he led the Cavs with 25, but just five after halftime.
LeBron began to take some turns on Rose earlier than in previous games as the Bulls pulled within 73-71 after three as the Cavs realized they were not going to shake this Bulls team.
“I told him (after the game) I love his game,” said James of Rose. “He’s awesome. He started this season probably as the third, fourth, fifth best point guard in the league. Now he’s one or two. He’s an unbelievable talent. No guard in the league has the athleticism he has, the speed and quickness. Chicago has a good one. I was guarding him because that’s the one guy who could beat us, their biggest threat.”
And Rose almost won it in the fourth.
He had two jumpers in the last four minutes spin in and out, and seemed to have a three-point play with the Cavs leading 80-79 with 8:10 left. But the refs reversed the call and said it wasn’t a continuation, and then James went down and scored and was fouled for a crucial turnaround that maybe cost the Bulls a chance to win.
“It hurt,” said Rose. “I thought I picked the ball up. They say, usually after you dribble, if you got fouled and dribbled again, it’s not continuation, but I think I picked the ball up while I ran into him. They didn’t call it and it hurt us. They came down, got fouled and LeBron got an and-one or something like that. It turned the game around.”
This came after another awful series of plays in which Brad Miller got entangled with Shaq, a long time foe, and Shaq almost came out swinging like several years ago at the United Center. But Miller got called for the fouls, getting the Bulls in the penalty early, and then Shaq scored against Noah to give the Cavs the edge just before that Rose play. Noah was astonished at the disparity of foul calls.
“We fought hard all year,” said Noah. “This is unbelievable that you can fight like that and it can come down to one or two plays. But we cannot get down on ourselves because we felt everyone on this team gave everything they had, even with the losing streak, the controversies. I still think we can be mentally tougher, but I feel overall with all that happened, what happened with coach, the losing streak, we fought hard. I would go to battle again with every single one of these guys.
“It was frustrating (in the fourth) they are calling our bumps and this guy is 400 pounds and trying to dunk on me every time, but I’ve got to learn from it,” said Noah. “If one day we want to be a championship team, we’ve got to beat these guys.”
The Cavs looked like they had it going up 93-86 with 2:44 left. I could quibble with some of the defensive switching that left Noah on an island on James and caused some foul trouble, but the Bulls brought help better on James late when he was the main option.
The Cavs fouled after having that lead and the Bulls got within 95-92 with 1:11 left. Rose had a floater go in and out and after an Anderson Varejao turnover when the Bulls got a smart double onto James, Rose came out of a timeout and came up short on a drive left handed.
“Yeah, he played great defense (James),” said Rose. “I thought he was going to jump and I was going to jump into him. It messed me up a little bit, messed up my timing. Usually, I hit that one with my left hand because I’m kind of good going to my left. Tonight, it didn’t go in.”
James then made the first free throw for a four point lead with 7.8 seconds left before throwing the second wild left handed and Deng scored at the buzzer to get the margin within a basket.
“We had it in our grip,” said Gibson, clenching his fist for emphasis. “We made them beat us.”
And so ended 2009-10 for the Bulls.
Reporters extracted votes of confidence for Del Negro from Rose and Noah, and even some praise from James.
“Vinny has done a lot as coach,” said Noah. “He’s done a very good job. He’s someone who early on was on my side. I always appreciated that. He gave me an opportunity to play.”
“I would vote yes (for retaining Del Negro),” said Rose. “That’s a guy where we both came in. He let me have my freedom, but still coached me and let me make my mistakes. I watched film with him almost every day. He taught me a lot just on defense and on offense and what I was supposed to do. The decision really isn’t up to me. It’s up to the front office, so I’m just going to let them worry about that and just deal with it.”
"Vinny and that coaching staff had those guys ready," added James when asked. "They have a group of young talent that loves to play the game of basketball and they play hard. There was not one point where they kind of laid down. I'm not trying to make a pitch for Vinny because I know what's going on — 'Is Vinny in or is Vinny out?' That's not my job, but this team that we played in this series played hard."
And so the season ends and the questions begin.
Is Del Negro the guy to lead this team to that next level they all seek?
Will they be able to get those players who will make a difference?
It’s been a heck of a ride thus far, bumpy, sure, uncertain and entertaining, and it’s only just begun.

Bulls and Coach Del Negro facing elimination game

It was an appropriate setting Monday in the Berto Center for what could have been the Bulls last full practice of the 2009-10 NBA season and perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s last as Bulls coach.

Yes, coach Vinny Del Negro had his back to the wall.

