The Bulls are heavily favored to repeat as NBA champions in part
because they possess the kind of chemistry that other franchises
lack. Yet Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf says he's prepared to
risk altering that chemistry. He and Bulls vice president of
basketball operations Jerry Krause have already scouted
replacements for coach Phil Jackson, compiled a list of free
agents to pursue if Michael Jordan retires, decided which
players they would want in return if they traded Scottie Pippen,
and mulled over replacing power forward Dennis Rodman with
backup Jason Caffey. Reinsdorf is coy about which players and
coaches he has his eye on, but he's ready to make moves. "I have
to think long-term, not just next year," he says. "I don't want
to become the Boston Celtics of the next decade."
Boston's dynasty crumbled in the wake of management's decision
to allow Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to grow old
in Celtics uniforms rather than trade them for younger players
or draft picks. (Ironically, Parish is still playing at age 43,
in Chicago's red-and-black uniform.) So when is it time to let go?
Reinsdorf, whose Bulls at week's end had taken a
two-games-to-none lead over the Bullets in their best-of-five
Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, thinks he'll know in the
next few weeks. "If we win the title and blow through everyone,
that's one thing," he says. "But suppose we win and somebody
gets hurt? Or suppose we win, but only barely? My reaction could
well be different in each case."
Translation: A fifth championship ring in seven seasons
guarantees nothing. While acknowledging that there will be
tremendous public pressure to keep the Bulls intact if they win,
Reinsdorf says, "I don't care." In fact, several sources in the
Bulls' organization say the prevailing feeling in Chicago is
that Reinsdorf and Krause are itching to begin rebuilding and
are confident they can win another championship without Jackson
and, if it comes down to it, without Jordan.
Last summer, after tense and often acrimonious negotiations,
Jackson signed a one-year contract worth $2.75 million. Jackson
says he was so convinced the Bulls wouldn't ante up that he
packed the belongings in his office and was prepared to walk
until his players talked him out of it. Reinsdorf eventually
blinked and paid more than he had planned. Those who know the
owner well say that won't happen again.
Meanwhile, the normally tight-lipped Krause has been fawning
over Iowa State coach Tim Floyd, infuriating Jackson's allies.
Reinsdorf insists that Floyd is not necessarily Jackson's heir
apparent, while Jackson denies there are bad feelings. "Jerry
[Krause] gets enamored of certain people," he says. "He used to
be enamored of me."
Reinsdorf says he wants Jackson back, but he quickly adds, "I
don't know what is in Phil's head, but I think he wants to
control everything. If that's what he wants, he can't have that
Jackson says that isn't, and never was, his ambition. "Quite
honestly, I think that's being used as spin," he says. Because
of a clause in his contract permitting him to negotiate with
teams during the playoffs, Jackson at week's end was expected to
attract interest from the Grizzlies, the Magic and the Sixers.
Much of Jackson's bargaining power with Chicago is supplied by
Jordan, who has said he would retire if Jackson left. Asked
before the playoffs if he still felt that way, Jordan said,
"Yes. If Phil leaves, I'm going home to my family." Many people
close to Jordan claim he is playing too well (as evidenced by
his 55-point splurge on Sunday against the Bullets in Chicago's
109-104 Game 2 win) and having too much fun to walk away. Yet
teammates say Jordan has been discussing retirement in recent
weeks. "I think when Michael says [he'll retire], he believes
it," Reinsdorf says. "But when it actually came time to decide,
he might rethink it."
"It's extremely important to Michael that Phil is the coach,"
counters Jordan's agent, David Falk. "He doesn't want to be in
an experimental stage at this point of his career, and if he
envisions changes, like [bringing in] a rookie coach, it would
alter his thinking." So might the Bulls' next salary offer. Last
summer Chicago signed Jordan to a one-year contract worth $30
million, some of which, Reinsdorf says, was "catch-up money" for
the many years that Jordan made far less than a number of NBA
stars who weren't as good as he. Jordan doesn't see it that way.
