How Jordan's decision spelled demise
Jerry Reinsdorf did not break up Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty. Neither did Jerry Krause, who infamously said that "organizations (not players) win championships."
|Breaking Down the Bulls|
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Let's get this out of the way before proceeding to explain how one of the greatest teams in pro sports could turn into one of the worst.
As for Krause's jibber-jabber ... well, I was there.
In case anyone has forgotten, Krause, the man Michael Jordan labeled "Crumbs" for the donut droppings on his clothes, was not particularly articulate. So when on that last opening day of training camp for the Bulls' title run he was trying to draw credit to the so-called little people of the sport, Krause made the statement that launched a thousand critiques.
It's no secret Krause resented Jordan and Phil Jackson. But he resented me as well, and just about everyone else around basketball.
I remember one time the great modern era storyteller David Halberstam coming on the team bus to interview Jordan for a profile. Krause cursed out Halberstam, not knowing who he was, in ordering him off the bus.
So, yes, it all drove Jackson and Jordan to distraction. And if you want to believe that's what broke up the dynasty, OK. But who, after all, quits his job and profession because he doesn't like the assistant boss?
Remember, Jordan's agreements with the organization all were done with Reinsdorf -- who, by the way, had the biggest payroll in the NBA during the last two championship seasons and paid Jordan an annual salary for two consecutive seasons that is yet to be matched in pro sports.
So you want the real story?
Here's what happened: Jordan burned out.
Perhaps he may not remember it that way, but both after that posed winning shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998 -- and there was a reason for that pose -- Jordan was telling confidants he would never play again.
Yes, it's why he did pose. He knew that was the last shot, and that's the way people talked about it then.
He couldn't stand playing with Scottie Pippen anymore. He was furious at Pippen for again missing a final game of the playoffs, as with the migrane episode of 1990. He was sick of all the injuries, still upset Pippen elected to have surgery just as training camp was to begin and wouldn't rejoin the team until midseason, sticking Jordan with Dennis Rodman. He was sick of Luc Longley and all the dropped passes.
Jordan was sick and tired and burned out, just like in 1993. Perhaps after the lockout he'd reconsider, but Jordan was insistent. That was it. Yes, there was that one-tenth of one percent left, and Jordan exercised it with the Washington Wizards. (And then, as it turned out, everyone but Abe Pollin's accountant wished he hadn't.)
Phil Jackson was exiting, too, but not because the Bulls pushed. Jackson admits Reinsdorf offered him a long-term deal to remain, but Jackson had this thing about the number of years players would listen to a coach and had set it at seven years with the Bulls. He now was through nine and promised himself he'd leave no matter what. It was only appeals from players that brought him back in 1996. He was determined nothing would change his mind this time.
Sure, Krause had already promised Tim Floyd the job. But Reinsdorf hadn't. He was willing to hire Frank Hamblen, Jackson's right-hand man. The Bulls even talked of perhaps a player/coach role for Jordan. He was assured that if he stayed, everyone on the Bulls who has eligible would get a big contract for the number of years Jordan remained.
There was no big deal from another club awaiting Pippen. Under the salary cap rules at the time, Pippen could get a total of $36 million from the Rockets. Not bad, but nowhere near the $70-plus million he got when the Bulls agreed to a sign-and-trade to take care of him after the breakup. So he'd have probably stayed as well.
And there as another $30-plus million waiting for Jordan. But he felt he had to carry too much burden that season, with Pippen's halfhearted season and Rodman's unpredictability. Jordan had been even having trouble sleeping at all that season and was considering medical help as a result. He had to get away.
To walk it back a step ... if the Bulls had really wanted to run out Jordan and Jackson and end the thing and save money or rebuild or whatever -- pick whichever is your favorite theory -- they would have done it in the summer of 1997.
Rick Pitino had come on board in Boston and lost out for Tim Duncan. He was not about to rebuild with draft picks, so he offered a package of his picks and players for Pippen. In retrospect, it would have saved the Bulls almost a decade of futility. But they demurred.
Krause had been following Tracy McGrady almost since grade school, and would have used one of the draft picks for him. Given Krause's affection for him, it's unlikely McGrady would have encountered the problems he did in Toronto playing behind Vince Carter and for a coach who rode him hard and didn't want him in Darrell Walker. So he probably would have stayed a Bull. In 2000, McGrady's agent, Arn Tellem, would try again to get McGrady to Chicago -- a major market, which helps with endorsements -- when McGrady reached free agency. But by then the Bulls had fallen so low that McGrady wouldn't go.
