Just when things began looking exceedingly grim for Vinny Del Negro last week, all indications from the Bulls' front office were that the team was in no hurry to fire him.
Minutes before the Bulls and Kings tipped off Monday night, I spoke with a trusted front office executive familiar with the Bulls' plan, and he said it was status quo. Rather than push the panic button too early and send the surrender message to the players, GM Gar Forman and advisor John Paxson were telling confidants that they preferred to give Del Negro until mid-January to prove this season was going somewhere.
This season went somewhere Monday night, all right. Somewhere really, really bad -- a point of no return for Del Negro.
The Bulls blew a 35-point lead and lost to Sacramento 102-98. They were outscored 54-17 in the final 16 minutes of the game. Not only that, Del Negro's rotation was only seven deep on the first night of a back-to-back. The Bulls, losers of 14 out of the last 20 games -- losers in every sense of the word -- will be in New York on Tuesday night to play the Knicks, who have won six of nine.
It's not advisable to change coaches in the air on the way to the second night of a back-to-back, with no practice time in between. In this case, it's hard to argue the alternative is any better.
With one catastrophic meltdown, Del Negro's window went from mid-January to Christmas Day. (Historical note, as pointed out by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: The Bulls fired Scott Skiles and Tim Floyd on Christmas Eve. Ho, ho, ho!)
The rationale behind giving Del Negro more time has been the message it would send to the players. The only logical choice on the bench is veteran coach Bernie Bickerstaff. If the Bulls turned to Bickerstaff before Christmas, the players would see that as a surrender flag.
But the players did a pretty good job of running that symbolic fabric up the flag pole Monday night.
I've seen a lot of coaches in a lot of sports tip-toeing around before getting fired. When I was in Chicago last week, I noticed how Del Negro was using injuries as an excuse and lamely praising his players' effort -- as if they'd respect the fake kudos. On Monday night, Del Negro took the next step in the "Coach About to be Fired Handbook:" He went after the players.
"This one stings, but players win games," Del Negro said. "You have to execute. We kind of got a little bit complacent there. But what are you going to do? Put your head down and feel sorry for yourself?"
No. You fire somebody. For example, the coach.
But given the organization's qualms about going with Bickerstaff -- which would signal that the season's over -- it's time to think outside the box. It's worth wondering whether there's another option at Forman's disposal. That would be the former GM and current executive vice president, Paxson.
"John's got a great eye for the game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said last week when his team touched down in Chicago to collect another victory. "And he works really hard. He's a hard-work guy."
Firing the chef and appointing the guy who bought the groceries is the new fad in the NBA. The Hornets did it, sending GM Jeff Bower into the trenches to replace Byron Scott. The Nets did it, handing the keys to Kiki Vandeweghe -- and, ironically, former Bulls assistant Del Harris -- after throwing Lawrence Frank overboard.
Why not the Bulls? Why not Paxson, who relinquished the day-to-day GM duties to Forman last summer?
"I doubt it very much," said a person familiar with the Bulls' situation, citing how Paxson's relationships with certain players are frayed. But at least he has relationships with certain players. How can Del Negro command respect in the huddle -- and vice versa, frankly -- after what happened to this team Monday night?
Another option that has been mentioned is Frank, who was fired by the Nets and, as such, would come cheap since he's collecting $4 million of Bruce Ratner's money for the rest of this season. But this is probably not the best situation for either one. Frank will be looking for a clean slate after starting the season 0-16. The Bulls will have a hard time getting a spark out of hiring a coach who hasn't won a single game all season.
None of this is ideal. None of it was part of the plan. The Bulls will be major players in free agency next summer, and there's no appetite for paying Del Negro to go away and committing to a new coach before the direction and makeup of the team are known.
But sometimes, these things work themselves out. On Monday, the Bulls stopped playing.