There are actually some questions concerning this season's Chicago Bulls that don't revolve around you-know-who. For example:
Why does power forward Horace Grant wear those white, high-tech goggles that look like something out of a Devo video? "I got them specially designed for me because my old ones kept getting knocked off," says Grant, who is nearsighted. He turns them over in his large hands. "See, these goggles are hard. They've got a nosepiece and a much tighter band, and they've got these two slits on each side for peripheral vision. Most of the players like 'em. The others say, 'What's that you got on your face?' "
Why did reserve center Will Perdue come into a Bulls game-day shoot-around last week and deposit an envelope containing a $1 bill and $9 in pennies, dimes and quarters on coach Phil Jackson's desk? "I got fined 10 bucks for shooting after the whistle at practice," says Perdue. "Phil calls that a silly fine. So I decided to pay it in silly money."
And will the sartorial style of assistant coach John Bach, one of the league's snazziest dressers, ever rub off on Jackson, who—with the exception of game nights—still outfits himself as if he were heading for a Buffalo Springfield reunion? "No way," says Bach.
With the Bulls, as with any other NBA team, peripheral minidramas play themselves out all the time. But on the main stage there is still only one protagonist and still only one significant question: How is Michael Jordan doing?
And the answer is: Very well. Last weekend, Jordan scored 33 and 35 points in back-to-back games against the New York Knicks and the Portland Trail Blazers at Chicago Stadium to raise his average to 29.2 points a game, third-best in the league behind the Denver Nuggets' Orlando Woolridge (29.9) and the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley (29.7). Discounting the 1985-86 season, when he was injured, this is Jordan's lowest point production since his rookie year of '84-85, when he averaged 28.2. But not to worry. It was Jackson's intention to reduce Jordan's scoring load this season. Gee, does that sound familiar?
The reviews are mixed for the Bulls. After last Friday night's 108-98 victory over the dreary Knicks, they had won seven in a row. But on Saturday night the Trail Blazers, who were 17-1, came to town. Chicago lost 109-101 while looking very much like the Bulls of recent vintage-one superstar exclamation point surrounded by a lot of question marks.
When frustration comes to the fore in Chicago these days, it usually involves the Bulls' patterned half-court offense. Does it adequately serve Jordan? Will it enable the Bulls to beat their Eastern Conference nemesis, the world champion Detroit Pistons, who have turned Chicago into a kind of, well, Second City over the past three seasons? No one on the team has either openly embraced or rejected the offense, though Jordan hints at having some reservations about its efficacy.
The offense is based on principles formulated in a classic textbook, Triple-Post Offense, written in 1962 by one of the game's strategic pioneers, Tex Winter, then the coach at Kansas State and for the last six seasons a Chicago assistant coach. Jackson and Winter have modified the offense to fit the pro game, but the principles, says Winter, remain. The Bulls call it "sideline triangle." Chicago newcomer Cliff Levingston, a backup frontcourtman who played for Atlanta from 1984 to '90, calls it "extremely complicated." Point guard John Paxson calls it "unique." Jordan calls it "that triangle stuff."
Typically, the triangle is formed when Paxson dribbles down the court, passes to Jordan on the right wing and continues through to the right corner. Center Bill Cartwright sets up on the right block to complete the triangle, with Grant and forward Scottie Pippen on the weak side. It is a motion offense, similar to the one run by Doug Moe at Denver (before he was fired in September), because it favors constant passing and cutting instead of set plays and isolations. But in this offense the moves are regimented, and the terminology is strange. "Like 'pinch-post,' " says Levingston, shaking his head. "I'd never heard of a pinch-post before coming here." (For the record, a pinch-post takes place when the guard at the top of the key passes to the weakside forward and cuts off him.)
Even players who have been around this offense for a while can get thrown by the terminology. It took five minutes for Paxson to reconstruct something that Jackson had said at a recent practice. "It went something like this," recalls Paxson. "Phil said he wanted 'reverse action off the blind pig [a defender the Bulls try to catch in a backdoor cut], to triangle on the weak side, with a two-pass to the top of the key, to a pass down the gut.' Look, maybe you should just go buy Tex's book."
In embracing Winter's offense—something that Jackson's predecessor, Doug Collins, would not do—Jackson is walking a tightrope. And he certainly knows it.
"No, Michael doesn't need the offense," said Jackson last week. "It limits him, no doubt about it. But we've let Michael clear out and try to win it by himself, and we've come up short. So let's see if we can get other people involved, let the offense help them get their shots."
