Under Jerry Reinsdorf’s ownership (with a little help from MJ), the Bulls have become one of the most valuable franchises ($511 million) in the league, ranked third behind the Los Angeles Lakers ($607 million) and New York Knicks ($586 million). The same Forbes NBA Statistics rankings hold true for revenue generation; but the Bulls are first in the ratio of income to revenue and in highest average attendance over the last decade.
How have Bulls fans been rewarded for the support they’ve provided since 1998? Ownership gave Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, and the rest of the championship team their walking papers to save money. They began immediately perfecting their strategy of “planned mediocrity” to secure and “lock-in” increases in net income. They keep player and coach costs low; they don’t renew expiring contracts of those whose value has increased; they replenish their roster with lower-tier players released by other teams and hire head coaches with no experience. Occasionally they may acquire a top-tier star to give the impression they’re trying to win but it’s merely the subterfuge or sleight of hand ploy in the austerity policy. They don’t really intend to make the team substantially better; that is against their business philosophy.
Without trying the Bulls sometimes accidentally reach a tipping point of potentially becoming a good basketball team. When it occurs ownership discourages it by arranging the exit of players at the center of the unplanned ascendancy. The last time they were on the brink of becoming very good was in 2009 when they had Ben Gordon, Derick Rose, John Salmons, Joakim Noah, Brad Miller, Kirk Heinrich, Tyrus Thomas, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, etc. Guess what, they let them all go save Rose, Gibson, and Noah under the guise of clearing salary cap room to sign big-time free agents. Add Carlos Boozer and Omer Asick to that old core and you have the potential of winning 53 games or more. But Bulls ownership is loath to having second, third, and more helpings of talent on the team. For them that costs too much.
Aside from the philosophy of losing to be more financially successful, another serious impediment to their winning is inability to establish a serious professional and mutually beneficial collegial rapport with players and coaches based on shared respect. They don’t seem to understand its importance to overall performance, team goals, and the perception peers and others form about the nuance and style of their management. Their handling of Scott Skiles, Ben Gordon, and Vinny Del Negro are examples of this deficiency. They were undeservedly alienated by the organization’s nasty, awkward behavior in employee relations and pushed out over trivial matters.
Teams like the Lakers and Celtics understand there is a natural divergence if ideas and concerns between management and employees that has to be managed through dialog – not one-way instruction. The Bulls have always been defective in this area. They have never developed an organizational philosophy and related skill-set in employee relations and associated competencies.
Dwyane Wade sniffed-out this issue during the free agent signing period when he expressed his wariness of the Bulls history of, shall we say, inelegant relations with former players and coaches. Wade’s view is it is fundamentally important that an enduring trust and respect is built and maintained between franchises and employees. Its value is incalculable. It is the bedrock upon which concern from any quarter within the organization can be raised, discussed, and resolved without recrimination. The Bulls failures in this area are the reason the big 3 free agents did not sign with the team. Wade, James, and Bosh all felt the neurosis embedded in the organization’s psyche, which is an unhealthy need to control employee interactions from a position of mega-strength such that they (the employees) are rendered impotent with no “rights” it need hear or respect.
I would venture to say that if the Bulls were adept in this area, Wade would have converted to Chicago and the other two would have joined him. But Wade knew a Reinsdorf led franchise could never reconcile itself to accepting and validating the idea of star players capable of forming a “block” and engineering the salaries and destination of their performing. He knew, also, Reinsdorf could not ever imagine adding the cost (cut-rate even) of three super-stars to his payroll. .
For the Bulls, all decisions are based on “bottom line before winning” considerations or the perception the organization’s authority is under siege and must be protected. Anyone who, even on an exploratory basis, articulates an intelligent coherent view counter to the organizations is viewed as a threat and will quickly feel Reinsdorf’s wrath. The vice president of the organization and the general manager operate under a severe cloud of fear. This anxiety renders them devoid of any creativity or inventiveness in their interactions with peers that might result in moves to make the team better.
Lakers and Celtics ownership have learned from Mr. Phil Jackson and Mr. Glenn Rivers that players win championships. Savvy owners and their management shape the structure, philosophy, and goals of their organizations in a way that attracts the best talent. They manage their gift of capacity with a competence that is sensitive to the vagaries and pitfalls athletes are heir to and the bumpy road they travel toward professional and personal growth. When that competency is achieved an organization can hold on to good young players and build an extraordinarily strong team, over the time period their skill and understanding matures and merges. Add Pat Riley of the Miami Heat to the list of basketball executives “in-the-know” about this important a aspect of organizational science.
The fundamental owner vs. fan conflict for the Bulls is this – the owners are not fans of basketball; they are businessmen before all else. The fans want wins, championships, and bragging rights. The problem is what fans want is of no consequence to Bulls owners especially and specifically if it reduces income below targeted measures.
I hope I’m wrong about this; thanks for hearing me out,
Papa GM, a Bulls Fan