Are the Chicago Bulls a great pro basketball team? Or, as some
would have you believe, are they Michael Jordan and a bunch of Dutch
milkmaids? I've been going back and forth on this thing since John
Paxson sank that 24-foot dagger square into the collective heart of
the Phoenix Suns on June 20.
I look at the Bulls' four-headed center -- starter Bill Cartwright
and reserves Scott Williams, Stacey King and Will Perdue -- and
compare it with, say, Wilt Chamberlain, the pivotman of the 1971-72
Los Angeles Lakers, and conclude that the Bulls are not a great team.
I see Paxson, nervy shooter that he is, and B.J. Armstrong at the
point, and compare them with Bob Cousy from the great Boston Celtic
teams of the 1950s and '60s, and conclude that the Bulls are not a
I see the Bulls struggle to score when Jordan isn't clicking, and
compare that to watching the Lakers of the 1980s streaking up and
down the floor, even with Magic Johnson on the bench, and conclude
that the Bulls are not a great team.
There are lots of reasons not to call the Bulls a great team. But
I'm going to call them one anyway.
First of all, when most people think of great NBA teams, they
think of offense. But that was not the strong suit of the Celtics of
the 1950s and '60s; rather, they focused on a defense anchored by
Bill Russell, the league's first true shot blocker. The Celtics of
that era deserve the tag of ''greatest ever'' because of their
bottom-line achievement: 11 titles between '57 and '69, including
eight in a row from '59 to '66. Period.
But almost every other great NBA championship team is defined by
its ability to score. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13
regular-season record) had ) Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and
Billy Cunningham in their starting lineup. The '71-72 Lakers (record
33-game winning streak and best-ever regular-season record, 69-13)
were so potent that Jerry West, who had 25.8 points a game while also
leading the league in assists, was only second in scoring; Wilt
(14.8) was fourth. And when you think of the '85-86 Celtics, you
think of the scoring abilities of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert
Parish, perhaps the best front line in history.
The Bulls, Jordan notwithstanding, cannot compete with those
star-studded lineups. But they can play defense with any team in
history, and that counts for a lot, particularly in an era when
defense wins championships. Perhaps the biggest change in the NBA
over the last decade has been the ability of a strong defensive team
to defuse the opposition's high-scoring low-post player with intense
pressure on the perimeter. Teams didn't do that to centers like Wilt
or Moses Malone or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even to forwards Bird and
McHale. My guess is that the Bulls could've done it to any of those
alltimers, not for an entire series, but long enough to win.
How heavily should successive NBA titles be weighed in assessing a
team's greatness? In my book, very heavily. Both the '67 champion
Sixers and '72 title-winning Lakers returned the following season
with their regular rotation intact but couldn't win another crown.
Bird, McHale and Parish played together for 12 seasons on the
parquet, and though they won three titles, they never won two in a
row. The Knick championship teams of '70 and '73 have been canonized
and recanonized, yet their titles came three seasons apart.
The Bulls' detractors usually bring up three words: dilution of
talent. Yes, there are now 27 teams in the NBA -- compared with only
nine when the Celtics reigned -- and one of them is the Minnesota
Timberwolves. But you say dilution of talent, and I say:
Late-starting TV games. Early-starting Martin Luther King Day games.
Denver altitude. Illegal zones. Four playoff rounds. In seven of the
Celtics' eight straight title seasons, they had to play only one
best- of-seven series to get to the Finals. What the Bulls have
endured is a war of attrition. A team must now win one best-of-five
series and three best-of- seven battles to earn a ring; only a great
team could do it three times in a row. The Bulls played 304 games
over their three championship seasons, including the playoffs. In the
first three years of their dynasty, the Celtics played only 260
And there's the added pressure these days of winning under a
microscope, which grows more powerful each season. Cousy and Russell
could've danced in go-go cages down Causeway Street and it might not
have been mentioned in the newspapers or made the nightly news. But
the Bulls have lived a daily soap opera that was not only enervating
but also potentially lethal to team chemistry. Jordan's life, for
example, has become an open book. (In fact, it has become at least
three books.) For keeping the saga from poisoning the team, Phil
Jackson, step forward, bring your psychology books with you, and take
your place as one of the most underrated coaches in history.
If you match the Bulls and other great teams position by position,
Chicago simply does not measure up. But that's not what teams are all
about. Great teams are better than the sum of their parts, a truism
that defines the Chicago Bulls of 1990-91 through 1992-93 and makes