Jackson became further convinced of the merits of Winter's offense this summer after he researched the fate of teams for which NBA scoring champions have played. He discovered that only once since the 24-second clock was instituted in 1954 had a scoring leader been on an NBA championship team—in 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the title. What bothered Jackson was Jordan's unusual dominance of the Bulls' point total: While winning the league's scoring title in each of the last four seasons, Jordan had produced nearly one third of Chicago's points.
"It's not like we're saying that Michael absolutely cannot win the scoring title," says Jackson. "We're trying to reduce his points a little and bring our team total up, get better balance." That they have done. Through last weekend, Jordan had scored only 26% of the Bulls' points, while the team had averaged 112.7 points, up from last year's 109.5.
This is Jordan's dilemma: He is smart enough to know that he can't win a championship without a strong supporting cast—Lord knows, Detroit has drilled that into his head—but every bit of his considerable instinct, talent and ego tells him to trust only himself.
"I fight the offense when we lose close games and I haven't given the output I could've given because of the system," said Jordan last Friday. "On the nights we win, obviously, it's fine. I only want to win. I think the offense can work. But one of the problems is that the offense takes time to perfect, and we still make a lot of mistakes. And it's worse for the second team, which doesn't get as much time to run it. Theoretically, this offense should never be stopped if you have the right guys in the right places. But that doesn't always happen."
Jordan has hit on the two weaknesses of the system. First, it's not the starters who are hog-tied by the sideline triangle; when things go wrong, many times Jordan will simply improvise, as he did when he scored 16 first-period points on all manner of creative shot-making against Portland. And, in fact, the offense appears to have helped another starter, Cartwright, the heavy-legged workhorse who is shooting .509 from the field, his best percentage since 1987-88. But the Bulls' backups—B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and Levingston—are frequently out of sync when they're on the floor together. During such moments, a pained look of concentration appears on Armstrong's face, while Levingston often resembles a kid trying to find his way out of an amusement-park maze. And whatever the Bulls thought Hopson (5.8 points per game, .427 percentage from the floor) would add to the team when they gave up three draft picks to get him from the New Jersey Nets last summer, he has not provided it. Second, detractors of the offense say that decisions often must be made by players who aren't good decision makers. On the Bulls, that means Pippen, one of those classic open-court players who are hindered by too much structure.
Still, the Bulls are playing through their ambivalence about the offense, and there's no reason that they should not continue to do so. For one thing, Jackson is not really keeping them from the fast break: If Jordan or Pip-pen gets out alone, as they frequently do, they're free to go all the way. For another, the Bulls' tendency has been to jump on teams immediately, get a lead and let the offense take some time off the clock. To that end, Jordan has been coming out before games to warm up, something he hadn't done since his rookie season. His first-quarter point totals in the Bulls' last six games have been 15, 20, 13, 8, 15 and 16, an average of 14.5. Doesn't sound like someone ready to surrender his scoring title, does it?
Pippen, despite being an erratic midrange jump shooter, fills up a box score almost as well as Jordan; through last weekend, he was out-rebounding Jordan (7.4 to 5.8), out-assisting him (6.7-6.2), out-shot-blocking him (1.6-0.74) and almost matching him on steals (2.8-2.4) while averaging 15.5 points. Grant, the pride and joy of Bulls strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil, has given himself a new upper body that, if nothing else, distinguishes him from his identical twin, Harvey, the Washington Bullets' power forward. "I post Harvey up with ease now," says Horace. "I love it. I'll bet he'll be getting after the weights soon."
As for Jordan, well, he has been as ruthlessly effective (if less spectacular) as ever—his .565 field goal percentage (227 of 402) is tops among NBA guards and eighth-best in the league. Off the court, he has cut down somewhat on his media accessibility, but he remains the NBA's consummate juggler. There he was before the Knicks game, conducting an interview, signing basketballs and woofing at teammates, all the while performing his usual job of ticket brokering. "O.K., these three for [Chicago Bears defensive end] Richard Dent, these two for Adolph [Shiver, his longtime chum from North Carolina], these four for Full Force [the rap group]," he instructed a Bulls ball boy. He looked up from his work. "Can't imagine what a ticket nightmare the All-Star Game [in Charlotte, in Jordan's home state] is going to be."
Jordan and his wife, Juanita, are awaiting the arrival of their second child, who is due in five weeks (Michael wants a girl, Juanita wants another son). Jeffrey Michael, the Jordans' two-year-old, is already prepared. "He rubs his mama's stomach all the time," says Jordan, "but he won't let me touch it."
Jordan is not out of touch with the Bulls' half-court offense, but there are times when even he is hesitant about what to do and where to go.
One of these days, perhaps, something will click, and the Bulls will find that perfect balance between control and spontaneity, both of which will be needed to beat Detroit. But if they don't, if they once again fall short to the Pistons, never mind the triangles. Plain geometry for the Bulls will mean going back to square one.