June 22, 1998: Phil Jackson leaves the Chicago Bulls.
January 13, 1999: Michael Jordan retires from the NBA.
January 19, 1999: Scottie Pippen is traded to the Houston Rockets for forward Roy Rogers and a second round pick.
The truth is, those dates aren’t entirely accurate. If anyone in NBA circles is to be believed, Chicago’s golden trinity really left the Bulls on June 14, 1998, approximately 5.2 seconds of game time after Michael Jordan’s final shot in a red and black uniform.
Jackson was the first to go. Nobody’s quite sure when, nobody’s quite sure why, but at some point, he pissed general manager Jerry Krause off enough to say “I don’t care if you go 82-and-0 this year, you’re f****** gone!”
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf never intervened in any sort of meaningful way. As far as we know, he said nothing at Krause’s stepdaughter’s wedding. Phil Jackson was not invited. Iowa State coach Tim Floyd was, and Floyd was coaching the Bulls a season later. Jackson was being courted by everyone else. Krause has never come close to another GM job.
Michael Jordan had plenty of basketball left in him on June 14, 1998; he played his last game in 2003. But the notoriously competitive Jordan had no interest in a rebuilding project, one that Krause pleaded for. Krause didn’t want to be known as Michael Jordan’s GM. In a sense, Jerry Reinsdorf probably didn’t want to be his owner, either. Why shell out $100 million in salaries when merchandise sales will keep you in the black no matter?
So rather than keep Jackson and build a roster Jordan could’ve won with (and let’s face it, it’s Michael freaking Jordan; he could win with Pippen, Wes Welker, and two extras from Hoosiers), Reinsdorf let Michael Jordan walk away from the chance to defend a championship. Again.
And Pippen? Ah, Scottie Pippen. The most under-appreciated superstar in the history of sports was treated no better by his own team. Krause refused to give Pippen an extension in 1991 because he wanted to save money under the salary cap for his Croatian man-crush Toni Kukoc. Reinsdorf did nothing. Kukoc never played in an All-Star game. Pippen is one of the 25 greatest players in basketball history.
Yet at the height of the Bulls’ dynasty, he wasn’t one of the league’s 100 highest paid players. In modern terms, that would be like Dwyane Wade making making $7 million per year. By 1998, Pippen had had enough. It’s no wonder he maintains an icy relationship with the Bulls to this day. So does Jackson. So does Jordan.
We’re surprisingly lazy when it comes to rating organizations as a whole. It’s easy to call the Pittsburgh Steelers a great organization because all they do is win. But the Chicago Bulls? They’ve won six championships in the past 22 years, but they’re hardly a great organization. They’re an organization mired in internal dissension run by an owner too cheap to compete when someone else has the best player. It’s easy to give the Bulls credit for winning with Michael Jordan. But really, how hard is it to win when you have Michael Jordan?
To flip it around, how easy is it to screw up when you don’t have Michael Jordan? It took the Bulls all of… well… immediately to answer that. The ’99 Bulls won 13 games and picked first in the draft. There they selected Duke star Elton Brand, who would go on to become a 20-10 big man. As a rookie. To put that in perspective, there are exactly three players in the NBA right now that average 20 points and 10 rebounds. For a normal organization, this would be 15 years of contention. The star is in place, now let’s go build the rest of the roster.
But Reinsdorf simply couldn’t tell Krause "no." Two years later, he traded Brand for the rights to rookie Tyson Chandler. Brand was already a star and Chandler was nowhere near a sure-thing. He was drafted behind Kwame Brown for God’s sake. This would essentially be the equivalent of the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love (at around one-third of his current salary) for Cody Zeller.
The Bull are an organization mired in internal dissension run by an owner too cheap to compete when someone else has the best player.
No official reason for trading Brand was given beyond Krause loving the idea of pairing Chandler and Eddy Curry. Some say the Bulls didn’t want to pay Brand a maximum-extension, which he surely deserved. Despite trading his best player, Krause declared the Bulls ready to contend and swapped two budding rookies—Brad Miller and some guy named Ron Artest—for Jalen Rose. Rose never played a playoff game for Chicago. Sadly, neither did Elton Brand.
