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Vinny Del Negro as an Unexpected Coach, the 1994-5 Spurs Roster Conspiracy, and Bill Laimbeer (Really, It All Goes Together)

The joke is real and it’s on the season ticket holders. Vinny Del Negro is officially the new coach of the Chicago Bulls. His coaching experience: none. 

Jeff Hornacek is considered the patron saint of walk-ons for having a long and prominent playing career after walking onto the basketball team at Iowa State. Vinny may have just become the patron saint of light resumes, ’cause he sure talked his way into a job that his background didn’t support.

Coaches with solid experience and winning records like Avery Johnson, Flip Saunders, Mike Fratello, and so forth were not only not interviewed, it felt like the Bulls were going out of their way not to interview them. While the reports of the length of Vinny’s contract vary between 2 and 3 years (it sounds more like 3) depending on which media account you read, the reports are all unified that his salary is around $2 million per year. And the commentary is universal that Reinsdorf took the cheap way out. I can’t completely blame Paxson for this. Paxson tried to do the right thing with D’Antoni and Collins, but both walked away while his boss piddled about.

If you’re a big fan of coincidence, consider the 1994-96 and 1997-98 San Antonio Spurs. Those teams had two “official”candidates for Bulls head coach: eventual lottery-winner, Vinny Del Negro and Chuck Person. Those Spurs teams also had a third “unofficial candidate,”Avery Johnson, whom we’ve discussed already. And those teams never won a conference finals series (indeed, ’94-5 was the only time they progressed as far as the conference finals). Actually, Doc Rivers was also on that ’94-’95 squad. Talk about your coaches in training squad…

What, if anything, should this hiring be compared to?  K.C. Johnson, over at the Chicago Tribune tried some comparisons, some of which were stretching a great deal. (Come on, Avery was an assistant coach before he was head coach, while Vinny was never even on the bench. You know better than to offer that up, K.C.) I don’t find Larry Bird a valid comparison because, well, he’s Larry Bird. You know what you’re getting. Doc Rivers was at least a highly respected point guard and an all-star. When Doc Rivers got hired, there wasn’t nearly the public outcry.

Vinny, who I did like as a player, was a step above a journeyman, but no all-star. He had a nice jump shot, and legit 3-point range, but you weren’t going to confuse him with Dale Ellis or Reggie Miller, to name a couple more prolific shooting guards whose playing time overlapped his. I also roll my eyes at the media talk about how Vinny played point. He played point in a pinch and it wasn’t his strong suit. I don’t care if you’re looking for clues that Derrick Rose will be the first draft pick, back off that one. Joe Dumars played a little bit of point in a pinch (truth be told, a little better than Vinny did) and you still call Joe a shooting guard, right?

No, for the best analogy of an out-of-nowhere coaching hire, you have to go to the WNBA and Bill Laimbeer. Yes, Bill Laimbeer was an all-star. He even led the league in rebounding, but you certainly didn’t think of him as a coach. Laimbeer’s only previous coaching experience was teaching his daughter’s AAU basketball team. Now technically, that’s more coaching experience than Vinny’s had, but still, the magnitude of surprise is similar.

Mind you, Laimbeer’s got himself a couple of championship rings. I had occasion to speak with him a few years back and he addressed an issue the Vinny may have to deal with: other coaches who resent his quick rise: “There’s a fair amount of coaches in this league that probably have a little bit of resentment towards me. I walked into a good situation. We won the championship. We got all the pub. And I’m fairly arrogant about what we’ve accomplished. I worry about ourselves first and I don’t care about the other teams, and I don’t give them much respect, so I think some of their coaches, it probably grinds on them.”

For as much as I wring my hands that the Bulls went for a bargain basement salary over an experienced coach, there’s plenty of talent on that team to make the play-offs in a weak Eastern Conference. It isn’t out the question, as long as the players don’t consider him a buffoon and give him the Boylan treatment, that there could be a turn-around under Vinny. Then again, when you have justifications of his relevance to current players, like pointing out he was on the same Golden State team with Larry Hughes in 2000-1, your spirits may sink if you look at the numbers. That team was a miserable 17-65. Hughes played 1846 minutes and started 45 games. Vinny played 396 minutes and started one game. Now does Hughes know and respect Vinny as a wise and valiant teammate or does he remember him as some old guy riding the pine (Hughes was only 22 at the time.) You’d have to ask Hughes, but that’s stretching the justification.

A lot of this will likely ride on Vinny’s choice of assistant coaches. Fortunately Ron Adams and Pete Meyers are said to be leaving the bench for the front office. Any credibility they have with the players has to be minimal at this point. Bob Hill’s name has surfaced. Yes, the same Bob Hill who was coaching 2 of those Spurs teams where the last batch of candidates played. He’s a lot more qualified than Vinny, so that would be a good start. A couple former head coaches would be a very good thing. And, as I’ve said so many times, an assistant coach whose expertise is developing big men is an absolute must. Fortunately, Reinsdorf saved so much on Vinny’s contract, he can afford to spend a little extra on assistants. Of course, Jerry probably doesn’t see it that way, what with this Bill Wirtz imitation he’s been giving the world.

Aside from the ever-present fiscal issue, the biggest problem grabbing some assistant coaches will be finding some that aren’t insulted that Vinny was hired instead of them. You hire someone with no experience, get ready for the backlash. Then again, you might get somebody that thinks Vinny will crash and burn and he can save the day in the Boylan/interim role.

As for hope for Vinny, it lies in part of what he said to get the job. Near as I can tell, Vinny told Paxson and Reinsdorf something along the lines that he thought defense was the most important thing to win games, and it should be the first point of emphasis, but past that, he thought they should push the ball up the court more, like they did in Phoenix. Now discussing this up-tempo style in public, he’s specifically mentioned Tyrus Thomas. I’ve felt for quite some time that Thomas has been completely misused by the Bulls, as well as not given proper instruction in how to play power forward in an offensive set. In the few times I’ve seen Thomas in a more up-tempo game where he’s had a little room to cut and drive, he’s looked pretty good. Larry Hughes is another guy that isn’t worth a whole lot as a spot-up shooter, but excels off the dribble in a motion-oriented running game.

If Vinny, or his assistants, can install a running game, the Bulls have the roster to make it work. As for the emphasis on defense? The two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, although the only running team that really comes to mind as caring a lot about defense was Pat Reilly’s Showtime Lakers. Reilly had faster players in that stop, but he’s never liked enemy lay-ups. Extra points to our patron saint if he dropped that little nugget in his initial talks.

Yes, Vinny talked his way into the gig, but he has said a couple of the right things. Whether he can walk the walk and implement them, we’ll find out in the Fall. Right now, there are two more pressing questions:

  1. How many roster moves will Paxson pull the trigger on before opening night?
  2. Will Vinny be able to assemble his complete coaching staff before the summer league starts?
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