Superhero movies are all the rage these days. Their mega budgets, big stars, explosions and CGI define the modern superhero era. But at the heart of these stories are always two sides. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. While at first glance they appear to be extreme opposites, the differences should really only exist on the surface. At the heart of these stories are two characters, one good one bad, who are more alike than they care to acknowledge. Both sides feel they are in the right, both sides feel like their actions are justified, but it really just depends on your perspective. And over the last two decades, while the characters may have changed, a civil war has been bubbling between the coaches and front offices of the professional basketball team that resides within the city limits of one dark, cloudy metropolitan known as Chicago.
THE FORCE AWAKENS – KRAUSE vs. JACKSON
A prettier picture of the Bulls is painted if you flashback to a better time, the 1990’s, when the
bickering and fighting was glossed over by six championships in eight years and the greatest player of all-time as the centerpiece. But our story begins before that, in 1985, when Jerry Krause replaced Rod Thorn as the General Manager of the Bulls, inheriting Jordan but little else. But Krause wasted no time trying to surround Jordan with the kind of talent that would propel him to stardom and titles. In the 1987 draft, he traded Olden Polynice to Seattle for a then little-known skinny kid out of the University of Central Arkansas Scottie Pippen, and then selected Horace Grant, who along with Jordan would become the building blocks of the first three titles. A “Big 3” created organically before the phrase would be coined much later by another evil empire.
But the first major conflict in our hero franchise’s story came between Krause and Jordan, when Jordan was injured during the ’85-’86 season. Jordan fought hard to return for the playoffs, while Krause worried about long-term damage and tried to convince Jordan to stay out until the next season when he would be fully healed. Jordan accused the front office of tanking by holding him out, but he ultimately won out and returned only to score 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs that year. The Bulls lost that series, but it was the start or Jordan letting Krause know that as long as he was there, it would be Jordan making decisions for himself, not the front office.
After the 1988 season however, Krause made a move that would not only exhibit his power over Jordan but improve the Bulls at the same time. Charles Oakley was one of the best power forwards in the NBA and a close friend of Jordan’s. But the Bulls were in the need of a big man who could score as they attempted to de-throne the Detroit Pistons in the late 80’s and traded Oakley to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright. Jordan took this move personally, and while it was a basketball move on the surface, there was no doubt that Krause knew what he was doing.
As all of this was happening, Phil Jackson was an assistant on head coach Doug Collins’ staff before soon taking over the job from Collins. Many believed Krause deserved credit for giving Jackson a chance as head coach of the Bulls long before he was known as the “Zen Master”. Jackson was considered a bit of a pet project of Krause’s, with no previous NBA coaching experience. But it appeared that Jackson was being groomed to take over the job from the more outspoken Collins long before the change was actually made. In 1989 Collins was fired, Jackson took his place, and just two years later, Jackson led the Bulls to their first NBA title.
During the Bulls’ first three-peat, Krause began to feel like Jackson and Jordan were taking all of the credit for the titles, despite Krause being the architect of those teams. After the third title in 1993, Jordan took his baseball sabbatical before returning just before the 1995 playoffs. The Bulls failed to make the finals that year, but the next year they began their second three-peat of the 90’s.
Things really went south between Jackson and Krause in the summer of 1997 when Jackson was not invited to the wedding of Krause’s stepdaughter, although all of the Bulls’ assistant coaches were, as was Tim Floyd, then head coach at Iowa State, who would eventually be in line to take Jackson’s job after the 1998 season. After negotiations that were nothing short of contentious, Jackson signed a one-year contract for the 1997-98 season. It was known publicly that even if the Bulls won the title (which they did) Jackson would not be back after the way things went between him and Krause.
It was believed at the time that had Jackson returned, Jordan would have as well and the Bulls would have had an opportunity to extend their championship run. Jordan still wanted to play, but said publicly that he only would if Jackson returned as head coach. This should give you an idea of the depth of their dysfunction, as Krause’s feud with Jackson ran so deep that it cost him a once-in-a-lifetime player and kicked off their current 18-year title draught.
