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Monday, December 14, 2015

Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work

When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Jerry Colangelo to fix the mess that Sam Hinkie created, I remembered that Colangelo was aghast and astonished by how Jerry Krause broke up the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Krause ran off Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen after the Bulls had just won three straight NBA titles from 1996-98. In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"

At the press conference, Reinsdorf said that Floyd was "Director of basketball operations, with duties normally handled by a head coach."

Lincicome scoffed, "When is a coach not a coach? When he is aside. But just for the sake of context, let's grant that it was all true. Floyd would give up a perfectly fine job where he was wanted and respected in order to schlep around as Krause's fanny pack for as long as Jackson and Jordan and the rest wanted to shun him? Would you even want a man like this coaching your team?"

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon put it simply in a January 21, 1999 piece titled "Gored to Death: Arrogant acts have gutted the Bulls' dynasty": 
Only scant months ago, there was raging debate about how the Bulls measured up to the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, to the 76ers of Wilt Chamberlain, to the Celtics of Larry Bird, to the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson. The skeleton that's left may end up being measured against the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, the patron saint of losers, authors of a 9-73 record...

So what, by their hubris, Reinsdorf and Krause have done is deny the rest of us the final act of the dynasty, one farewell championship for Jordan, or one incredibly emotional quest for it.

They have interfered with the natural order of things. To feed their own egos, they have purposefully committed needless folly.

They have killed a dynasty.

If there is justice, the Bulls will be bad for a very long time.
Justice arrived swiftly in Chicago. Floyd went 49-190 in four years as the Bulls' coach. Reinsdorf and Krause replaced arguably the best coach in pro basketball history--a coach who won six titles in Chicago and went on to win five more titles in L.A. with the Lakers--with arguably the worst coach in pro basketball history. Bulls' power forward Charles Oakley summed it up succinctly near the end of Floyd's reign of error (and was fined $50,000 by the team for his candor): "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop." Without Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman and most of the rest of the core members of the Bulls' second three-peat squads, the Bulls promptly posted the worst five-year record of any non-expansion team in NBA history (96-282, a winning percentage of .254). The Bulls missed the playoffs for six straight years, did not win a playoff series until 2007 (four years after Krause retired as the Bulls' GM) and have made it to exactly one Eastern Conference Finals (2011) since Krause dismantled the roster.
It is foolish to break up a championship team in order to build from the ground up or turn a mediocre team into a cellar dweller in order to use draft picks to become a contender. After the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 championship, owner Mark Cuban elected to not keep key rotation players Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea; the Mavericks have not won a playoff series since 2011. Instead of continuing to add pieces around Dirk Nowitzki, Cuban wasted the final years of Nowitzki's career. This is not Hinkie-style tanking (though Cuban has said that he believe the strategy is sound--which is an absurd belief), but it is breaking up a championship team without giving that team a realistic chance to defend its crown.

When you are blessed enough to have a championship-caliber team, you should do everything possible to augment the roster and keep the championship window open as long as possible. Two organizations are widely referred to as "model franchises" in the NBA and NFL respectively: the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots. Since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs have won five championships and have never missed the playoffs. Since the New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl four times and have only missed the playoffs three times (once with an 11-5 record, once with a 9-7 record and once with a 5-11 record in Belichick's first year on the job). Those teams have never tanked and have never prematurely dismantled a championship caliber roster; at times, those teams have phased out individual players who were past their primes but those teams always replaced those players in order to remain at an elite level. Those teams effectively used their draft picks even though their success relegated them to making their selections near the end of each round of the draft; instead of tanking to get higher draft picks, these teams did the necessary scouting/player evaluation to find good players. Also, free agents want to sign with the Spurs and Patriots because they know that those franchises have a winning culture. No talented free agent was ever going to sign with someone like Jerry Krause after he broke up the Bulls or with Sam Hinkie after he plunged the 76ers into the tank.

Rest assured that if Colangelo has anything to say about it the 76ers' tanking days are over (they will still lose for a while until Colangelo brings some real players into the fold but Colangelo will actually be looking for real NBA players, not rejects from the Washington Generals)--and that if Colangelo builds the 76ers up to contender status he will not break apart the team in order to stockpile draft picks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 PM


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At Tuesday, December 15, 2015 1:22:00 AM, Anonymous Yogi said...

I still can’t forgive the Jerry's for blowing up such a fabulous team, and I can't imagine why this is so difficult to understand:"When you are blessed enough to have a championship-caliber team, you should do everything possible to augment the roster and keep the championship window open as long as possible."


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