Chicago celebrated the opportunity to host the NBA All-Star Game for the first time in three decades by relegating its beloved hometown franchise to a punchline. In an All-Star Weekend built up as a love letter to the city’s deep basketball culture, the Chicago Bulls were barely within eyesight. The team’s presence in the festivities was limited to Zach LaVine’s early exit in the three-point contest. They barely even got a mention out of Common in his terrific pregame intros.
Instead, the Bulls’ most memorable moment from the weekend came when LaVine’s ESPN interview was interrupted by fans chanting ‘fire GarPax’ on live TV, referencing the team’s long-tenured management combination of John Paxson and Gar Forman. It hit another level when Scottie Pippen — who holds an official title as a Bulls ambassador — said he didn’t know half the players on the current team. In private conversations with people around the league about the state of the franchise over All-Star Weekend, one sentiment kept getting repeated: The Bulls are lucky the Knicks exist.
Perhaps it was no coincidence the team leaked a rare piece of housekeeping news to reporters just before Sunday’s game tipped off. The Bulls are in the market for an “empowered basketball voice” that would hold the title of GM at the end of another disappointing season. No, Paxson and Forman aren’t going anywhere: Paxson would retain a say in personnel matters, while Forman would continue the transition he’s made into scouting.
Like most things involving the Bulls, this simply isn’t good enough.
Chicago didn’t chant “Re-Assign Gar to Scouting”. They didn’t make “Promote Paxson To A Position Of Slightly Less Authority” into a Twitter trending topic. The Bulls need a clean slate and a fresh start, not a half-measure. They need to fire ‘GarPax’, not hide them.
Paxson and Forman aren’t the only ones who need to go. Doug Collins was added to the front office as a senior advisor in 2017. Collins got the job for one reason: he is beloved by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who once said the only reason he hasn’t hired him as head coach again is because he couldn’t stand the thought of one day firing him. Collins, a man who said he’d rather blow his brains out than embrace advanced analytics, still has a prominent role in the organization, reportedly playing a part in the firing of former head coach Fred Hoiberg. That decision could have been fine if the franchise didn’t replace him with an obviously worse coach in Jim Boylen.
The other prominent member of the Bulls front office is Jim Paxson, John’s older brother and the man who once drafted a local under-the-radar prospect named LeBron James with the Cavs. This is how the Chicago Bulls do business, preferring the comfort of familiar relationships over any attempt to challenge their ingrained thinking.
The Bulls don’t need to add another voice to a room already overcrowded with underachievers. They need to burn it all down and build from the ground up.
The fans can take some solace in bullying the franchise into hiring a new GM. It wouldn’t have happened without them. This is the year the ‘Fire GarPax’ movement went mainstream, making the transition from ‘Empty Bottle All-Ages Show’ to ‘Lollapalooza Headliner on the Budweiser Stage’. The organization has lost even its most fervent supporters while attendance in the United Center has plummeted. While the Bulls were No. 1 or No. 2 in the league in raw attendance every year from 2004-2019, they were No. 17 in percentage of seats filled last year, and are No. 22 this season.
It’s not just about bad results with the Bulls — it’s about bad process. They essentially gave Dwyane Wade a $38 million golden parachute for one year of work. They gave Jabari Parker $20 million to play small forward (Hoiberg benched him before the preseason ended). They cut Spencer Dinwiddie for Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan. Their Jimmy Butler trade was terrible at the time and looks even worse now. This year, they decided to stick with Boylen as head coach only because he plays nice with his bosses. As it’s happened, every core piece on the Bulls has either stagnated or regressed while their league-wide value diminishes.
Factor in that this is Paxson’s 17th season in his position, and it leads to an easy question: What does this man have to do to lose his job?
It all comes back to the question of who’s really making the calls with the Bulls. Reinsdorf, now 83 years old, doesn’t even hide that he’s an absentee owner.
”I under-managed the Bulls, I really did,” Reinsdorf told reporter Melissa Isaacson in 2012. “That was one of the reasons for wanting Michael in here. I found myself letting the Bulls succeed on their own. We had a successful business, we’re doing well financially and I sort of let it slide.”