All the while, Krause had Floyd waiting in the wings much the way he had Jackson waiting for Collins to be fired. But when Jackson left so did the core of the Bulls. Jordan retired again, Pippen went to Houston and Steve Kerr, Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman left. Krause appeared to be tired of riding the coat tails of Jordan and Jackson, and wanted to prove that he could build a team on his own around a young coach and even younger core.
But the toxicity of the Bulls’ front office in the aftermath of Jordan and Jackson’s exits began to cost them in free agency. In pursuing top free agents it became clear that NBA stars didn’t have any interest in playing for the same organization that would drive away someone like Michael Jordan. If they would push Jordan out, how would they be treated?
In 2000, the Bulls were in hot pursuit of big-time free agents Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. All three players were wined and dined by Krause (nobody will forget the embarrassing display of the airport “Meet-n’-Greet with Benny the Bull). The Bulls missed out on all three players, settling for Ron Mercer and then giving a five-year, $32 million contract to Eddie Robinson. This will not be the last example of the Bulls stumbling in free agency and tossing large sums of money away on consolation prizes.
And so the Bulls were forced to build through the draft. In the 2001 draft, the Bulls traded the No. 1 pick along with rookie of the year Elton Brand for Tyson Chandler to pair with Eddy Curry, both high schoolers jumping straight to the NBA. The idea was for the Bulls to build around the two big men, but it never quite worked and after three pitiful seasons, Floyd was fired and replaced with Bill Cartwright, then an assistant on Floyd’s staff.
A NEW HOPE – PAXSON vs. SKILES
Amidst health issues and a failed attempt to re-build the franchise, Krause resigned and John Paxson became the Vice-President of Basketball Relations. Paxson was a starter during the Bulls’ first title run, and after his retirement from playing, Jackson hired him as an assistant coach for the 1995-96 season. But his time on the bench didn’t last long as he left to join Neil Funk on the radio. And then in April 2003, Paxson took over the job in the Bulls’ front office.
After an underwhelming start to the 2003-04 season, Paxson wasted no time shaking things up. He traded the team’s leading scorer Jalen Rose and fired friend and former-teammate Cartwright, replacing him with Scott Skiles. But Paxson’s first season didn’t show any improvement. They finished with a 23-59 record, which was second worst in the NBA that year.
But this is where Paxson began to find his strength, in the draft. That season he drafted Kirk Hinrich out of Kansas who made the NBA All-Rookie Team, and then the following year’s draft class included Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Chris Duhan and Andres Nocioni. This young core helped improve the Bulls that next season to the third best record in the East.
But Paxson couldn’t match his draft success the next season, as the Bulls used the second pick in the draft (acquired from the Knicks in return for Eddy Curry who has been dealing with health problems) on LaMarcus Aldridge. But they promptly traded the pick for the number four pick, Tyrus Thomas. This was by far the biggest draft blunder of the Paxson era. Aldridge is a career 20 point, 9 rebound per game player now playing a prominent role on one of the best teams in the NBA, the Spurs, while Thomas, a career seven point, four rebound per game player, hasn’t even been in the NBA since 2014-15. It is intriguing yet painful to think of what might have been had the Bulls been the team to pair Aldridge with Duncan, or even McGrady in their primes.
The next season, it appeared the players had stopped responding to the hard-nosed Skiles and the front office experiment of riding draft picks and failing to pair them with big-ticket stars had not paid off. With expectations high after three straight playoff appearances, the Bulls got off to a terrible start in the 2007-08 season, dropping ten of their first twelve games and on Christmas Eve that year, Skiles was fired as head coach.
A lot was made of this move at the time. Skiles had clearly gotten a lot out of his players and gotten the Bulls back to the playoffs for the first time since the Jordan era. Skiles downplayed the date of the firing, but its impossible to think that it doesn’t sting to lose your job on Christmas eve, let alone one as much in the spotlight as an NBA coach of one of the league’s most storied franchises.
With a combination of interim coaches, the Bulls finished that season 33-49. They were in desperate need of a fresh start and Paxson thought he had it in the form of a former player turned scout, Vinny Del Negro.