Krause had been trying to move Pippen for years, as Pippen turned on him. Krause tried to trade Pippen for Shawn Kemp in 1994 as well as the rights to Grant Hill. Later, he tried to deal Pippen for the rights to Antonio McDyess. Those deals never materialized, and then when Krause tried in 1997, Reinsdorf rejected the efforts, saying he wouldn't give up a chance to win a title as long as Jordan was around. And it was Jordan who told him he didn't plan to be after 1998.
So, what else was there to do?
Perhaps not turn it over to Krause, but, after all, it was on Krause's watch the Bulls won six championships, and it was Krause who brought in unknown coaches Doug Collins and Jackson. Both became elite coaches, so Krause got the chance to try again. Even Jordan recommended Iowa State coach Tim "Pink" Floyd in the end. Floyd was close with Jordan friend Buzz Peterson, and that was enough. Even Jordan would eventually hire a college coach, Leonard Hamilton, when he first arrived in Washington, though he would just as quickly fire him.
Today, Krause tells associates the biggest mistake he made in his NBA career was hiring Floyd, who quickly feuded with and abandoned the kids Krause hoped to nurture. As a former college coach, Floyd coached as if they'd be gone in two or three years.
Because Krause's mindset, as revealed in his infamous quote, was to show everyone he could rebuild without Jordan, it also was the story of a little man with a giant ego out of control. The luck of being handed Jordan and then falling into Pippen would change. This time Krause's luck went south along with the franchise.
That first season, a short one after the lockout in 1998 and early 1999, was merely preparatory. With Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and Brent Barry, the Bulls were competitive, at least most nights. It would turn out to be, at 13-37, Floyd's most successful season.
Floyd's coaching inability and failure to communicate with players became apparent (and would be magnified in 2004 when notoriously cheap Hornets owner George Shinn fired Floyd with two years left on his contract). But Floyd had a honeymoon period in Chicago, and the community was willing to give the Bulls some time. After all, everyone still was thankful for the championships in a city with an inferiority complex bigger than the Sears Tower. The Cubs' losses are legendary and, along with the crosstown White Sox, they have the longest run in baseball without a World Series title. The Bears looked like a football dynasty in the mid-1980s, but got only one Super Bowl trophy and fell back into Chicago sports oblivion.
|Bulls' Demise, Year By Year|
See Chad Ford's season-by-season breakdown of the Bulls' mistakes:
How about this starting lineup? Jamal Crawford, Brent Barry, Ron Artest, Elton Brand, Brad Miller. Don't forget, that's who the Bulls have had ...
In the 1999 draft, the Bulls held the No. 1 overall pick in a year with no obvious, special player to pick. The Bulls opted for what they considered the safe pick in Elton Brand. There's an NBA draft motto that says, "If you're going to make a mistake, make it big," meaning with a big man. Brand was the right pick. At No. 16, the Bulls made another smart choice, it seemed: Ron Artest.
But they were to be the role players, in Krause's view. Krause was eying the 2000 offseason, with another first round pick he would get from the three-way trade sending Kukoc to Philadelphia and Larry Hughes to Golden State. The Bulls would use the pick for Jamal Crawford, who turned out to be another nice, talented piece.
That summer yielded another gem, Brad Miller, a free agent from Charlotte. Krause was ridiculed for paying Miller $5 million annually, but it would eventually be revealed as one of his best moves when Miller became an All Star in Indiana and Sacramento.
Otherwise, however, it was the summer that launched the Bulls misery.
For one thing, Krause and Floyd had a major disagreement, with major consequences. It was the first of many disagreements between Krause and Floyd, and in this case Krause yielded to Floyd. Krause almost worshipped Floyd, like a smitten teenager. Floyd was everything Krause wasn't -- handsome, popular and articulate.
Krause had settled on McGrady. But Floyd pushed him to go after Grant Hill and Duncan. Though Krause believed the Bulls could get neither, he didn't want to overrule his coach and perhaps create a division. So the Bulls tried for Hill and Duncan while Orlando, quickly realizing there was no chance for Duncan, opted to pursue McGrady and Hill. By the time the Bulls went for McGrady, he felt he was a third option and committed to Orlando, his hometown.
This came after what was perhaps Krause's greatest mistake. He had accumulated six draft picks, three of them first-rounders. Instead of giving himself flexibility in future drafts with a trade, as the 2000 draft was deemed weak, Krause used all six picks. Floyd had liked Marcus Fizer, whom he recruited, and there wasn't much choice, anyway, after Kenyon Martin. Stromile Swift and Darius Miles were next, and after that, Mike Miller, who would win rookie of the year in a weak class. Krause pined for Jamal Crawford, and international scout Ivica Dukan praised Dalibor Bagaric. The three second round picks left quickly, though Jake Voskuhl remains with Phoenix.
