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Should Bulls consider the lessons of history?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 26
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The Bulls were putting all the pieces in place around the kid. They added some youth, and they had veterans and hoped the way they meshed around the kid could enable them to make a big jump in the standings.
The season began well, but then, shockingly, he was badly injured and gone from the team. So what could you do after the shock but have a disappointing season? There’s no replacing a star player of that magnitude.
“You have to sit there and accept things,” said Jerry Krause. “You’re trying to build a team, but you can’t overreact and panic. We just suffered through it.”
It’s not precisely the same circumstances today since Krause’s 1985-86 Bulls didn’t fashion themselves potential title contenders as the 2013-14 Bulls were hoping to be.
But few know as well as Krause what it is to endure and try to react to the loss of a franchise player during the season as Krause did when Michael Jordan broke his foot three games into his second season in the NBA.
“I really feel for Gar and Pax,” said Krause, now a scouting special assistant to the general manager for the baseball Arizona Diamondbacks.
Krause understands because he was the Bulls general manager in 1985 when, after making changes to his team to set up the season around rookie of the year Jordan, Jordan broke his foot and was out more than four months to almost the end of the regular season.
“The difference now is the Bulls are a good team,” said Krause in a telephone interview from Chicago, where he is waiting to go to the baseball winter meeting and then spring training. “They’ve still got very good personnel. We were a bad team.”
But those Bulls were a much improving team, and a team Krause was building around Jordan, every move designed to keep putting in place players that fit with Jordan–just as the Bulls have been doing with Derrick Rose.
That spring Krause drafted a bruising forward, Charles Oakley, who could rebound and provide the muscle and protection around Jordan. Krause had been working on a trade to get a perimeter shooter to spread the court with Jordan, and, ironically, the deal became official to acquire John Paxson the day Jordan later that night broke his foot against the Warriors in Oakland. A few weeks earlier, Krause had added another shooter in Kyle Macy.
Krause also had picked up a scoring forward in Gene Banks to help Jordan and added future Hall of Famer George Gervin. Gervin was at the end of his career, though the transaction was more to open space for Oakley by trading David Greenwood. Still, it was hoped the veteran Gervin could work with the amazing kid.
The Bulls had won 27 games the season before Jordan was drafted in 1983-84. But in Jordan’s rookie season they went to 38 wins and the playoffs for just the second time in eight years. And they were looking to make another jump in 1985-86.
But there was no replacing Michael Jordan, how much more everyone would discover later.
Similarly, there’s no replacing Derrick Rose.
The lesson Krause took from that season is not to do anything out of reaction to endanger your future.
Krause could have cashed in Oakley, obviously, or made a move with veteran center Dave Corzine. But he didn’t want to take on contracts that would inhibit future moves as there were more to make.
You play it out.
The irony, Krause recalls, is that Jordan accused Krause and the Bulls of “tanking,” saying he would never want to be associated with a franchise which didn’t do everything to win games no matter the circumstances and instead chase draft picks.
“Michael accused me of that, but there was no way,” said Krause, who scouted for the Bullets, Suns and Lakers before coming to the Bulls. “We never tried to lose.”
Yes, if you are for “tanking,” you are not Michael Jordan’s kind of person.
The Bulls would go on to win just 30 games that season as Jordan returned with 15 games remaining in the season. Jordan played limited minutes and the Bulls lost nine of 15.
And even though the Bulls were swept by the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, that was when Jordan had his playoff record 63 points in an overtime game and said the experience of competing instead of giving up was vital to the future success of the franchise.
Jordan’s point was once you give in and accept losing no matter the supposed reward, you become a loser.
Though not parallel circumstances, the Bulls are in a somewhat similar situation as those 1985-86 Bulls. That team were built around Jordan without players who would fill in if Jordan were hurt. It’s not like you plan for that. Yes, they had Gervin, but in his most broken down state as Gervin had his poorest season and retired.
Macy soon became the Jordan stand in.
Now as the Bulls limp into Detroit for a Wednesday game against the Pistons on four straight losses, Bulls management hears suggestions from media and fans to make trades, break up the team, give up for draft picks, lose games, get help, send out for pizza.
The Bulls got three games that season from Jordan and then he was gone. Given the nature of the injury, they doubted Jordan would return that season. The battle over that was infamous and caused a rift between Jordan and management as Jordan said, for one thing, he wasn’t sitting out so the team could get another draft pick. That wasn’t in the spirit of competition.
There wasn’t certainty on how the bone in Jordan’s foot would heal. So no one ever knew if and when Jordan would return. Other than Jordan, of course, who against doctors orders even went back to North Carolina and was playing pickup ball.
Bulls management faces a similar circumstance now.
Rose is out and there’s no replacement. There are none for players like that.
Those Bulls, of course, were just starting out. And there’s some notion this Bulls run is coming to an end. But that’s an overstatement. With this exact core of players, perhaps. But the Bulls still figure to retain a major portion of their roster moving forward.
To make a major move now to replace Rose would obviously require losing one of those players. Trade players for lesser players with expiring contracts to get draft picks? To become worse and get into the lottery portion of the draft? These are among the suggestions floating around for the Bulls.
One view is the team isn’t good enough anymore to win a title. So why not break it up? Of course, why doesn’t everyone who isn’t good enough?
Can you do that anyway without endangering the players and draft picks with which you want to move forward?
Of course, the counter is to strengthen yourself any way you can for the future by moving players who are not a part of your future.
Krause, the two time NBA Executive of the Year, agrees it’s a delicate process.
Krause pretty much stayed the course and took the back step to 30 wins. The Bulls then went 40-42 the next season and then to 50 wins for the first time in 14 years in 1987-88.
“Everyone thinks it’s easy to make these moves (in season),” said Krause. “It’s not as easy as they think. You can’t get nuts or you could ruin your franchise for umpteen years.”