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Bulls Benefit From Lockout

From Bloomberg News Service

Even during a labor war, the Chicago Bulls still come out winners, agents for the team’s best players said.

The National Basketball Association’s lockout is a veiled blessing for the three-time defending champion Bulls, whose marquee player, Michael Jordan, has said he won’t disclose until later this summer whether he’ll retire or return to pursue the team’s seventh championship this decade, the agents said.

If the league didn’t impose a lockout, which prohibits all 29 teams from negotiating with or signing free agents, Jordan’s indecision would have put Chicago’s brain trust in a precarious holding pattern.

Instead, Chicago’s decision-makers can breathe easy, said agent Jimmy Sexton, who represents Bulls free-agent forward Scottie Pippen. Because of the rift between the NBA and its players association, the other teams are forced to wait, too.

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“The labor situation definitely benefits the Bulls,” Sexton said. “When this thing is over with, they’ll know what all their players are going to do, and then they can make their plans accordingly.”

The Bulls face more planning than perhaps any team in the NBA. Only three of their regular players--Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and Randy Brown--are under contract for next season, and the superstar nucleus of Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman are free agents. The only other player under contract is Keith Booth, a 1997 first-round draft pick who appeared in only six games last season.

In addition, coach Phil Jackson said that he won’t return next season. While the lockout doesn’t prevent the Bulls from hiring a coach, it’s another decision that has to be made.

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause declined to comment.

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Waiting for Jordan

Until Jordan reveals his plans, it’s unlikely that either Pippen or Rodman would sign contracts. Without a lockout, many desirable free agents would be signed by other teams while the Bulls await Jordan’s decision.

Now, with NBA Commissioner David Stern saying the lockout could force the cancellation of regular-season games for the first time in league history, time isn’t of the essence.

“The lockout certainly takes the pressure off the need to make some immediate decisions,” said Rodman’s agent, Dwight Manley. “That does help them.”

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While lockout itself benefits the Bulls, the result could wind up tearing the team apart, agents said.

The league and players union remain far apart on several key issues, including a hard salary cap and the so-called Larry Bird exception. Owners are determined to drastically alter the existing labor agreement, which they blame for skyrocketing salaries and uncontrollable player movement, Stern want a hard salary cap, an absolute ceiling on team payrolls. They’ve also targeted the Bird rule, which allows teams to re-sign players without regard to the salary cap. Pippen has made no secret of his bitterness about his salary. He made $2.8 million this past season, and is on the verge of getting the biggest contract of his career.

If owners are successful in eliminating or drastically altering the Bird rule, it’ll be difficult for the Bulls to pay Jordan, Pippen and Rodman, who together could command a one-year salary of $70 million.

“The outcome of this labor management dispute is going to dictate whether or not the Bulls can be put back together,” Manley said. “If they have to use up all their money on the greatest players in the world, then have to fill in with minimum-wage stiffs, you’re effectively killing the team.”

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