The Michael he’s referring to is his now 52-year-old son, the third of four children he had with his wife Martyl. Michael Reinsdorf was hired as Bulls president and COO in 2010. As the story goes, Michael was denied a job from his father out of college so he could make a name for himself on his own. He started a consulting company, bought a few minor league teams, and now helps run the day-to-day operations as a conduit between the front office and his father.
If there’s anyone who can save the Bulls, it’s Michael Reinsdorf. While it remains unclear if he’d actually have the power to fire Paxson outright, he’s certainly the person best positioned to get his old man to approve the change.
While Jerry Reinsdorf has reportedly advised the family to sell the Chicago White Sox after he passes, he hasn’t said the same thing about the Bulls, who are too much of a cash cow to give up. If Michael Reinsdorf is merely the second-most powerful person with the franchise today, he is going to be the top dog soon.
Michael Reinsdorf knows he’ll never be a self-made man like his father was. He’s a rich kid who had some success on his own but mostly reached his current position through nepotism. He is, by most accounts, a perfectly nice guy, with stories of personal interactions with frustrated season ticket holders making the rounds last year. That probably makes him a better person than most billionaires (his father’s net worth is an estimated $1.5 billion), but it isn’t the way to save the franchise and forever leave his imprint on it.
To do that, all Michael Reinsdorf has to do is follow his father’s advice, which he gave when he brought his son aboard in 2010.
“I told him to follow the Rocky Wirtz model,” Jerry said to Isaacson in an ESPN interview. “Rocky took over from his father and he’s his own man. In many ways, his father wouldn’t like what he’s doing, but Rocky is successful.
”If Michael needs my opinion, I give it. But only on the condition that he make the decision.”
Wirtz is the son of former Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz. The elder Wirtz was widely loathed around the city. When he passed, the Blackhawks quickly won three Stanley Cup championships.
What Jerry Reinsdorf really wants is for his son to show a backbone and not be a pushover as a manager. If someone is underperforming, they should be held accountable, particularly when that someone has had the same job for 17 years and has made millions of dollars doing it. Paxson will be fine. He’s an incredibly wealthy 59-year-old man. He won’t get his feelings hurt.
Just because Jerry Reinsdorf’s reputation has been defined by loyalty to even subpar employees doesn’t mean his son’s has to be.
Michael Reinsdorf’s legacy is on the line, and the clock is starting now. Adding a GM to a room with Paxson, Forman, and Collins isn’t going to cut it. What’s going to happen when they disagree on a free agent, a draft pick, or a coach? How are they supposed to attract the best candidate with the old vultures circling in the distance? The fact the Bulls’ current management has supported Boylen — very obviously the most overmatched coach in the NBA — so fervently shows just how incompetent they are. To be the man his father wants him to be, Michael Reinsdorf must clear the room before adding to it.
Jerry Reinsdorf forever endeared himself to the city with Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty and with the 2005 world champion Chicago White Sox. He has seven rings and the ball Paul Konerko gave him from the final out of the World Series. His son doesn’t have any of that. What he does have is an opportunity: The same kid who grew up around the Jordan dynasty can be the man who rescued the franchise from itself. What a story that would be. The Bulls’ global fanbase would adore him forever for it.
If the younger Reinsdorf wants to see how it can all go wrong, he needs to look no further than the aforementioned Knicks. Just before the trade deadline, fans in Madison Square Garden chanted “sell the team” in unison at owner James Dolan. Dolan was so rattled he fired Steve Mills and replaced him with Leon Rose immediately. Then he said he issued a statement saying he wasn’t going to sell the team.
According to a recent valuation by Forbes, the Bulls are currently worth $3.2 billion, making them the league’s fourth-most valuable franchise behind the Knicks, Lakers, and Warriors. This is a world-class franchise that continues to be run like a mom-and-pop shop. Right now, the fans want new management, not new ownership. You wonder how long it will last.
All Michael Reinsdorf has to do is stop making an incredibly easy decision so difficult. Fire Paxson. Fire Forman. The fate of the Bulls is resting on it.