“Everyone is frustrated because we know we can play better,” said Del Negro of the Bulls being down 3-1 after Sunday’s 121-98 loss to the Cavs and LeBron James’ triple double and six three pointers. “But give Cleveland credit. They made plays. It’s not like we didn’t want to play better. They put us back on our heels a little. They made a run at the end of the first half and then jumped on us to start the third. Derrick (Rose) hurt his ankle and we got out of the flow a little. But our defense wasn’t good enough. We have to do a better job defending and making it harder on them. We did it in spurts, but we didn’t have consistency.”

It’s not a particularly upbeat time for the Bulls, and not only because of the playoff deficit to the league’s winningest team and likely MVP.

Rose and Luol Deng didn’t practice because of minor injuries.

Rose had an MRI on his ankle injury suffered early in the second half. It was negative, but he was sore. He traveled with the team to Cleveland and is expected to play Tuesday in Game 5.

Deng aggravated long standing knee and calf injuries.

“(Rose) was sore,” said Del Negro. ” He jammed it on Shaq’s foot. He was limping a little today, so hopefully he’ll feel better tomorrow. Luol’s knee and calf were a little sore. It’s that time of year. Things are going to happen. You have to get the guys out there who are healthy. Obviously we need both those guys to play at a high level. I think they’ll both be fine, ready to play. Who is 100 percent at this time of year? Not many guys.”

Well, the Cavs for 12.

James is playing at a tremendous level after sitting out the last four games of the regular season to rest while the Bulls had to play their way in with, effectively, three win-or-go-home situations. It has to have taken a toll, especially now facing a team which finished 20 games ahead of the Bulls.

James crowed about not returning to Chicago after Game 4, and it was not unlike the confident claims Michael Jordan would make in the 1990’s.

In that era, first round series were best of five. After the Bulls would win the first two, Jordan would generally tell his teammates to pack for one game.

He never was wrong. In the Bulls’ six championships, they never lost a first round game.

There also has been speculation about Del Negro’s job future basically going on since January of Del Negro’s first season, and it only has grown with a recent confrontation between Del Negro and Bulls vice president John Paxson.

It was a travel day for the Bulls Monday, so after a short practice, only Del Negro and Joakim Noah addressed reporters.

Del Negro had been asked some before the last regular season game about it being perhaps his final game as Bulls coach and he said he’d prepare as he always does and deal with other circumstances after the season. The question didn’t come up Monday.

Noah was asked about the speculation and reports regarding Del Negro, and said it hasn’t been an issue with the players, and that clearly seemed to be the case the way the Bulls overcame the Raptors late to make the playoffs.

“Those are things that we as players can’t control,” said Noah. “Our mindset is just to be ready for tomorrow’s game. We’re in this all together. A lot of things can happen and there’s a lot of rumors and speculation. But some things are better kept internally, kind of like a family or a frat, you know? Kind of like that.

“(It) doesn’t mean you guys have to know everything,” Noah told reporters. “As long as we fight every day on the court for you guys, what else do you need to know?

“How about we focus on this game tomorrow and see what happens and then when the season is over you figure it out?” Noah said. “It’s important to live in the moment. I’m enjoying this. Even though we got slapped by 30, I still think we’re in a good situation getting to play on the biggest stage in the world and battle it out tomorrow against the best players in the world. I think that’s pretty cool.”

It’s the ultimate optimism of youth. And the way the Bulls have played to come back from a March 10-game losing streak, you can never truly count them out.

Rose is averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 assists while Noah is averaging 16.5 points and 14 rebounds. The Bulls have been able to count on them, and Deng has been consistent averaging 17 points. The question will be whether the Bulls can get Kirk Hinrich rolling again. He is averaging 12.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting, but 58.3 percent on threes.

Overall, I feel the Bulls have played the Cavs the right way.

They’ve pretty much shut off the middle in Del Negro’s “elbows, boxes and nails” defense, which is a shorthand for the way the team provides a shell of a defense around the lane.

The key in playing the Cavs is keeping James out of driving the middle, where he then can attack the basket or pass off into the corners for threes.

Though James was scoring the first three games, the Bulls limited the other shooters. In Game 4 Sunday, James got into the middle more to free Antawn Jamison, who had 24 points and Mo Williams and Anthony Parker, who combined for five threes. James added another six, and the Bulls could not score at that level.

The Bulls have to push the ball to get over 100 points to match the Cavs, but the Cavs shot the ball so well Sunday the Bulls couldn’t run, and then, as Noah noted after the game, lost their enthusiasm and allowed the Cavs to run away.

