April 1, 2010

Mail-a-Bull II: The return of (my half-baked theory on) Phil Jackson

This was originally intended as part of my last "mailbag" column, but it became so long that I decided to break it off into its own post. It's been sitting as a draft for a while now, and it's pretty thin on its own, but whatever; this is what happens when the Bulls drop to 2 games back with eight to play.

Phil Jackson? Did I miss something recently? I don’t see ANY scenario where he would come back to Chicago. Doesn’t make basketball sense (for him), money sense (for either), or common sense.

-- NormVanBeer on Mar 9, 2010 1:31 PM CST

Aw, come on, Norm. Come over to the other side and live a little. In order to enjoy my admittedly-flimsily-premised Phil Jackson post, you have to suspend what you call common sense just a tad, and allow yourself to dream. But I will nonetheless try to bolster my case for Phil so you can more readily consider the possibilities.

There are only 3 places I can see Phil Jackson next year

1) Lakers
2) His home
3) Coaching LeBron – yeah because a guy who coached MJ and KB would want no other. I’d still like him to coach him a MJ/Kobe-less team before passing judgement on how great he is.

-- JustAnotherFan on Mar 12, 2010 8:59 AM CST

If Phil is going to leave the Lakers (which I think is becoming increasingly likely) and he doesn't decide to retire, there aren't a whole lot of places he could conceivably land. He's not going to be interested in a place like Sacramento or Minneapolis; he'll want to go somewhere big, like New York, Chicago, or Boston. Maybe Miami. But the Knicks and Celtics aren't likely to have an opening, and I can't really see Pat Riley and Phil getting together in South Beach. So that leaves three teams: the Bulls, Nets and Clippers.

I think we can eliminate the Nets because 1. They're a long ways away from moving to Brooklyn; and 2. In spite of Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, and cap space, they're a 10-win team and as close to contending as they are to moving to New York. Assuming they don't get one of the top-2 picks this year, Phil's going to want to have more chips if he's going to sit down and play a few hands.

Which brings up the crucial part of this whole scenario: How much of a draw does Phil think he is? If Phil thinks that he could lure a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade to whatever team he goes to, then he's probably just going to go where he likes, provided the team has the requisite cap space. The Bulls, Nets, and Clippers all do.

But only the Bulls can say they're not the B-team in their own city.

Still, the Clippers are an interesting possibility, in that they have a lot of talent and cap space, and it would be the best way for Phil to stick it to the Lakers if he's so inclined. But they're the Clippers, and could he really work for Donald Sterling? And moreover, would Donald Sterling really be willing to pay him?

Now I know what you're thinking: Well neither would Jerry Reinsdorf. In fact:

I don't see any way the Bulls pay a premium for coaching and Phil is on his own tier.

-- your friendly BullsBlogger on Mar 9, 2010 11:25 AM CST

-- OR --

I would enjoy a universe where Phil Jackson takes a coaching job that doesn't involve one of the 5 best players in the NBA. Or a management that doesn’t care about spending a lot of money.

-- Ozzie Montana on Mar 9, 2010 3:30 PM CST

Over the course of the last several years, the perception of Jerry Reinsdorf has gone from The only good owner in Chicago to Heartless tightwad. How, exactly, did this happen?

The main cases against Reinsdorf -- or, better yet, for his cheapness -- are the following:

1. He broke up the dynasty.
2. He hired Vinny Del Negro instead of an actual NBA coach
3. He steadfastly refuses to pay the luxury tax

As for point 1, Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause were not responsible for breaking up of the Bulls, and I'm tired of hearing that they were. After they won Title No. 6, it was clear it was over -- you could even see it in the team's celebration after clinching. Michael wanted to retire. Scottie, a free agent, didn't want to come back after feeling like he'd been dissed by the organization's ongoing refusal to renegotiate a guaranteed contract that he willingly signed. And Phil had tired of Krause's ways and didn't want to coach the team anymore, especially without Michael and Scottie. The problem was, none of them wanted to be the guy who broke up the biggest party in Chicago's history. So they all dragged their feet on announcing anything, and the organization -- knowing full well that none of them wanted any part of coming back -- was forced to make alternative arrangements, because unlike Michael, Scottie, and Phil, they couldn't afford to just wait it out. Now if the Bulls' braintrust had played its cards right, they would have publicly begged all three to come back, because it would have had zero effect, and then they wouldn't've been the bad guys. Instead, they were too proud, and were unjustly vilified for blowing up the team.

