Moving forward

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Vinny Watch 2010 began with a thud. No Vinny.

As was reported Tuesday night by ESPN Chicago, the decision to fire Del Negro, or simply not employ him any longer as coach, looks like it will be finalized this weekend, at the earliest.

Del Negro, who finished his two-year turn as Bulls coach under inquisitive duress, was not seen Wednesday at the Berto Center by reporters, who passed the time by asking vague questions to tall millionaires desperate to go home.

And really, Vinny's status is the burning question after the Bulls' season ended with a 96-94 loss at Cleveland on Tuesday night.

Well, that and Joe Alexander's future with the team. But mostly Vinny, and of course, which free agents the team will pursue this summer. Only six players are signed for next year, meaning a major roster overhaul meant to turn this team into a contender.

After losing its first-round playoff series in five games to the high-flying, always dancing Cavaliers, the Bulls decamped to their practice facility for exit interviews with GarForPax, the Waddle & Silvy-named two-headed hydra of the front office -- John Paxson and Gar Forman.

"They just wanted to know what my plans for the summer were," a weary Joakim Noah said.

And those are?

"I'm going to take a little break from basketball," he said. "I'm going to enjoy my life for about a month and a half, come back and get ready to kick some [tail]."

That's code for: "Lake Erie, here I come!"

I would give two years off my life for a month and a half of Noah's summer, but I'm not sure he'd be willing to trade.

If I were Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson, playing with Noah, not to mention Derrick Rose, would be a major selling point to joining the Bulls.

Trust me, none of those guys cares how fairly Del Negro was treated here. That's as germane to the free-agent process as the new McDonald's drive-thru in Northbrook, or even less so. Guys want to win and get a big payday before the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

While Rose is coming into his own as a veteran presence, not just a burgeoning talent, Noah has emerged as the unquestioned leader of this team. I hope the front office consults with Noah, who is more likely to give a forthright opinion than the placid Rose, on any move this summer.

Noah has one of those personalities that attracts his peers, and his play is equally magnetic. If I were the Bulls brass, I'd eschew the marching band and mascot and just bring Noah to any romancing dinner.

"Would I help?" Noah said. "I think I'd be a good recruiter."

They might have to meet him at some poolside cabana, which wouldn't be bad, either. Noah certainly deserves some chill time. He was exhausted Wednesday after five games of going against Shaquille O'Neal, and his neck was marked with two deep, red cuts, making him look like an extra on "True Blood."

While they all don't look as bedraggled as Noah, everyone was ready for this season to end.

This Bulls campaign wasn't typical, even by recent standards, and it dragged on the players physically and mentally. This wasn't a learning season, and it wasn't a win-or-else-year. But the Bulls accomplished two goals I assume were stressed by GarForPax and their boss, Jerry Reinsdorf, who is inching toward a sports fiefdom in Glendale, Ariz., of all places.

First and foremost, they got way, way under the salary cap for the 2010 free-agent class, meaning they have the capacity to sign two free agents, at least one with a max contract.

The second, more modest goal was to make the playoffs, and they did that by one of Noah's whiskers. And they acquitted themselves fairly well in that regard. No one deserves a pat on the back for winning one playoff game -- and the Bulls had the chance to win more -- but the development of Noah and Rose went even better than expected, with Noah turning into a double-double machine and Rose a legitimate All-Star.

"I think there was a lot of good came out of the season," Noah said. "We showed everybody we're a young team with a bright future. Things are going to get better."

The team's devotion to the future became evident when it declined to offer Ben Gordon a contract last summer and was cemented when it traded John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for career backups.

Their absence was never more evident when injuries ravaged the team and sent it into a March tailspin. But thanks to a nosedive by the Toronto Raptors, the Bulls made the playoffs for the second straight year, giving the players some much-needed seasoning for future, deeper playoff runs.

While the Bulls seemed positive on Del Negro's influence, even if they were willing to picket the Berto to support VDN, it wouldn't make much of a difference. NBA coaches are well-paid temps, with their employment lifespan somewhat akin to that of an NFL practice-squadder.

There seems to be too much bad blood between Del Negro and the front office for him to come back for the final year of his contract. Del Negro will probably get another shot at being a head coach, but even if he and Paxson were best friends, he would still be a goner. If not this year, then next. As Kirk Hinrich said, Del Negro was a good coach for this team because he allowed the young team room to grow. Now it needs an experienced hand to guide it further.

So, very soon, the Vinny Watch will be over and the search for a new coach can begin. And after that, it'll be July 1 and free agent courtin' season can begin. "Who should the Bulls get?" has become a tired question for the players.

"Who, who who!" Noah said, before softening his voice. "That's the question."

"Exciting stuff, isn't it?" he added. Uh, no. Not yet, anyway.

Hinrich is one of the few players around from a similar situation. In 2006, the Bulls added Ben Wallace to much fanfare. He turned out to be a major disappointment, and Chicago -- despite winning a playoff series -- regressed. That resulted in the exit of Scott Skiles, not to mention Wallace himself, and in a turnabout of good fortune, it helped land Rose.

"I've been here before, where everyone thinks we're on the brink of taking it to the next level," Hinrich said. "The challenge is making sure it happens this time."

And there's the rub. The Bulls aren't guaranteed anything. If they can't get Bosh or Johnson -- Wade is a reach and LeBron should be a lock to stay in Cleveland -- do the Bulls overpay a guy like Boozer or Rudy Gay, or wait another year to try for Carmelo Anthony?

"We're going to have a lot of money, where we can sign somebody for a lot of money to come here," Noah said, when asked about free agents for the 276th consecutive interview. "Hopefully we win a lot of basketball games and everybody will be happy."

That's the plan, right? Is it July yet?

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.