Rarely have the Bulls when healthy played two poor games in a row, so if Rose’s ankle is OK I can see them making a good effort.

The elemental weakness the Bulls have on offense is the lack of a true post player, which they really haven’t had since, well, ever, and the lack of a consistent three point threat.

The Cavs have made 42 threes in this series. The Bulls have attempted 44.

That’s right, the Cavs have made 28 more threes in the four games while outscoring the Bulls by a combined by 44 points.

It’s the right strategy. See if they can beat you “over the top,” the shorthand for long distance shooting, and the Cavs have.

And why not try that given James shot 28.5 percent on threes in the regular season since the beginning of February, one of 14 in April.

“At times, you can live with, but when he’s (James) making six, you have to get up in him a little and come with the double-team,” said Del Negro, who did very late in Game 4 to finally take the ball out of James’ hands a few times. “You have to pick your spots with him. It wasn’t like we didn’t do that. He made one step across halfcourt, banked one in, things are going to happen. Those are the tough shots. That’s why it’s so important to take the easy ones away. The one where he splits you and takes a dunk, those you can’t have because you know he’s going to make some difficult ones.”

So I suggested to dare James to do it again. It’s easy to say you take the ball out of his hand with double teams, but that compromises your defense and rebounding, putting everyone out of position and helping. Great players do great things and James is great. And they do these things at big times. LeBron qualifies with some memorable playoff performances. But I think he’s more dangerous when he gets those other guys good shots, which comes when the defense is scrambling. Hey, LeBron, I’d say, you can’t shoot threes. Do it again!

You have to use some gamesmanship when you are behind and some innovation when you are a big underdog. Del Negro isn’t much a believer in that.

“Shouldn’t the message be he can’t do this again, let him try?” I asked Del Negro.

“No,” said Del Negro. “That’s your message. That would not be my message. It’s not one guy. Antawn played very well for them. They isolated him on the wings. He’s a very tough cover one-on-one. Mo is always Mo and you have to find him. It’s not just LeBron who is going to fill up the stat sheet. You have to have a huge amount of attention on him. But they’re very good for a reason. The reason starts with LeBron. But they have other players who are capable.”

I don’t deny that, but you have to try to lure the Cavs into doing things they don’t usually. Look, they are better and more talented and have the best player in the series.

So call out LeBron and see if he forgets he’s playing with the other guys. We know he’s got a giant ego, and maybe he wants to show you.

The Bulls had one of these elimination games last year in the Boston series, but it took three overtimes to finally win at home and go back to Boston for a seventh game.

Another key for the Cavs, I thought, was Shaq getting in foul trouble. That brought in J.J. Hickson, who runs the court and finishes strong and fits better with James in a smaller lineup in wich they are able to open the court better and get to the middle. Coach Mike Brown basically is looking two series ahead and trying to get Shaq ready for the Magic and Dwight Howard. Take advantage of that.

I’d put Jannero Pargo on Shaq.

Actually, Vinny hasn’t been very good with his bench, basically rarely using guys or so inconstantly that when he puts them in now for a short stint it’s difficult for them to do anything. So he pretty much has to stay with seven guys with Brad Miller and Flip Murray off the bench. James Johnson came in and committed several fouls on James when the Cavs closed the first half fast to get a 62-52 lead. But James is the Bulls best reserve matchup with James because of his size and basically has been told to play James physically. So he went a bit far in Game 4, but it was hardly his fault.

Given wildly fluctuating minutes, Hakim Warrick has been inconsistent.

I’d also liked to have seen Pargo some to match some three point shooting.

But you know making a move like that with Pargo on Shaq would force the Cavs and the sensitive Shaq to go at Pargo. Challenge the Cavs to beat you with Shaq. I don’t see how given how long he’s been out he could score much, and he might waste a lot of time doing so and slow the Cavs and take them out of their running and three-point shooting game.

It’s called junking up the game, but it’s OK when you are in a desperate situation. It doesn’t get more desperate for the Bulls than Tuesday.

“I think there was frustration because guys were so excited to play,” said Del Negro. “We were in the game and then we gave up some scores and free throws late in the half. We felt good at halftime with some of the stats we had (leading 16-5 in fast breaks and 26-19 on the boards). Then in the third quarter they jumped on us and Derrick hurt his ankle and we took quick shots and they built that lead on us. LeBron was hitting threes. There was frustration. But it’s been a very resilient group all year. I expect us to come out tomorrow. Our backs are against the wall.”

We’ll see if it’s a firing squad looking at all of them.