The post-Jordan Bulls never set an actual plan into motion. They wanted to rebuild, only they traded the one star they managed to get their hands on. They were built around two rookies, yet they decided to trade young talent for a 10-year maximum salary veteran. There was no direction. If you’re looking for a reason that they whiffed on their next star—Tracy McGrady, who said "no thanks" during free agency—that’s why.
The Bulls toiled in obscurity until a stroke of cheapness offered them salvation. With an offseason spending spree looming, the Phoenix Suns handed the Bulls a lottery pick on a silver platter just to get out of paying for it. That pick would become Luol Deng, who, along with Ben Gordon and 2003 pick Kirk Hinrich, would form the basis of a Bulls team that would at least hit the lower levels of mediocrity.
Under Scott Skiles, that Bulls team made the playoffs three times in a row. Yet inexplicably, Skiles was fired midway through a 9-16 start in the ’07-’08 season. His record in the three preceding seasons? 156-156. He won almost three times as many games as Floyd in the same amount of time. But he didn’t have Jerry Krause backing him in the front office.
Krause was long fired by the time Skiles came on board. He was replaced as GM by John Paxson. Though the company line was that Skiles was fired due to the slow start, there were more than a few leaks suggesting that the relationship between the two was simply untenable. This would not be the first time such a mess would occur in the Bulls front office, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Skiles was eventually replaced by Vinny Del Negro. Luckily for Del Negro, the Bulls were once again granted a fair bit of luck. With the eighth worst record in basketball, the ping pong balls granted them 2008 lottery prize Derrick Rose. In fact, it’d be unfair to call that luck. The Bulls were gifted with a future MVP without having to give up anything. How did Del Negro use this luck? By making the Bulls worse than they had been before.
Despite adding Rose to the team Skiles built, the Notorious VDN never finished above .500 with the Bulls. Over a full season, Skiles never didn’t finish above .500. They made such a bad coaching choice that they added a future MVP and somehow got worse. That shouldn’t be possible. Thankfully, Del Negro was fired after only two years.
He was then replaced by Tom Thibodeau, arguably the best coach in basketball today. And as such, the Bulls rounded into form. They earned the No. 1 seed in the East in both of his first two years, and, were it not for LeBron James and a devastating injury to Derrick Rose, easily could’ve won a championship or two. Not surprisingly, the Bulls somehow managed to screw it all up.
Derrick Rose’s health played a part — in fact, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if he were on the court — but the crux of this issue comes down to the front office and the lack of ownership intervention. Paxson and Gar Foreman have been feuding with Thibodeau almost since he signed on.
Last summer, they fired top assistant Ron Adams against Thibs’ will. Adams is one of the best defensive coaches in basketball. No definitive reason was given. League-wide, it’s perceived as a shot at Thibs. So was the trade of Luol Deng, but at least there were some other implications as well: Jerry Reinsdorf had no interest in paying the luxury tax.
The Bulls play in the NBA’s third biggest market. Money is no object to them. Yet Reinsdorf still sees fit to pinch pennies with All-Stars. The Bulls could have come into the 2014-15 season with the same core they’ve kept since Thib's arrival, plus a mid-first round pick, and competed with an aging Miami team. Now they’re likely stuck in the bottom half of the playoff bracket for the foreseeable future.
Tom Thibodeau probably won’t be coaching the Bulls next year. Some reports say he already has a deal with the Knicks. Unless they can coax Phil Jackson out of retirement (not happening), they’re going to get a steep drop off at coach to go along with the steep drop at small forward.
Almost all of this could have been avoided. Jerry Reinsdorf could’ve stepped in and kept Phil Jackson. He could’ve kept Michael Jordan or treated Scottie Pippen better. He could’ve fostered better relationships between his coaches and general managers. He could’ve prioritized winning over squeezing every last cent out of one of the NBA’s best fan-bases.
The current state of the Bulls goes far beyond Derrick Rose. It’s more than trading one of their best players and plugging in replacements. The Chicago Bulls are a bad organization. They’ve been a bad organization since Reinsdorf took over; you just haven’t noticed because they lucked into Michael Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Derrick Rose. Now that they aren’t involved, you can see the Bulls organization for what it really is.