For nearly 22 years, Michael Jordan lived with the joy of collecting six NBA championships and cementing himself as one of the league’s best players ever. And yet Jordan seemed to lament more what he didn’t accomplish than cherish what he did.
“It’s maddening. I felt like we could’ve won seven (titles),” Jordan said in the final episode of “The Last Dance.” “I really believe that. We may not have. But not to be able to try it, it’s something I can’t accept.”
That explains Jordan’s reaction when he watched Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf explain why the team disbanded in 1998 after winning its sixth NBA title in eight seasons.
Reinsdorf argued that “it would’ve been suicidal” to re-sign Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Ron Harper and other role players. The reasons? They were all aging veterans. The Bulls had limited purchasing power because of salary cap rules. And it also did not help that Bulls general manager Jerry Krause already announced that coach Phil Jackson would not be retained following the 1997-98 season.
“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. “When we realized that 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 came to an end on its own. Had Michael been healthy and wanted to come back, I don’t doubt Krause could’ve rebuilt another championship team in a couple of years. It wasn’t going to happen instantly.”
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At first, Jordan watched and listened to Reinsdorf’s explanation with curiosity. Eventually, Jordan rolled his eyes.
“Krause already said at the beginning of the season that Phil can go 82-0 and he was never going to be the coach. So when Phil said it was ‘The Last Dance’, it was ‘The Last Dance,’ ” Jordan said. “We knew they weren’t going to keep the team. Now they could’ve nixed all of it at the beginning of ’98. Why say that statement at the beginning of ’98?”
Krause, who died in 2017, was not interviewed for “The Last Dance.” His family released his unpublished memoirs to NBC Sports Chicago, hoping to add more context into his decision making. In those memoirs, Krause said his thinking had nothing to do with personality clashes with Jackson or hoping he can prove he can build a winning roster without Jordan. Instead, he said it had everything to do with receiving detailed information from the training staff that confirmed his observations that the team’s roster would not age gracefully. Krause said that Jackson also told Bulls ownership that he needed to take a year off in his Montana home to recharge.
After the Bulls won their sixth NBA title, Reinsdorf met with Jackson to reconsider. He politely declined.
“I think I should just take a break,” Jackson recalled saying. “I don’t think it would be fair to Jerry and I know it would be difficult for him to accept that.”
Krause hired Jackson as a Bulls assistant in 1987 after he coached in the CBA and shared similar philosophies on the team’s triangle offense and roster construction. But the two often reportedly clashed over Krause’s hope to have a locker-room presence and how he handled previous contract negotiations.
Krause also alienated other Bulls players for different reasons. Jordan and others resented Krause for making comments that placed more importance on the organization’s culture and personnel moves than the players themselves. Pippen delayed having off-season foot surgery after the Bulls refused to renegotiate a contract that gave him long-term security with a relatively inexpensive price tag.
Regardless, Jordan believed the Bulls could have navigated those dynamics much smoother. He argued that the Bulls should have offered the team’s core players one-year deals for a chance to become the second team behind Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics to win four consecutive NBA titles.
“Do you think they would’ve signed? Yes, they would’ve signed,” Jordan said. “Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would’ve signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Now Pip, you would have 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 our seventh? Pip was not going to miss on that.”
It turns out pretty much everybody missed it.
Following a prolonged NBA lockout, the Bulls quickly disbanded. Jordan announced his retirement after injuring his finger with a cigar cutter before eventually returning to Washington three years later. The Bulls accommodated Pippen’s trade request to the Houston Rockets in a sign-and-trade. Rodman had a tumultuous season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kerr was traded to the San Antonio Spurs and Jud Buechler joined the Detroit Pistons. Jackson took a year off before becoming the Lakers coach. Krause eventually resigned in 2003.
“This was a good time to go,” Jackson said. “It was a great run. We had a wonderful run. Great team. Time to go.”
Jordan might not like hearing those words. He also might not like that Pippen no longer harbors the same resentment toward Krause as he did then. He offered lavish praise both on Jordan (“the best player), Jackson (‘the greatest coach) and Krause (‘the greatest general manager’).
“We can’t knock him. We got to give him credit,” Pippen said of Krause. “He deserves the credit because he was the general manager of those teams.”
And yet 22 years later, Jordan still believes Krause deserves the blame for not trying to keep the Bulls intact in hopes to extend the dynasty at least one year longer.