Deconstructing the Chicago Bulls Implosion – Part 1:The Ownership Problem
From an organization perspective, the Chicago Bulls are a parody of the Boston Celtics. I’m not joking. Well, not entirely joking. The Boston Celtics, as an organization, fosters great pride in its players and staff. They constantly speak of it as being a family. Much ado is celebrated when former players take staff jobs. Some would say ex-Celtic star Kevin McHale “gifted” his old team with the Kevin Garnett trade.
Then you have Bulls. The problems with the Bulls have been there, bubbling under the surface, ever since Jerry Reinsdorf bought the team and started implementing his employee loyalty plan. Oh, sure, the Bulls won 6 titles, but they’d already drafted Michael Jordan when Reinsdorf bought the team. If you were following the team, you knew that it was a real tempest in a teapot. Jerry Krause, one of the most unlikable general managers in the history of the league, was in a sort of cold war with coach Phil Jackson, replete with other staffers allegedly spying and snitching on Jackson’s every move. Scottie Pippen signed an ill-advised contract extension and there was a war going on when he demanded an adjustment. Reinsdorf and Krause may be best definied by the proclaimation that players don’t win championships, organzations do and for all intents and purposes, ran Jordan, Pippen and Jackson out of town. That didn’t go well.
As the wheels came off the wagon, Krause was unable to sign big name free agents, in no small part because of how the Bulls treated Jordan and Pippen. At this point, Krause hired his famous fishing buddy, Tim Floyd, to be the new head coach. This was the first big “loyalty hire.” Floyd didn’t work out so well, but he also didn’t have much to work with. Floyd resigned on Christmas eve, starting the Bulls tradition of holiday leadership changes. Reinsdorf doesn’t like bad press and its easier to bury the story when everyone’s out of town visiting family.
Next came ex-Bull Bill Cartwright as coach. When Cartwright was fired on Thanksgiving weekend, he was briefly replaced by ex-Bulls player, assistant coach (and former scout), Pete Myers, before Scott Skiles took over. Scott Skiles was eventually fired on Christmas eve, and Pete Myers did another one-game interim coach stint before Jim Boylan became the sacrificial lamb for the remainder of the season.
When Krause finally left, ex-Bull John Paxson became GM. Paxson’s on-court replacement, BJ Armstrong has also been hanging around the Bulls front office in recent years. Ex-Bull Mike Brown was recently tapped as an assistant coach. Are we seeing a pattern here? Lots of ex-players from the Reinsdorf era are in positions of power. Reinsdorf seems to have a preference for hiring “good soldiers.” Not his stars, but his good soldiers. He also loves that holiday firing. Such a nice fellow.
Then you have the player relations problems. Everybody remembers the problems with Pippen’s contract and the icy glares from Jordan. A lot of places, Jordan would have been embraced as part of the organization. Magic Johnson is a minority owner of the Lakers. Joe Dumars is GM of the Pistions. Rudy T coached the Rockets. Jordan bought into ownership elsewhere. He wasn’t a good soldier.
Now if you’re sitting there thinking “wow, Reinsdorf takes care of his players, just like the Celtics,” let me clarify something. When the Celtics hired Danny Ainge to be a GM, Ainge previously had a very successful run as coach in Phoenix. Doc Rivers was known as a Hawk and Knick. The Celtics aren’t afraid to go outside the organization for the positions of power. Perhaps they’re more comfortable doing so after enduring the M.L. Carr era, but when they take care of their players, it feels like family. When Reinsdorf takes care of players, it feels like he’s more concerned about people following orders than family or credentials. If the Bulls were a family, Krause might have been able to sign some all-stars after the Jordan era ended.
Eddy Curry had private medical information leaked to the press without his consent during his contract negotiations. In any other setting, that’s a lawsuit. Likewise, the Bulls asking for genetic testing would be a landmark labor lawsuit if that had gone through. Do I blame GM Paxson for that? No, he seemed visibly disgusted by what he had to do, but he was a good soldier.
There has been some question as to how much money Luol Deng and Ben Gordon were really offered this season, in terms of new contracts. If Gilbert Arenas is accurate in his blog, not only were the sums being offered Deng and Gordon much less than what the papers reported, but Paxson refused to negotiate. Arenas also credits contract problems as being a large part of the break-up of the Jordan-era Bulls.
If it wasn’t bad enough that Deng and Gordon may have felt slighted by curt executions of the contract offers, Deng and Gordon (among others) were on the hook for an extended period of time with the Kobe Bryant trade rumors. Yes, trades happen, but when you don’t execute the trade or squash the rumor in a couple weeks, that’s going to wear on the players involved. The Bulls players were on the hook for that trade for over a month. Have you ever been in limbo, waiting for a job offer out of town where you’d need to move quickly? If you haven’t, let me put it to you this way: when you go to the grocery store, you don’t know how much food to buy. Deng and Gordon were putting up with that while having difficulties with contract talks. And you wonder why people might be a little bent out of shape.
It wouldn’t be the first time Bulls players went away mad. Jordan, Pippen, Horace Grant, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and the list may be growing as almost the entire current roster looks like they’ve had their fill of front office pettiness.
When we look at the woes of the Chicago Bulls, you need to look at the patterns of the front office. Patterns that seem to radiate down from Reinsdorf through his “good soldiers.”