Jerry Krause: I didn’t break up Bulls. Health and salary issues did

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The Bulls effectively announced the conclusion of their dynasty in 1997.

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause said he and Phil Jackson agreed it’d be Jackson’s last season as coach. Michael Jordan had already said he wouldn’t play for any other coach. No more Michael Jordan, no more dynasty. The terms were clear.

So, the Bulls went on one more run – a “Last Dance” – and won the 1998 championship. If breaking up this team weren’t already dubious, doing so immediately after another title seemed even more misguided. Didn’t management reconsider?

Krause in his unpublished memoir, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

I’m now going to take you to a place no Bulls outsider has ever been, a meeting in early July 1998. It was attended by Jerry Reinsdorf, myself, (assistant general manager) Jim Stack, Al Vermeil, the team doctors and surgeons, (VP of finance) Irwin Mandel and (assistant to the GM) Karen Stack. Vermeil knew more about the condition of the players’ bodies than even the medical people. He had continually tested them in and out of season during the entire championship run. We had asked then-trainer Chip Schaefer to submit a written report on the team’s health.

The first question I asked was how much did people think we could get out of Luc Longley, a free-agent-to-be who we’d had to rest periodically over the last few years because of unstable ankles. Al and the doctors thought he would break down quickly.

Next question: Rodman? Each person in the room was concerned that Dennis’ off-court meanderings had caught up with him, that he was playing on fumes at the end of the season.

We go to Pippen. He’s had two major surgeries in two years, one of them late in the summer to purposely defy our instructions to do it earlier and not miss regular-season time. He wants to rightfully be paid superstar dollars. Is he worth the risk, especially if we can’t find a center and a power forward, and he and Michael have to carry the load for a new coach? I seriously doubt it.

Put yourself in our shoes as we walk out of that room. What would you do? Did we break up a dynasty or was the dynasty breaking up of age, natural attrition of NBA players with little time to recuperate and the salary-cap rules that govern the game?

As the summer wore on and players were locked out of the training facilities by the league — that would mean the NBA season would not start until late January — things got even worse. Michael sliced a finger on a cigar cutter that would’ve prevented him from playing an entire season.

I suggest reading the full article for more details of Krause’s explanation, including the salary issue.

Keep this in mind, though: The Bulls had Bird Rights on every player mentioned. Salary-cap rules would’ve allowed Chicago to re-sign all its own free agents. It would’ve been expensive, but legal. Of course, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had spending limits. That was a key consideration in breaking up the team. It’s unfair Krause so often took all the blame for decisions that also involved Reinsdorf. (That’s an issue with “The Last Dance” documentary, too.) Even in death, Krause – with this excerpt – is still shielding Reinsdorf.

Krause was involved, too. And his logic has flaws.

It’s so difficult to build a championship contender, and Krause helped do it. Teams shouldn’t take that window for granted while it’s open.

Even if Krause were right about the team’s low odds in 1999, what did rushing into rebuilding get the Bulls? They were awful the next five seasons. They went the next dozen years with just two winning seasons.

At least Chicago would have had a chance of meaningful success in 1999 – depending on Jordan’s finger.

This is the first time I’ve seen it described as a full-season injury. Jordan himself said, “The doctors said I couldn’t play for about two months.” Jordan also said he decided to retire before cutting his finger, which happened while vacationing in the Bahamas. If Krause and Jackson had resolved their issues and Jordan planned to return for another run, Jordan probably would’ve been training rather than vacationing.

Pippen (Rockets), Rodman (Lakers) and Longley (Suns) all declined with new teams during the 1999 season. Maybe that would’ve happened similarly in Chicago. But Pippen and Longley had significantly differently roles. Particularly, Pippen fumed about being third option behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley in Houston. Rodman benefited from the structure of playing for the winning Bulls. Toni Kukoc was also ascending and could’ve supplanted Rodman as starting forward.

Kevin Pelton of ESPN analyzed how the Bulls would’ve fared if they kept their core intact in 1999. He projected them as the top team in the Eastern Conference, though not the league. If they met the actual-champion Spurs in the NBA Finals, the Bulls – with all their playoff experience – certainly would’ve had a fighting chance.

Pelton’s method accounts for aging, but not the specific medical issues of Bulls players. Krause’s insight there matters.

But a player’s long-term health is difficult to predict. There are no certainties. Remember, Krause explored replacing Jackson in 1996 and trading Pippen in 1997. With either move, Chicago’s run could’ve ended even sooner.

I don’t share Krause’s conviction that 1999 was the right time.

Still, it’s interesting to read Krause make his case. Again, I recommend reading the full excerpt.