If Vinny Del Negro wasn’t doomed already in his effort to keep his job as the Bulls’ coach, it’s hard to imagine him surviving this.
Del Negro is at the center of a firestorm over allegedly ignoring an agreement among the medical staff, coaches and management to limit Joakim Noah’s minutes late in the season while the team’s center was struggling with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The tipping point was a Feb. 26 game against Portland, when Del Negro played Noah 27 minutes despite an agreement to limit his minutes to 15-18, a person familiar with the situation told CBSSports.com. That was the last game Noah played before missing 10 games with a flare-up of the injury. The Bulls lost all 10 games, putting their playoff hopes – and Del Negro’s job status – in a precarious state.
According to an account published first by Yahoo! Sports, the long-running friction between Del Negro and management accelerated into a physical confrontation between Del Negro and executive vice president John Paxson after a game against Phoenix on March 30. After playing between nine and 17 minutes in his first five games back from the 10-game absence, Noah again played 27 minutes in that loss to the Suns – another violation of the agreed-upon limit, sources said. Conflicting accounts have followed as to whether Del Negro or Paxson was the aggressor, but they miss the point: If Del Negro ignored team orders to limit minutes for an injured player, he could be fired for insubordination – bringing an end to his rocky, two-year tenure.
When asked Tuesday night about the report of an altercation with Paxson, Del Negro referred to the matter as “internal.” Team spokesman Tim Hallam called it “an organizational issue.” A person familiar with the situation declined to comment on whether lawyers have been retained on either side.
Noah’s limit was gradually increased, and Del Negro was involved in the decision as well as the medical staff, assistant coaches, Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, according to sources. Yet the issue surfaced again Friday night in New Jersey, when Del Negro apparently didn’t know whether he had permission to extend Noah’s minutes late in a game that was critical to the Bulls’ playoff chances. Previously, he was permitted to make an exception if he needed to use Noah beyond his limit for one possession to win a game. According to sources, Del Negro sent assistant coach Lindsey Hunter to personally ask team officials if he was allowed to play Noah any more that night against the Nets. But the request didn’t come until after regulation and before the first overtime, a person familiar with the matter said. The Bulls lost in two overtimes to the worst team in the NBA. Now, Chicago has come down to the last night of the regular season in its bid to make the playoffs. A win by the Bulls Wednesday night in Charlotte, or a loss by the Raptors at home against the Knicks, would clinch the eighth playoff spot in the East for the Bulls – and extend Del Negro’s nightmare a little longer.
Did Del Negro put his own self-interest before the health of one of the team’s core players? Is someone looking for an excuse to fire Del Negro for cause, and thus save the Bulls from having to pay Del Negro the final year of his contract – since it’s widely assumed the Bulls will be looking for a new coach anyway as a way to lure potential free agents?
I’m not a lawyer, and it appears that’s what’s going to be needed to sort this out. A warning to both sides: Lawyers don’t put limits on billable hours.