Michael Jordan was mildly surprised last Friday afternoon as he entered his hotel room in midtown Portland. There on the door were the words: MICHAEL JORDAN SUITE. "That's a first," said Jordan, checking out the bi-level accommodations. "I think this was my room during the [Olympic qualifying] tournament [in July], but I didn't know they renamed it."
Not everyone has treated Jordan and his Bulls so sweetly over the last month. On Jan. 22 the Charlotte Hornets went to Chicago and beat the Bulls 105-97. Six days later Chicago scored only 83 points in an 11-point loss to the Rockets in Houston, and two nights later in Denver they lost 109-102 to the lowly Nuggets. When January mercifully ended, the two-time defending NBA champions had suffered through their first losing month (7-8) since coach Phil Jackson came aboard for the 1989-90 season.
However, the Bulls have seemingly emerged from their hibernation. After a 101-91 rout of the Trail Blazers on Sunday in Portland, Chicago had reeled off four straight wins. At week's end the Bulls were 32-15, which was still the best record in the Eastern Conference and the second best in the league, after that of the Phoenix Suns. "Whatever's wrong with 'em," said Sacramento general manager Jerry Reynolds after the Bulls had buried the Kings 107-88 on Feb. 3, "I hope it spreads."
Nonetheless, all is not right in the Bull ring. In his own inimitable fashion, assistant coach Johnny Bach terms the team's condition as "a little mal de mer rather than all-out malaise," and perhaps that's the case. More specifically, the areas of concern are threefold: offensive execution, injuries and that grand yet elusive trait, team chemistry.
February 15, 1993
Jordan addressed them all in his suite last Friday. His personal trainer, Tim Grover, sat nearby, waiting to drive Jordan to a weightlifting workout at the Bo Jackson Center in the Nike complex in suburban Beaverton. Jordan lifts six times a week, including an intense 20-minute program on game days. Grover also has charge of Jordan's pregame meal—steak (medium), large baked potato, green salad and ginger ale or water. If the hotel steak isn't lean enough, Grover buys one at a market and brings it back to the kitchen. And to think that 15 years ago, NBA players puffed cigarettes at halftime.
To conserve lungs and legs during what he knew would be a grind of a season, Jackson ordered the Bulls into a slower offensive tempo. For those occasions when they did run, he installed a four-lane transition game—rather than the conventional three lanes—which would enable Chicago to flow more naturally into its half-court triangle offense. But Jordan and teammate Scottie Pippen felt that the offense was stagnant. "We never looked for that initial scoring opportunity in transition," said Jordan, settling back in a chair, "because we were too busy getting into the triangle."
Midway through a game against the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 24, Jordan took matters into his own hands. He called together Pippen and Horace Grant and urged them to increase the tempo. Although Chicago lost 103-99, Jordan got his point across, and Jackson, as is his wont, agreed to a compromise. He reinstalled the three-lane break that gives Pippen, in particular, more room to operate, but insisted that the Bulls set up in their triangle whenever possible. Chicago is still working out the kinks.
Another offensive issue has resurfaced. At week's end Jordan was averaging 26.2 shots per game (that includes a 49-shot launchathon on Jan. 16 in which he scored 64 points in a 128-124 home loss to the Orlando Magic), his highest total since his 27.8 mark in 1986-87. If Jackson had his druthers, Jordan would be averaging four points less than his league-high average of 32.4. Somewhat surprisingly, Jordan agreed that he's taking too many shots. "And a lot of them are dumb ones," he said. "That's the only word I can use—dumb. The question is why."
O.K., why? "Well, all I know is that our half-court offense isn't running real smoothly and that with the shot clock running down, three, two, one, the ball always seems to end up in my hands." That it does, sometimes because Jordan wants it there, but just as often because his teammates put it there.
Then, too, the fatigue that both Jordan and Pippen complained about earlier in the season has contributed to Jordan's sometimes questionable shot selection. Last Thursday against the Clippers, with the score tied 96-96 and the clock running down, Jordan, instead of driving to the hoop, pulled up and launched an awful three-point try that didn't draw iron, solely because, as he said later, "I was dead on my feet." The Bulls eventually won 107-105 in overtime.
