All you really need to know about the NBA season was captured in
one brief and seemingly inconsequential sequence at USAir Arena
in Landover, Md., on Jan. 15. Michael Jordan held the ball in
his right hand, calmly surveying the court as Washington Bullets
guard Brent Price gamely tried to harass him. Price was crouched
low, working furiously on defense, but every time he slapped at
the ball, Jordan simply held it farther away from him like a big
kid teasing his little brother, a Globetrotter toying with a
General. Jordan glanced down quickly at Price, and a slight
smile crossed his face, as if he was amused by his opponent's
efforts. Then he casually flicked a pass to a teammate.
Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates--most notably, forwards
Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman--have treated the rest of the
NBA in much the same way, rampaging through the league as if the
opposition was nothing more than a minor annoyance. Chicago's
34-3 record at week's end was impressive enough, but even more
remarkable is the way the Bulls have been able to dismiss teams
at will, apparently allowing foes to stay close until they
decide to pull away. And they do pull away. After Sunday's
111-96 win over the Detroit Pistons, Chicago's average margin of
victory was a stunning 11.8 points, which, if the Bulls can
maintain it through the rest of the regular season, would be the
third best in league history, behind the margins of the 1971-72
Los Angeles Lakers (12.3) and the '70-71 Milwaukee Bucks (12.2).
Of Chicago's 34 wins, 24 were by nine points or more. And at
their current pace the Bulls would finish 75-7, six wins better
than the '71-72 Lakers, who have the best mark to date. "So far
they've been running roughshod over the league," says Miami Heat
coach Pat Riley. "It's a long season, but they certainly look
like they're on a path to greatness."
Of course, there will have to be a championship at the end of
that path for Chicago to be counted among the greatest NBA teams
ever. But even a title may not be enough to convince some
observers that these Bulls are anything more than a very good
team with even better timing. As the possibility of a 70-win
season for Chicago grows more plausible, there is the feeling
around the league that such an achievement would say almost as
much about the expansion-weakened state of the NBA as it would
about the Bulls' talent. "I can tell you right now that they're
not as good as the Boston Celtics teams of the '80s or the
Lakers of the '80s, and they're not as good as the Chicago team
that won three in a row," says Toronto Raptors coach Brendan
Malone, referring to the Bulls' title teams of 1990-91 through
Perhaps not, but so far Chicago has been far too good for the
rest of the league. Coach Phil Jackson has sent his counterparts
around the NBA back to the drawing board to devise ways of
dealing with a team that may well be redefining the game.
Chicago has little use for the traditional concept of positions,
because the 6'6" Jordan, the 6'7" Pippen and the 6'11" swingman
Toni Kukoc are all skilled enough to play the point and big
enough to post up defenders. "Just a bunch of small, versatile
guys playing different positions," Jordan says, describing his
team. "That's the way the game is going. The dominant center is
starting to be eliminated. You haven't had a dominant center win
a championship in eight years, and don't talk about [the Houston
Rockets' Hakeem] Olajuwon. He's a small forward playing center."
The Bulls cause matchup nightmares. Do you double-team Jordan or
Pippen? Whichever one you choose, the other will kill you,
either by scoring himself or penetrating and creating shots for
spot-up shooters like guard Steve Kerr. Do you leave Rodman in
order to double-team one of the scorers because Rodman doesn't
like to shoot? If you do, Rodman will snatch offensive rebounds
like apples off a tree. Chicago has had an answer for virtually
every defensive strategy opponents have tried. Plus, says
Portland Trail Blazers general manager Bob Whitsitt, "they
really play the team concept. They make the extra pass. They
understand where they want to be on the court and what kind of
spacing they want."
As explosive as the Bulls are offensively, however, their
strength is their defense. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman are three
of the best individual defenders in the game. Pippen, in
particular, may have no peer. Says Orlando Magic assistant coach
Richie Adubato, "Wherever you run a pick-and-roll, he's in the
area. He double-teams the ball. He blocks shots, makes steals."