Point 2: Somewhat legitimate. However, I think it's odd that no one seems remember that Reinsdorf also signed off on a lucrative extension for Scott Skiles just a few years before, and had targeted Mike D'Antoni and Doug Collins before settling -- and never has that word been used so aptly -- for Del Negro. Once he realized that neither D'Antoni or Collins was interested, who exactly should he have paid top-dollar for? Avery Johnson? His micro-managing ways would have been terrible with this team, especially considering they were just coming off of the similar (but superior) Skiles. Given his remaining options -- and that he was still paying Skiles -- I don't blame Reinsdorf at all for trying to get someone on the cheap. Now granted, it hasn't worked. But there's no reason that it couldn't have; it's like everyone forgot that Jackson also had an extremely low NBA profile when the Bulls hired him. While Reinsdorf was thinking with his wallet, I'm sure he also thought, Hey, maybe lightning will strike twice.

In terms of No. 3, I'm sorry but not wanting to pay the luxury tax does not equal cheap. I personally don't think going over the luxury tax is a prudent investment either; does anybody honestly think that getting a dollar's worth of value for $2 is a good deal? Especially given the kind of team the Bulls have. This isn't a championship-caliber group. If I recall correctly, Reinsdorf paid through his bespectacled proboscis for several years to keep the dynasty alive; I seem to remember Michael getting $30 million -- every penny of which he deserved -- one year. Reinsdorf was willing to pay, when the product on the court was worth it.

Besides, it's not just that a team has to pay double for every dollar spent over the tax; they also lose out on the disbursement of the tax money to the below-the-threshold teams. So say a team is $3 million over the tax line and has a somewhat valuable asset making $3 million a year -- like a Hakim Warrick, only good. Last season, the teams that didn't pay the tax received a payment of $2.9 million from the teams that did. So now Warrick's $3 million a year is actually costing you $9 million. Does that seem like a sound investment to you, $9 million for a Hakim Warrick-type? I personally would be trying my damnedest to give that guy away just to get back under the tax line, because that money could be better utilized elsewhere.

Like on a coach, for instance. Remember, money paid to non-playing personnel is not included in the cap/tax calculations.

So I just don't buy that Reinsdorf's unwillingness to pay the tax is evidence that he's cheap. Though you'd barely know it given the general attitude towards ownership, the Bulls are far over the salary cap -- nearly $12,000,000 according to ESPN.com -- and if they were as tight as their reputation, they'd be hovering around the minimum, not several million dollars over the "max".

Now that reluctance to over the tax threshold certainly doesn't put him in Mark Cuban, money-is-no-object category, but it doesn't make him a tightwad either. Considering that he's paid a premium to have a great team before -- and that a coach's salary has no impact on the tax -- I think Reinsdorf would pay a hell of a lot for someone like Jackson. Maybe not as much as Phil would want, but a figure that would still leave him at the top of the coaching heap. Because that would be a sound investment, and I believe that's what Reinsdorf is all about.

If you accept on its face that Reinsdorf might pay, it again becomes a matter of how confident Phil would be in his (and the franchise's) ability to lure a star Top-5 guy via free agency. Since I don't think anyone's ever accused Phil of having a tiny ego, I'm guessing he thinks he could bring a LeBron or Wade to Chicago. Which would put him in the kind of position, talent-wise, that he is known to prefer.

Is this whole thing highly unlikely? No doubt. But it's certainly no more implausible than the Bulls overcoming a 3-game deficit (for all intents and purposes, given the tiebreakers) over the final eight games and making the playoffs, something I think many Bulls fans still believe could happen. So chew on that -- and perhaps some of these -- before you pessimistically dismiss the possibility of Phil.

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