In good times and bad, of course, Jordan's offensive dominance has been the scab that the Bulls can't stop picking. After Jordan's 64-point night, Pippen made pointed reference to the fact that Jordan had collected only one assist. Grant is on record as saying he wants out when his contract expires after next season unless a greater offensive role can be found for him. "Horace is like Oak [the New York Knicks' Charles Oakley] was when he was with us," said Jordan. "Oak would talk about how he wanted to shoot more and get in the offense more just because somebody would start talking to him about it off the court. Same thing here. 'Horace, you can do this, you can do that.' But you know what? Just like Oak, when Horace Grant is on the basketball court, all he thinks about is winning and doing the things he does best, like rebounding, defending and running the floor."
Indeed, the subtle locker room tension that evolves out of Jordan's celebrity evaporates when the Bulls are on the court. While Jordan was lighting up the Jazz for 20 fourth-quarter points during a dramatic 96-92 come-from-behind win on Feb. 1, there was Pippen shaking his fist and urging him on. During quick team huddles on the court, there is Grant, goggles raised, hanging on every word Jordan says. And there was Grant, after the Clipper victory, perfectly content with having collected as many offensive rebounds as field goal attempts (11). Whatever else can be said about the Bulls, jealousies and personal rivalries do not affect their effort between the lines.
Injuries do, though. Guard John Paxson will miss at least three more weeks after having undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Feb. 2, and Jordan must find a way to better mesh his game with that of B.J. Armstrong, now his back-court mate. It's no secret that Jordan prefers Paxson's outside-oriented talents to Armstrong's driving style. But Armstrong is a major talent who is not afraid to take crunch-time shots. "A big-time player who makes big-time shots" is how Utah guard John Stockton describes him. Jordan must give B.J. some room to grow.
Center Bill Cartwright, meanwhile, has struggled all season with what Bach calls "NBA disease"—tendinitis—in his 35-year-old knees. Jackson, in fact, is contemplating giving Cartwright a full month off before the playoffs. Jordan has always had trouble saying nice things about his aging teammate, but he has come to appreciate two things about Cartwright's game: the ugly turnaround jumper that fits comfortably into the triangle, and the clumsy but tenacious body-to-body defense he applies on opposing big men.
Pivot people abound on the Chicago bench, but none can exactly replace Cartwright. Heir apparent Scott Williams can run the floor, rebound and raise a lot of hell with his frenetic style, but he is not, as Jordan puts it, "a known offensive guy." Stacey King could easily replace Cartwright as a go-to jump-shooter, but his defense is nonexistent. One Chicago insider has nicknamed him David Copperfield "because of his uncanny ability to disappear on defense." Finally, Jackson considers Will Perdue, who does nothing terribly wrong but nothing terribly right, too soft and unaggressive.
With top reserve Rodney McCray limited by an injury to his right knee (he's due back from the injured list soon), the most important backup player down the stretch is likely to be 10-year veteran Darrell Walker, whom Chicago will most assuredly sign for the remainder of the season, after having signed him to a second 10-day contract last week. Soon after Walker reported to the Bulls, Jordan grabbed his new teammate's hands and said, "Lemme check those fingernails." Walker is known as a tenacious defender who leaves marks when he rakes for the ball in heavy traffic; Bach calls him the Leopard. Because Jordan, at 6'6", is big enough to guard most small forwards and the 6'4" Walker can defend against the killer shooting guards, Jackson can use a quick, pressure-oriented three-guard alignment (Armstrong is No. 3) from time to time.
Still, whether it be Walker outside or Williams inside, recent additions to the Bulls must learn the nuances of the triangle offense, and that can be difficult. "You see guys literally looking down at their feet out there," says Perdue. "Sometimes it looks like a dance class instead of a basketball game."
And sometimes the Bulls have looked like the Kings instead of the kings of the NBA. "I knew it was going to be tough, but, frankly, it's been tougher than I thought," said the occupant of the Michael Jordan Suite. "We can win it all, but it's not going to be easy. We're physically tired, we're mentally fatigued, and we're a little out of sync from time to time. You know what, though? I think we'll be fine when we see the sight of a challenge in the playoffs. We know the toughest part is these 82 games." He brightened. "After that? It's rejuvenation time."
Jackson has similar thoughts. "I anticipated the worst, and so far, honestly, it hasn't been that," he says. "But it hasn't been easy, either. And since we're going for a third championship, which is something very, very rare, it shouldn't be."
Jackson smiles wryly. "The fourth one," he says, "will be a lot easier."