Though the Bulls' team defensive statistics are not gaudy--at
week's end they ranked seventh in the league in forcing
turnovers and tied for tenth in opponent field goal
percentage--the rankings are skewed by the extended garbage time
in many of their routs.
Still, there are those who question whether the Bulls are a team
for the ages, and the skeptics would not get much of an argument
from Jordan, at least not now. "We haven't won anything yet,
even though this is the best we've been at this stage of the
season," he says. "To compare us to our three championship teams
is unfair. Back then we played as more of a unit. Here we've
been able to scrap and find ways to win, but the continuity and
chemistry aren't quite the same. But that's not to say we can't
win a championship the way we're playing."
The Bulls don't need to convince anyone of that. At times their
games are more performance than competition, with Jordan and
Pippen taking turns doing spectacular solos. "No one is even
challenging them," says Adubato. "Pippen and Jordan are like
they're in a playground enjoying themselves." Pippen, who
through Sunday was averaging 21.6 points (16th in the league),
6.5 assists (16th) and 6.7 rebounds, is having perhaps the best
season of his career, which Jordan, who seems to have appointed
himself Pippen's MVP campaign manager, has repeatedly pointed
out. Jordan has gone so far as to call the Bulls Pippen's team.
That may be a stretch, but Pippen has proved himself to be more
than a mere member of Jordan's supporting cast. "I think Pippen
could be an MVP candidate, but as long as Michael's there,
because of his personality and confidence and competitiveness,
there's nobody better," says Whitsitt. "I'd still defer to
Michael, but it's 1 and 1A. It used to be 1 and 2."
The only bumps during the Bulls' flight to the top have been
losses, all on the road, to Orlando, the Seattle SuperSonics and
the Indiana Pacers, but Chicago later defeated each of those
teams in a rematch at home, thumping the Pacers (120-93) and the
Sonics (113-87) especially badly. It is this simple: If Chicago
continues at anything close to its present level, no other
contenders need apply for the NBA title, not even the two-time
defending champion Rockets or the Magic, last season's other
finalist. At the moment the Bulls are competing against history
more than against their contemporaries. Only those 1971-72
Lakers, who started 39-3, and the '66-67 Philadelphia 76ers
(37-3) had more victories before losing their fourth game (box,
Whether or not it is the best team ever, Chicago is certainly
the team of the moment, at least among fans. No American sports
franchise can match the Bulls' global popularity, thanks to the
NBA's exhaustive international marketing effort and even more to
Jordan's far-reaching appeal. The league generated $3 billion in
merchandising sales last year, and although the NBA does not
furnish statistics on individual teams, there have been informed
estimates that the Bulls account for as much as 40% of that total.
The public can't seem to get enough of Chicago. After two mostly
Jordan-less seasons out of the top spot, the Bulls are again No.
1 in the NBA in road attendance, averaging 20,889 fans a game.
This season the ratings for telecasts that include Chicago are
roughly double those for other games. And there have been enough
books written by or about various Bulls to stock a library.
Jackson, who likes to give each of his players a book to read on
long road trips, could probably take care of his team's needs
without straying from the Bulls' collection.
Beyond that, Chicago is different from other highly popular and
successful teams in that hardly anyone seems to hate them. The
likes of the Celtics, the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees
and the Notre Dame football team all have nationwide fan bases.
But there are also large numbers of spectators who love nothing
more than to see these teams lose. Just try to find a
Bulls-haters club, though. "It's tough to play them in your own
place and hear almost as many people cheering when they score as
when you score," says Atlanta Hawks forward Stacey Augmon.
The Chicago players have remained as unimpressed by the
adulation as they have by their success so far this season. They
act like they just happen to be on a modest winning streak. Says
Pippen, "We don't want to step back and look at what we've
accomplished--because we've accomplished nothing."
