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Bulls: No word on Del Negro

DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — At some point in the next few days, the Chicago Bulls figure to reveal coach Vinny Del Negro's job status. They just weren't making any announcements on Wednesday.

After back-to-back 41-win seasons and first-round playoff exits, Del Negro at least got some public support from his players after the Bulls were eliminated by Cleveland 4-1.

Joakim Noah, who enjoyed a breakout season, said Del Negro "did a lot for me as a player."

Kirk Hinrich said the Bulls "had a loose group" and Del Negro "fit the bill for us."

"He lets you be who you are, he expects you to go out there and work hard and compete every night and that's what we tried to do," Hinrich said.

Del Negro's status is the most immediate issue for the Bulls to settle heading into an offseason when they're poised to offer a maximum contract in what might be the greatest free agent market in NBA history. On Wednesday, players had their exit interviews with executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman.

Del Negro was not in on those, though that's not unusual for a Bulls coach.

Asked in an interview with the team's website about the rumors, Del Negro said, "I think it's unfortunate. I think all those things are out of my control. I can't control what people say or what they do or how they act. I can just control how I approach things and my preparation and how I get this team ready to play. All those things are out of my control.

"My record speaks for itself, but it's not about me. It's about the team and the players and the direction the organization wants to go in. We'll have all those meetings, all those discussions, and then decisions will be made and we'll move forward."

When asked to evaluate his performance, Del Negro said "that's irrelevant" but said he wants to keep coaching.

With no coaching experience, Del Negro seemed like an odd choice when he was hired as head coach out of Phoenix's front office two years ago. There was widespread speculation in December that he would be fired after a slow start and a lukewarm endorsement from Forman did little to stop it.

The Bulls then turned things around but lost 10 in a row at one point with Noah sidelined by plantar fasciitis in his left foot. That injury reportedly sparked a physical confrontation between Del Negro and Paxson over Noah's minutes after a game in March.

The Bulls wound up landing the eighth seed on the final day of the season and lost to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in five games after falling 96-94 in Cleveland on Tuesday.

Forward Taj Gibson praised Del Negro, saying, "Any other coach, I don't know if they could have weathered that storm."

For all the drama, for all the odd twists, the Bulls aren't in a bad spot heading into the offseason.

The Bulls can boast one of the game's best young players in Derrick Rose, who went from Rookie of the Year to an All-Star averaging 20.8 points. Noah made huge strides, averaging 10.7 points and 11.0 rebounds, Gibson (9.0 points, 7.5 rebounds) and Luol Deng rebounded from an injury-filled season to average 17.6 points.

If it was up to Rose, Del Negro would stay.

"He let me have my freedom, but still coached me and let me make mistakes," he said after the loss to Cleveland. "I watched film with him almost every day. He taught me a lot on defense and offense and what I'm supposed to do. The decision isn't really up to me. It's up to the front office, so I'm not going to worry about it and just deal with it."

It's also up to the front office to reel in one of the big-ticket free agents, whether it's James if he's available or Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson.

They can go big. They can go small. Either way, the possibilities are tantalizing.

"Do you bring another guard in to go with Derrick, or do you bring another big in to go with Jo," said veteran Brad Miller, who has an expiring contract but hopes to play a few more years. "You can honestly go either way."

Deng said he trusts Gar and Paxson to make the right moves.

"I've been here six years and I want things to get better," Deng said. "I believe we have the talent. There are a few pieces that are missing. We're right there."

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.