“Out-of-town stupid” is a term often used for national or regional sports writers who may not understand or know of the intricacies of the team or organization they’re talking about. This is obviously a phenomenon that occurs everywhere; of course out-of-towners wouldn’t know as much as local reporters or even the most vigilant of fans. However, some organizations just do a better job of obfuscating their true natures, or never draw enough attention to themselves to warrant a deeper look.
The Chicago Bulls might be the very best at that obfuscation, and the nature of their mediocrity is that of non-action, which would naturally draw less attention than other NBA franchises who take bad risks or make poor decisions.
Like many things, it starts at the top. Jerry Reinsdorf has obviously had enormous success overall with the Bulls since purchasing them in 1985, but much of it was in spite of himself and the people he hired. Giving him credit for six championships in eight years goes along with giving him credit for breaking that same team up and ousting one of the greatest coaches of all time (and by proxy, the best player of all time). It would be easy to point at that as an isolated incident, but it simply isn’t.
Another enterprising individual on Bulls site Blog a Bull came up with this brilliant chart that maps out Reinsdorf’s repeating pattern of nepotism. Long story short: the Bulls have ousted two of the winning-est coaches in NBA history in favor of completely inexperienced coaches from Iowa State. Iowa connections don’t stop there, and there are strange New Mexico connections as well. The linked article explains and shows it better than I can, but the point is clear: this is an organization that has never given positions of power based upon success, but rather based upon “I knew this guy.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been successes or good decisions made. There absolutely have been. In the rare moments the Bulls do participate in a trade, it has rarely gone terribly. The draft record is mostly decent to above average, and there hasn’t been any catastrophic decisions made there either (save for perhaps the drafting of Marquis Teague, when then-coach Tom Thibodeau wanted Draymond Green). There have been times when there has been a pretty clear plan on how to approach the future, and sound risks and decisions were made to facilitate that plan. A lot of it hasn’t worked out, but judging a decision purely based on the outcome is a fool’s errand.
However, there’s a few trends that are rather apparent at this point. These trends are all likely characteristic of Reinsdorf himself, as like in any organization, it will resemble who’s in charge.
- They are averse to risk. There is a long, ever-expanding wasteland of “almosts” and “could haves” in regards to trades involving the Chicago Bulls. Obviously not all of those trades should have been made, but the point is that trades just aren’t their style, because the risk is too great to them. The biggest problem with this is missed opportunity; too often, they have lost a player in free agency that they could have traded in the previous season for nothing, or have missed a chance to build assets.
- They are cheap. This is a common meme for any criticized owner, but Reinsdorf has earned this dubious title. He has a long-running track record of resisting any pro-union measure in either sport in which he owns a team. He was one of the primary “tough nuts” in the 1994-1995 MLB player’s strike. He has avoided paying the luxury tax for the Bulls almost every year. Contract disputes with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two of the best 25 players of all-time and also underpaid during their careers, are known to anyone with some time and Google skills. There are a number of other cases to point out, but Jerry’s prudent nature isn’t a terribly unknown reality.
- They will have their way. There are two common threads between Phil Jackson and Tom Thibodeau; both are among the winning-est coaches in NBA history, and both are people who refused to be pushed around by the Bulls’ front office. Because of that, they were both deposed despite making the playoffs in their final season (and in Jackson’s case, winning a championship!). The reasons given for their departures haven’t been entirely honest, accurate, or smart. Most of the evidence points to this: neither Phil nor Tom were willing to bend to the front office’s will (whatever that will was), and they got sent away because of it. Both were replaced with inexperienced Iowa State coaches. Tim Floyd was pretty terrible. So far there’s little to like about Fred Hoiberg.
- Their track record with the handling of training and injuries is poor. I’m not sure if this is an organizational mandate, an inability to hire effective training and medical staff, or a combination of those or other factors, but the Bulls have a curious history in this regard. The most famous of this is Derrick Rose’s stunted return, but there are numerous other incidents that point to an alarming trend of poor handling of athlete wellness.
Many of these subjects are rarely talked about in national media, but they’re also largely ignored in local media. There are a multitude of reasons why this might be the case, and the more salacious possibility is that the Bulls highly curate and manage the writers that cover the team. The amount of excuses given for this organization by local media is bordering on sickening; no single situation appears to be bad, but we’re now at a decades-long run of excuse after excuse after excuse.
The most that ever gets said about the Bulls in the national media are cryptic, vague statements such as “the Bulls are weird” or “I’m not sure what they’re doing.” To my knowledge no major national writer has delved much deeper than that when talking about Bulls dysfunction, but that should come at no surprise. National writers gravitate towards either the greatest teams or the loopiest ones, and the Bulls haven’t qualified as either for a long time. Their organizational dysfunction isn’t so bad when compared to the Kings and Lakers of today, the Knicks and Timberwolves of yesterday, or other front-office tire-fires of yesteryear. Additionally, most of the Bulls’ problems don’t stem from individually poor choices; there’s no unforgivable draft blunder or ill-advised trade to point to.
With the Bulls, it’s a death of a thousand cuts. Some of those cuts might grab momentary media attention (such as Thibodeau’s firing and subsequent shaming by a public, personal attack by Reinsdorf), but the Bulls are still widely regarded at worst as a reasonably stable organization. I suppose that statement is completely true, if only because they’ve been consistently awkward, risk-averse, and mediocre.