CIVIL WAR– PAXSON vs. DEL NEGRO
Luckily for the Bulls, their drop in the standings during Skiles’ last season as Bulls coach didn’t come without it’s share of benefits, primarily the Bulls lucking into the top pick in the 2008 NBA draft and using that pick on Derrick Rose. Rose appeared to be the star the Bulls were looking for to add to their young core and he literally landed in their laps. He won Rookie of the Year and helped the Bulls improve to 41-41 in the 2008-09 season, giving hope for things to come.
This is where we discover the roots of the ongoing battle between the Bulls’ front office and coaches regarding players’ injuries and minutes. During the 2009-10 season, Noah began to suffer from plantar fasciitis. On February 26th of that year, Del Negro exceeded the management-imposed minutes limit for Noah during an overtime victory over the Trail Blazers, which led to Noah missing their next ten games. The front office was clearly upset at Del Negro, who in his defense, was trying to help the Bulls win a late season game in trying to get them back to the playoffs.
But the message didn’t get through to Del Negro after that game, or if it did, he was intent on focusing more on the season at hand, trusting his players and medical staff, and played Noah 2:05 longer than the limit set by Paxson in a loss to the Suns on March 30th.
According to sources, after the game Paxson allegedly confronted Del Negro, leading to a physical altercation in which Paxson grabbed Del Negro by the tie and shoved him. The Bulls hired independent lawyers to investigate the incident, however it just ultimately led to Del Negro’s firing after two 41-41 seasons with the Bulls.
DAWN OF JUSTICE – PAXSON/FORMAN vs. THIBODEAU
That summer, Paxson hit the jackpot again when he hired longtime assistant coach and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau to be the team’s head coach. Thibs had a long career in the NBA but had most recently been the architect of the defense that led the Boston Celtics and their “Big 3” to the title in 2008.
After sour experiences with Skiles and Del Negro, Paxson was still determined to find the coach who would get the most out of his team of young stars without creating conflict with management, and he hoped Thibodeau would be their guy. But the Bulls were still missing their star player, the 1-A player they needed to pair with Rose and take them over the top, and again set their sights on free agency.
In the 2010 off-season, the Bulls set out to land some combination of the big free agents that year, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. All three players met with the Bulls, who were determined to erase the memory of the 2000 fiasco as well as restore their reputation as a superstar-friendly organization. We all remember how this ended, with all three signing together in Miami and the Bulls ending up with Carlos Boozer, a decent piece, but not the star they sought after and who ultimately became a hand-cuffing contract, five years and $80 million.
Again a lot was made out of the long-time issues between the Bulls and superstar players. Wade, a Chicago native, seemed a perfect fit for the Bulls (a player they had wanted to draft initially before the Heat swept in to select him ahead of them), but there was still this stigma from the Jordan-Krause days. Whether it was an active part of their decisions or not, it was yet another example of the Bulls unable to attract star players to their organization through free agency.
To the organization’s credit they filled in the rest of the roster well with several smaller pieces – Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, C. J. Watson – and lead the Bulls to a 62-20 record in Thibodeau’s first season.
Things appeared to finally be clicking. Derrick Rose was named MVP of the league and the Bulls made it all the way to the conference finals where they lost to the Heat. But this team looked primed to make a run at the Heat’s “Big 3” next season.
During the 2011-2012 season is really when the feud between Paxson, Gar Forman (who he had hired to be the team’s general manager) and Thibodeau began to show its head. Riding his success of last season, Thibodeau began flexing his power in the way of roster control just the way Del Negro had. Again the topic of minute limits between coach and front office began floating around, again regarding Noah but also their star Rose. The former MVP had only played 39 games that season, but both players along with Luol Deng played through injuries all year. Then in the first round of the playoffs, Rose tore his ACL on a non-contact play and missed the rest of the playoffs as well as the following season.
There was a lot of speculation as to how and why the injury occurred. Should Thibodeau have been more careful with his star player? Did playing through other injuries during the year ultimately lead to his body breaking down by the playoffs? Or was he right to allow players to play if they felt like they were healthy? With Rose out, the future of this Bulls team had started to become uncertain and the window, it appeared, had slowly begun to close.