The same summer, in one notorious episode,Eddie Jones committed to the Bulls, but when he did Charlotte recovered and offered him a sign-and-trade to a better team, Miami. He accepted, jilting Chicago. The Bulls panicked and signed the moody, overrated Ron Mercer and brought in another European they'd been pursuing, Dragan Tarlac.
But, looking back, we can see that team had potential. Perhaps a core of Brand, Artest and Miller would have formed the base of a good team. It wasn't enough for Krause or Floyd. So they did agree on one thing: Get rid of Brand.
It's been the Bulls' most maligned decision in the last six years. Around the NBA, team executives with puzzled looks still ask how they could have traded Brand. Yet, there was reason and more logic than it seems to the plan. Yes, they would like to have Brand now. But what the Bulls said then still seems apt, which is that Brand cannot carry a team. But seven footers can.
The frustration of 17- and 15-win seasons had something to do with the decision to move Brand, of course. The Bulls decided Brand, about 6-8, was too small at power forward and would never rebound enough, despite his steady 10 boards a game his first two seasons. With a salary cap ceiling, top free agents were electing the better teams. Krause became convinced he would again have to do it through the draft. So he decided to start over.
Free agency had been plan No. 1, and it had failed. It seemed like the right plan at the time. The Nuggets lately have been praised for the same plan by losing big and then throwing money around to get free agents. Teams, even the Lakers with the trade of Shaquille O'Neal, still talk about accumulating money to get under the salary cap and go for free agents.
As for plan No. 2: Krause's vision wasn't bad. It was the execution of the plan.
He had Crawford, whom he envisioned as a 6-5 point guard, sort of a Penny Hardaway in his prime. His free agent that summer would be Eddie Robinson, a sprinting forward with a good shot who had just played a major role in Charlotte's playoff defeat of the veteran Miami Heat. He was a James Worthy-type, running the floor and attacking the defense with his speed.
But Krause needed big men.
He had the No. 4 overall pick, but he decided to go for broke. Brand didn't fit that model, so Krause traded Brand for the rights to Tyson Chandler. It wasn't considered a wild choice then. Jordan, then Wizards general manager and holding the No. 1 overall pick, was looking at Chandler. The Bulls offered Brand to Jordan for the pick, but Jordan wanted a kid, who turned out to be Kwame Brown. After all, the high school kids were becoming stars: Kevin Garnett, McGrady and Kobe Bryant. They are again with Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James. But not, as it turns out, the guys from that draft.
The ingredients, really, were perfect, on paper. A seven-foot post man and a seven-foot perimeter player, a sort of Shaq and Garnett one-two punch supported by an athletic guard and forward. The perimeter shooter would come. That was the easy part.
It was the right plan. It was with the wrong people.
Because Krause was so eager to move forward and silence his expanding group of doubters, he neglected his strong suit -- scouting and evaluation. The Bulls' own predraft reports doubted Curry's motivation and Chandler's skill level. Krause told himself they were young and would grow into being professionals. There was no resistance. Floyd, who didn't care for Brand, was on board.
Everyone knows what's happened. Curry was unmotivated and still is. Chandler was unskilled and still is. Crawford would leave as a free agent gone, though Krause believed he could be the shooting guard alongside Jay Williams. Williams' motorcycle accident would end his career, apparently. The Bulls eventually would buy out Robinson's contract and release him.
The losing began to overwhelm Floyd, and he didn't have the patience to watch the growth Krause foresaw. Reinsdorf had grown fond of Floyd, his quick humor and easy smile. He'd even quietly given him an extension. In the end, Reinsdorf would pay Floyd his full salary even though Floyd technically quit early in the 2001-02 season, another burnout victim as well as the biggest loser, in terms of winning percentage, in NBA coaching history.
Regardless, building plan No. 2 was underway. With kids, it would take some time. But everyone was starting to run out of patience with the losing. And with Krause.
Former Bull Bill Cartwright, a favorite of Krause, was named coach. Krause had been responsible for the multiple operations that had saved Cartwright's voice, and Krause felt that as a former center Cartwright was the right coach for the young big guys.
There seemed some hope when the Bulls acquired Jalen Rose, an established veteran scorer. With the commitment to Curry and Chandler, there wasn't room for Miller at forward or center, and with his contract coming due, he would be too costly to sign and bring off the bench Artest had begun to act out badly, and the team feared his actions would hurt the kids, as they were always called. Artest's rages became a thing of legend around the team and the young players began to literally fear for their lives, as Artest would hurl around 100-pound weights and machines in uncontrolled rages. So Miller, Mercer and Artest would go to Indiana for Rose.
Rose was known as a selfish player, but he could score. The Bulls, rightly, felt they needed to take pressure off Curry and Chandler. It's still the case. They are not No. 1 options, which they have asked to be for too long. They cannot be. The way it looks now, Chandler will be a good sixth man at some point and Curry a fourth scoring option on a good team.
