From the first night of “The Last Dance,” Bulls’ GM Jerry Krause was painted as the villain in Michael Jordan’s heroic epic.
It was Krause who said, “Even if Phil [Jackson] goes 82-0 he’s not coming back.” It’s Krause who Jordan and Pippen mercilessly picked on (and who Pippen blamed for not renegotiating his contract). And make no mistake, Krause thought it was the right call to break up the Bulls in 1998 rather than bring the band back together for one more run.
Ultimately, it’s not Krause’s call.
That’s an ownership decision. If Jerry Reinsdorf tells Krause to run it back for another year, we get the 1999 season we all wanted to see.
Until the last 15 minutes of episode 10, Reinsdorf got off easy in The Last Dance documentary, but then he was asked why he broke up the team. It was all about the money.
“Now, after the sixth championship, things were beyond our control. It would have been (financially) suicidal at that point in their careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper, their market value individually was going to be too high, they weren’t going to be worth the money they were going to get in the market,” Reinsdorf said. “So, when we realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild, I went to Phil and offered him the opportunity to come back the next year, but he said I don’t want to go through a rebuild, ‘I don’t want to coach a bad team.’ That was the end, it just came to an end on its own.
“If Michael had been healthy and wanted to come back, I don’t doubt that Krause could have rebuilt a championship team in a couple of years, but it wasn’t going to happen instantly.”
The Bulls had Bird rights on all those players — it would have been expensive, but Reinsdorf could have kept the core of the team together. He chose not to. Every owner has the right to say, “this is our spending limit,” but this Bulls’ team was a cash cow and had been for years (the Bulls are consistently one of the league’s most profitable teams), filling the United Center and becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Break it up, send Jordan into retirement, and the value of the franchise drops. There were financial reasons to keep them together. Reinsdorf has a reputation around the league of a big market owner who spends like a mid-market owner, and it’s situations like this that are why. He’s also loyal and trusting of his GMs, even when he should step in (how long was Gar/Pax left in charge when it wasn’t working?).
“It’s maddening because I felt like we could have won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but not to be able to try that’s something I just can’t accept,” Jordan said.
Jordan said the team knew this was the last year, they just had a hard time wrapping their heads around it. They also would have come back for another run.
“In ’98, Krause said at the start of the season ‘Phil can go 82-0 and he was never going to be the coach.’ When Phil said it was the last dance, we knew it was the last dance. We knew they weren’t going to keep the team [together],” Jordan said at the end of the documentary. “Now they could have nixed all of it at the beginning of’ 98. Why say that statement at the beginning of ’98?
“If you ask all the guys who won in ’98 — Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, blah, blah, blah, — we give you a one-year contract to try for seven [titles], do you think they would have signed?
“Yes. They would have signed. Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed. I had been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Now, Pip, you would have had to do some convincing. But if Phil was going to be there, if Dennis was going to be there, if MJ was going to be there to win that seventh, Pip is not going to miss out on that.”
We’ll never know if they could have won a seventh. It’s the greatest “what if” in NBA history.
If you want to blame someone for the breakup of the Bulls — who have won five playoff series total in the 22 seasons since Jordan retired — it’s not all about Krause. This decision went straight to the top.