"I think Michael has already said he doesn't expect to take a
pay cut," Falk says.
As for Rodman, he used to say he'd retire if the Bulls didn't
re-sign him; now, after making a splash in Hollywood with his
costarring role in the film Double Team, he talks about joining
the Lakers. But L.A. doesn't have salary-cap room to sign the
Worm, even if it were interested in him.
Rodman, who will become a free agent after the Bulls' last
playoff game, knows his days in Chicago could be numbered. "If
we don't win it all, I doubt I'll be back," he says. Sources
close to the team say it's likely Rodman won't be back even if
the Bulls do win. Rodman infuriated the league hierarchy and
earned an 11-game suspension when he kicked cameraman Eugene
Amos during a game in Minneapolis on Jan. 15, but he had
previously incensed Reinsdorf even more when he used expletives
in a live SportsChannel interview after the Bulls' Dec. 8 game
against the Raptors. Reinsdorf says he wanted to suspend Rodman
for 10 games but decided on a two-game suspension after he and
NBA commissioner David Stern discussed the incident.
"I hope Dennis doesn't start to believe he's the thing he
created," Reinsdorf says, alluding to Rodman's flamboyant
persona. "I see signs of it. It's sort of like Howard Cosell at
the end. He started to believe his own b.s." Meanwhile, Chicago
is grooming Caffey, whose playing time has steadily increased.
And whither All-Star swingman Pippen? He can become a free agent
in July 1998. That gives the Bulls two options: trading him
before that date or handing him a lucrative contract extension
after they put their other pieces in place.
Assuming Jordan retires after next season and Rodman isn't
re-signed this summer, the Bulls could have the following
players and salaries for cap purposes in July 1998: Randy Brown
($1.3 million), Caffey (he would be a free agent, so the sum for
cap purposes would be 150% of his salary at the time, or $1.6
million), Ron Harper ($5.3 million), Toni Kukoc ($4 million),
Luc Longley (he too would be a free agent, making his figure
$4.5 million) and Pippen (another free agent, $4.5 million). The
total: about $21.2 million. The '98 cap is expected to be about
$28 million, so if the Bulls renounced the rights to a free
agent such as Longley, they would have a truckload of cash to
woo free agents from other teams, like the Timberwolves' Kevin
Garnett. Then, once Chicago was done acquiring new talent, it
could take advantage of salary-cap rules and pay its own free
agent, Pippen, any amount it wanted.
In the past Reinsdorf has resisted suggestions that he give
superstar money to Pippen, who this season has been relatively
underpaid at $2.25 million. "But now Scottie is the complete
package," Reinsdorf says. "He has grown up. You don't read any
dumb comments anymore, no more girlfriend problems, no gun
incidents. And he'd have Kukoc to help. Toni is a young guy [age
28], and we could give him the ball. I'm not suggesting that's
the way we'll go, but it's a viable alternative."
So is trading Pippen. In fact, when Krause showed up recently at
a Bucks regular-season game, speculation ran rampant that he was
scouting All-Star forward Vin Baker, who is unhappy in Milwaukee
and can walk after the 1998-99 season.
Reinsdorf admits that he's less excited by the Bulls' success
this year than in 1995-96. "Last year was incredible," Reinsdorf
says. "Every night in the locker room was like the seventh game
of the World Series. We were going for 70 wins [the Bulls ended
up with a league-record 72], it was Michael's first full year
back....This year doesn't have the same intensity. If we hadn't
won last year, it would have been a tremendous downer. If we
don't win this year, it won't be."
COLOR PHOTO: CARL SISSAC If Reinsdorf and Krause get the rebuilding bug, some of these Bulls could file out of the United Center. [Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and other Chicago Bulls players]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Jordan's 55-point binge on Sunday against the Bullets may nip any budding thoughts of retirement. [Michael Jordan in game]