But back then things seemed to be improving. The Bulls won three games in a row for the first time in two years, and then picked up veteran free agent Donyell Marshall in the 2002 offseason. It looked like they finally were headed in the right direction.
In what would be Cartwright's only full season, the Bulls had nearly a 50 percent improvement, from 21 to 30 wins. Rose was now the primary scorer, and while some didn't like his shot selection, Curry seemed to benefit, getting less attention and leading the league in shooting percentage. They were becoming a force at home, going 27-14. They won 30 games and the feeling was positive.
But it also was time to put a new face on the organization. And, after all, one 30-win season after five years of rebuilding was hardly a success. Reinsdorf had long been criticized for partnering with Krause, and now, finally, in the spring of 2003, Reinsdorf gently pushed out Krause, who was suffering from health problems. In his place, he hired longtime Bull John Paxson as the new face of the organization. It was a move widely celebrated, somewhat unfairly to Krause, who had been a major part of the Bulls' success.
But it was time to get past all the feuds, all the bad karma. The Bulls had long felt their problems were worsened by Jordan, who'd openly condemned Krause for years. The Bulls believed Jordan drove away prospective free agents. They wanted to open the door to a return to former Bulls, but it was impossible with Krause.
Reinsdorf had long had an eye on Paxson for the position. Paxson briefly was an assistant under Phil Jackson after retiring, but didn't like the coaching grind. He joined the Bulls' broadcast team, and it was clear he didn't endorse many of Krause's latest moves.
Paxson brought back assistant John Bach and free agent Scottie Pippen. He even tried to hire Doug Collins as an assistant coach. His drafting of Kirk Hinrich was a coup.
But he clashed with Cartwright almost immediately. Though teammates, they never were close. They were friendly, but not friends. Still, their differences were rooted more in basketball philosophy than in personality. Cartwright saw the game as a big man, with his back to the basket. Paxson saw it as a guard, facing the court. Cartwright was a collegiate star and, in the NBA, a big scorer and an offensive hub, at least in his early days. Paxson was a hustler and an overachiever.
It was inevitable Cartwright would be gone. It's common when a general manager comes in after a coach. Plus, a general manager wants a coach to support his philosophy. That wasn't about to happen with Paxson and Cartwright.
Chander and Rose were hurt in training camp in 2003, Curry came in out of shape after injuries in the summer and Williams was now gone after his motorcyle accident. It was a disastrous, losing start, and Paxson quickly made the coaching change to a like-minded Scott Skiles. The season degenerated from there ,with Chandler out injured much of the time, Rose and Marshall traded, Crawford eying an escape via free agency, Pippen hurt and talking about retirement and Skiles substituting a cadre of minor league players to make his point about hard play and effort.
It meant starting over again. Yes, plan No. 3.
The Bulls hadn't had much luck through the years. They had needed one great draft pick, and never got him.
They saved six picks for 2000, and it was one of the poorest drafts ever.
In 2001, they went for the high school kids, and it was perhaps the one draft with no great high school player, and, again, a poor overall draft.
In three years, they had the No. 1 overall pick, No. 2 and No. 4 twice. They got No. 2 in 2002, just missing on Yao Ming, and then Jay Williams had his motorcycle accident.
So Kirk Hinrich in 2003 became their leader, and the player now who seems to project best is No. 7 pick from last spring, Luol Deng.
They are trying to put together a team without a great star, many of whom they passed on or missed out on in the last six years -- a team in the mold of Paxson and Skiles, hardworking overachievers who were not highly regarded but worked their way into NBA excellence. Is it possible?
It's no longer Krause's team or Krause's vision. Now it's Paxson's, so the process begins again, though in a sense it hasn't truly started yet. Figure Curry or Chandler will be gone by the trading deadline or in sign-and-trades after the season. The Bulls have entertained offers for both since the summer. Neither fits the Paxson/Skiles style of play and neither seems ready to adjust. Last week, they were benched together for the first time in two years.
Hinrich, Andres Nocioni and Deng represent the kind of players that will be the Bulls' core of the future. They need talent, and with players like Pippen, Antonio Davis and Robinson leaving the roster for salary cap purposes over the next two years, the team will be well under the salary cap and in the free agent market, assuming it doesn't make major deals for Curry and Chandler.
They aren't a playoff team now, and probably won't be one next season. But the pieces are starting to be put in place again.
Yes, we've all heard that. But they are different pieces. Better pieces, the Bulls say. No one is talking championships anymore. No one is expecting the big men to dominate.
The Chicago Bulls are just trying to compete. It's long overdue.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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