Casey and Del Negro are a contrast in style and biography. After a college career under Joe B. Hall at Kentucky, Casey never logged a minute in the NBA. A student of the game, Casey moved into the coaching ranks. He joined hoops legend Pete Newell to coach the Japanese national team for five years. He then joined the staff in Seattle, where he mastered the “SOS Defense” and became McMillan’s right-hand guy, devising the Sonics’ nightly game strategy.
Executives, colleagues and scouts around the league describe Casey as a basketball lifer. Though he’s never been inducted as a member of the basketball fraternity, he’s regarded as a guy more comfortable with breaking down film and working with players in the gym than swinging a golf club or schmoozing. One front office executive said that if Casey had McMillan’s playing career, he’d be 10 years into a successful head-coaching career.
Del Negro has countless friends around the league who sing his praises as a person. His hire in Chicago was a testimony to his affable demeanor and his ability to communicate. Lost in all the heat Del Negro took in Chicago was the overall performance of the Bulls under his tenure. Anyone who watched the Bulls regularly might have a hard time giving him high marks as a tactician, but whiteboard management aside, it’s difficult to size up the circumstances that Del Negro experienced in Chicago and conclude that he was a failure.
Del Negro led the Bulls to the playoffs in his first season, which included a spunky first-round performance against the defending champion Celtics. The Bulls then let Del Negro’s best scorer walk during the offseason. Then, two months into the season, Bulls general manager Gar Forman essentially gave Del Negro a public declaration of no-confidence. Through it all, Del Negro managed a young team, helped foster Derrick Rose’s progress, develop Joakim Noah from a problem child to an untouchable and turn Taj Gibson into one of bigger rookie surprises. After being left for dead midseason, the Bulls scratched their way back to .500 and earned another playoff berth…
Casey has a decisive edge over Del Negro in the X’s and O’s event. Casey has nearly 2,000 professional games to draw upon from his array of coaching experiences. He learned from one of the game’s greats in Newell. He managed stalwart defensive squads in Seattle. And he helped out with the adjustment from a rigid structure during Carlisle’s early struggles in Dallas (remember the Mavs’ rough 2-7 start in 2008?) to their successful “push” offense, which allowed Jason Kidd to orchestrate a read-and-react system.
One can imagine Casey installing a similar system with Clippers. Davis would assume the role of Kidd. Unlike Dunleavy, Casey wouldn’t commandeer specific sets from the sidelines (at least for the first three quarters). Instead, he would assign his players spots, let them move freely in the half court and demand that they make sharp reads. There would also likely be a steady diet of early drag screens with Blake Griffin and quick pick-and-pops with Chris Kaman…
… Del Negro has been roundly criticized for his game plan and in-game adjustments, be it his “after timeout” sets or his inability to draw up creative alternatives to the Bulls’ rote offense. Examine enough Bulls game tape from the past two seasons and you’ll see a predictable procession of middle pick-and-rolls at the top of the floor. Under Del Negro’s direction, the Bulls finished 18th in offensive efficiency in 2008-09, then fell to 28th without Ben Gordon in 2009-10.
Defenders of Del Negro will counter that he can’t be faulted for using the path of least resistance. What’s a coach supposed to do with few — if any — consistent perimeter shooters and zero post scorers? Rose was the only arrow in Del Negro’s quiver and the second-year guard hasn’t developed an outside shot of his own. Still, the stagnation in the offense was palpable. Luol Deng’s versatility was rarely put to use and there are countless examples of the Bulls failing to capitalize on mismatches in the half court.