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 here."
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.