Del Negro's not done just yet

CHICAGO -- The most persistent rumor in the NBA is that Vinny Del Negro is a goner. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone around the league -- agent, executive or scout -- who thinks Del Negro will return next season as coach of the Chicago Bulls.

The fact that Bulls management has not shot down such speculation or offered Del Negro even a whiff of public support has only strengthened that sentiment.

"He's a dead man walking,'' one Eastern Conference executive said. "He won't be back."

But when watching Chicago compete against the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in their first-round playoff series, the question that comes to mind is "Why?'' Why is Del Negro's job in jeopardy?

From the outside looking in, Del Negro's done a commendable job under less than favorable (to say the least) circumstances. Weathering the loss of Ben Gordon to free agency, the trading away of John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas in February, a significant injury to Joakim Noah, season-long speculation about his job security, and front-office turmoil that included a near-fight with executive VP John Paxson, Del Negro has the Bulls giving Cleveland all it can handle.

Meanwhile, Toronto's Jay Triano and Indiana's Jim O'Brien are sleeping peacefully at night as they yet again watch the postseason from their couches.

This is not to say Del Negro's been the second coming of Red Auerbach. His in-game coaching and strategic sophistication leave much to be desired. But in his two seasons with Chicago, his clubs have played with a determination and drive that was sorely lacking the year before he got there, when the Bulls won 33 games and all but quit on the excellent coaching of Scott Skiles.

As a seventh seed last season, the Bulls pushed the defending champion Boston Celtics to seven games in one of the most dramatic first-round series ever. And this year, they trail the Cavaliers 2-1 heading into Sunday's Game 4.

"Looking at the numbers, I'd give him an above-average grade,'' another Eastern Conference executive said. "But that doesn't always tell the story."

It certainly doesn't in this case. The ultimate downfall of Del Negro, who has one season remaining on his contract, could be his poor relationship with Paxson. Two weeks ago, news that the two had a physical altercation in a postgame dispute over Noah's playing time brought to light their adversarial relationship. But that was only their latest and most volatile dispute.

Paxson and Del Negro have butted heads almost from day one. Dating back to last season, there have been numerous times when Paxson questioned Del Negro's coaching decisions immediately following a game. With both being fiery and emotional ex-players, the arguments have often gotten heated.

The confrontation over Noah came after a loss to Phoenix on March 30 in which Del Negro went over the minutes restriction that management and team doctors had set for Noah, who was returning from plantar fasciitis. Del Negro had already breached the minutes limit earlier in the season, and as a result, Noah missed 10 straight games (all losses).

Sources say there's little trust between Bulls management and Del Negro, and that management took the coach's second flouting of the minutes restriction as further evidence of his having a separate agenda.

"Vinny's not aligned well with the organization,'' an executive with another team said. "His philosophy and his agenda is not the same as the organization's. The minutes situation with Noah was a micro-version of that, where he said, 'The organization made it clear this is how we do it, but I'm going to do it my way.'''

There are also questions about Del Negro's competency as a coach -- both around the league and within the Bulls organization and locker room. Scouts say his offensive scheme is among the simplest in the league.

"The reason why you hear that he can't coach is because they literally only run five plays,'' one scout said. "It's either middle pick-and-roll, side pick-and-roll, or they run the flex set. That's high school stuff. But that said, I think he's done a good job this year."

Del Negro's system had a little more variety last season when he had Ben Gordon to work with, but this season, he's simplified his offense to fit his personnel. He's got no post-scoring threat to speak of and no outside shooters besides Kirk Hinrich, who's far from a sharpshooter.

"I'm not a big fan of his X's and O's,'' another scout said. "But hey, if I had Derrick Rose, I'd put him in pick-and-rolls all game too."

It's hard to criticize Del Negro on the other end of the floor because the Bulls were the third-best defensive team in the league, in terms of opponents' field goal percentage (44.2 percent). They were also ranked in the top 10 in rebounding. Typically, good defense is viewed as a sign of good coaching.

Another thing working in Del Negro's favor is that Chicago plays so hard. Some observers who insist many of the players don't have much respect for Del Negro's coaching ability, say Rose, Noah and the rest of the Bulls give 110 percent in spite of Del Negro, not because of him.

But that may be a stretch. Players quit on supposedly lame-duck coaches all the time, and when a coach clearly doesn't have the support of management, he usually has little chance of motivating his players. Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan has often said that if a coach doesn't have the support of management, he doesn't "have a fighting chance'' of getting his players to compete.

Yet in a season when Del Negro's got no public backing from management and reportedly been challenged to throw blows by Paxson, the Bulls won 10 of their last 14 games to overtake Toronto and reach the playoffs.

Despite his solid results, league insiders would be shocked if Del Negro returns next season. Though no one's putting Del Negro on the same level as Rick Carlisle, many have compared it to how Carlisle was fired after his second season in Detroit. After winning 50 games both seasons and being named Coach of the Year in 2001-02, Carlisle was dismissed because his personality clashed with some members of the organization.

One league executive said only superstar coaches can afford the luxury of having bad relationships within their organization. Middle-of-the-road coaches, a category in which he placed Del Negro, can't survive that.

With the Bulls having enough cap room to sign a maximum-salaried star this summer, Del Negro would surely love the opportunity to finish out his contract. But even if he doesn't, several league executives said his coaching days won't be over.

"He's done a good enough job to become a recycled candidate,'' one executive said.

Of course, there may still be one way for Del Negro to save his job with the Bulls: beat Cleveland.