AT THE TIME, hiring Vinny Del Negro as Bulls coach ranked among the biggest civic mysteries since the cause of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The 12-year former guard wasn't a front-runner for the job (like Mike D'Antoni, who chose the Knicks); he wasn't a coveted assistant (like Tom Thibodeau, who remains on the Celtics' bench); he wasn't a well-known retread (like former coach and current TV analyst Doug Collins, who withdrew his name from consideration). Heck, he didn't have any coaching experience. Yet 4 1/2 months into his tenure, it is clear that Del Negro—who brings a lighter touch than departed drill sergeant Scott Skiles and will grow along with his players—was the best choice to restore the upward mobility of a talent-laden team that missed the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Del Negro, 42, spent the past two seasons in the Suns' front office, which helps explain his offensive philosophy. Given that its roster is loaded with perimeter scorers and fantastic finishers—and lacking low-post threats—Chicago will try to maximize transition points. "We want to push it and use the athletes we have," says Del Negro. "We want to make it difficult for the defense."
In rookie Derrick Rose, the No. 1 pick from Memphis who will start from Day One, the Bulls have a point guard tailor-made for the running game. As long as Del Negro can head off any discontent (see: guards Ben Gordon, who could not agree to a long-term contract, and Kirk Hinrich, who has ceded the point guard spot to Rose), the Bulls should at least find their way back to the playoffs.
A rival scout on the BULLS: I respect G.M. John Paxson for not making a safer hire, but Vinny Del Negro is a complete wild card. The smart thing was to surround him with assistants like Bernie Bickerstaff and Del Harris; there's no situation that those guys can't help with.... Kirk Hinrich is not in the top half of the league among starters at either guard position. But if he's the third guard and playing 25 to 30 minutes at both spots, then you have a very strong backcourt.... The problem with bringing Ben Gordon off the bench is that he's such a dynamic offensive guy that it's hard to limit his minutes. Larry Hughes is a better defender, more versatile, and he gives them size.... Tyrus Thomas hasn't made any real strides. He blocks shots and gets spectacular rebounds, but he's not skilled enough to play small forward and not big or physical enough to be a power forward.... Like Thomas, Joakim Noah puts his energy into defending, shot blocking and rebounding. But he's another big who gives them no interior scoring.
Ben Gordon's 19.3 points per game as a reserve were the most for a player coming off the bench in at least half his team's games since '91--92, when the Warriors' Sarunas Marciulionis also averaged 19.3.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
DERRICK ROSE (R)