In spite of the battle between Paxson, Forman and Thibodeau, the Bulls still offered him a contract extension in the fall of 2012, but only after a six-month delay before Thibodeau actually signed the contract, of which a lot was made but nothing was ever publicly explained. Was this Thibs making a power play? He had brought the Bulls back to elite status, but did not like the lack of control over his roster given to him by the front office. Publicly he made very little of the hold out, but there is no doubt the power struggle was nearing its boiling point.
Then in the 2012 draft, the Bulls had the 29th pick overall and Thibodeau and lead assistant Ron Adams were making a big pitch for a somewhat out of shape “tweener” out of Michigan State, Draymond Green. Now nobody could have predicted that Green would become the player he is today, but it should be noted that against the advice of Thibodeau and Adams, the Bulls instead opted to pick Marquis Teague, who never materialized as an NBA player and has spend almost his entire career in the D-League.
In the ensuing years, the Bulls failed to make any improvements to their roster, all the while using the same rhetoric that each time Rose returned from injury, that it was like they were adding a former MVP to their team. Rose battled injuries through the rest of Thibodeau’s tenure and failed to return to his MVP form.
Then in 2013 one of the biggest dominos in the feud fell when the Bulls fired Adams, somewhat out of the blue. Adams was a close friend of Thibodeau’s and many believed the true mastermind behind the Bulls’ defensive dominance. Adams was upset at the front office for letting Korver and Watson go and bringing back an aged Kirk Hinrich on a bad contract. But behind the firing was Paxson reminding Thibodeau who the boss really was. Adams’ issues with management dated back to that 2012 draft and now the message was clear – play ball with the front office or you were out.
Despite Thibs continuing to milk every last ounce of talent out of a less than elite lineup of players, the Bulls continued to battle injuries and come up short in the East, until finally after the 2014-15 season, he was fired with two years and approximately $9 million remaining on his contract.
And just like they did with Collins and Jackson, the Bulls’ next coach was selected before Thibodeau’s seat had barely had time to cool. And in an all-too-weird coincidence that could only be pulled off by an organization as dysfunctional as the Bulls, it was yet again a former Iowa State coach waiting in the wings to take over the head job.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST – THE HOIBERG ERA
Fred Hoiberg is the fourth head coach hired in the John Paxson era. And while Hoiberg was a former player with NBA front office experience and a great collegiate coaching resume, he was really brought in to be the “anti-Thibs”. A company-first guy who would play nice with the front office – someone mild-mannered to counter the Bulls’ history of strong, opinionated head coaches.
But Hoiberg was not the right coach for this team at this time. His laid back attitude caused the Bulls to take the foot off the gas that they has become accustomed to slamming on under Thibs. The Bulls team he inherited was not built for the perimeter game Hoiberg ran at Iowa State, and the players who fit that scheme best, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, failed to excel in their first year in the system. With the Bulls struggling in the Eastern Conference standings for the first time in five years since they hired Thibodeau, the tension normally reserved for the front office found its way back to the locker room.
On December 20th, 2015, after a 16-point loss to the New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler called out Hoiberg, believing that his relaxed approach was actually hurting the Bulls. Butler and Hoiberg publicly cleared the air, but the power struggle continued as the Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time since ’07-08.
After the season, Paxson spoke to the lack of leadership on the team, calling out Butler as someone who talked too much about leadership rather than exhibiting it on and off the court. A leader takes the blame even when it isn’t on him, but a villain is never wrong.
As this is being written, this story is still “to be continued”. But as is the case with most sequels, Bulls fans are tired of seeing the same old story played over and over again.
And just like at the end of every super hero movie, there is something after the credits, a character you didn’t expect to see, or perhaps should have noticed all along. And behind this tale sits the mastermind who has allowed all of this to take place, Jerry Reinsdorf, faithful to a fault when it comes to his general managers. First it was Krause (who looks an awful lot like the Penguin), now it is Paxson (who bears a striking resemblance to Lex Luther). Reinsdorf continues putting his foot soldiers in place, while he sits above it all being inducted into the Hall of Fame rather than being held accountable for allowing nearly two decades of internal struggle.
This will most likely be the last coach Paxson is allowed to hire, but when he is gone someone else in the same mold constructed by Reinsdorf will be waiting in the wings replace him. Different characters, same old story.
And the battle rages on…