That's not entirely true. The Bulls have established themselves
as every bit as dominant as they were during their run of
championships before Jordan's temporary retirement. But in the
process, they have made the yawning chasm between the NBA's
upper and lower echelons impossible to ignore. With the addition
of the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies expanding the league
to 29 teams this season, talent is stretched more thinly than
ever before. "The Bulls are an excellent team in what appears to
be an increasingly mediocre league," says Jack Ramsay, a Hall of
Fame coach turned TV analyst.
The Bulls ran off a 13-game winning streak in November and
December during which only four of their victims, the New York
Knicks, the San Antonio Spurs, Orlando and the Utah Jazz, were
more than one game over .500. "Chicago is jumping all over
teams, but it's doing it in a league with a dearth of talent
that's been watered down even further by expansion," says former
Knicks guard and current radio analyst Walt Frazier. "It has two
of the best players in the game and one of the best defensive
players and rebounders. And that could be enough in the NBA
Even the Bulls themselves recognize that the quality of the
league is a factor in their remarkable record. "There are some
teams out there who have no hope of beating the Chicago Bulls,
and that's sad, that's really sad," says Rodman, who was on two
championship Pistons teams. "We're not the best team in NBA
history, we're just the best of what's out there right now."
But some of the great teams of the past also benefited from
expansion. Philadelphia's 68 wins in '66-67 came during the same
season that the Bulls joined the league as the NBA's 10th team.
The Lakers set the record with 69 wins the year after the league
grew to 17 teams with the addition of Portland, the Buffalo
Braves and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's also worth remembering
that Chicago lost a key player, guard B.J. Armstrong, in the
expansion draft last June. And even if the Bulls are enjoying
the fruits of expansion, they are playing against the same
competition as the rest of the league, and at last check, no one
else was 34-3.
The seeds of the Bulls' fast start may have taken root last
season, when a humbled Jordan sat in front of his locker
following the Game 6 Eastern Conference semifinal loss to
Orlando that eliminated Chicago from the playoffs. He explained
that he had miscalculated in his plan to "steal a title" after
returning for the final 17 regular-season games and the
postseason. "But I'm looking forward to having a training camp
with these guys," he said then. "I think over the course of an
82-game season we can do something special. I've got the hunger
"I think losing the way we did last year focused him even more,"
says Pippen. "Michael's not used to being in the position of
talking about why we didn't win, and I'm sure he didn't like
it. He came back this fall with a point he wanted to make."
That point seems to be that Jordan can accomplish anything
he chooses on a basketball court. With a 31.7-point average (in
38.3 minutes a game) through last weekend, he is back on top of
the league scoring list--he won seven straight scoring titles
before he retired--and the uncharacteristic trace of self-doubt
that he admitted to last season has been nowhere in evidence.
"Will I lead the league in scoring? I don't know," he says. "Can
I lead the league in scoring? If I want to."
Jordan's performance this season indicates that, while he no
longer seems compelled to prove on a nightly basis that he's the
best player, he's perfectly capable of providing a reminder to
anyone who forgets. He took note, for instance, when
Philadelphia rookie and fellow North Carolina alumnus Jerry
Stackhouse was quoted early in the season as saying that the
thing that had surprised him most about the NBA was "how easy it
has been" and that no one had been able to stop him one-on-one.
Jordan gave Stackhouse a 48-point lesson in humility in their
Superlative as they have been, Jordan's and Pippen's
performances were expected. It was Rodman, acquired from San
Antonio in a trade in October, who had Jackson and general
manager Jerry Krause crossing their fingers. So far Rodman has
done exactly what they hoped: He has shored up the Bulls'
rebounding (14.4 per game) while keeping his eccentricities
largely under control. It isn't that Rodman has suddenly started
paying attention to his alarm clock; he has been late more than
once this season. But the Bulls have handled him skillfully,
quietly fining him for his violations without public comment.
"In San Antonio everything was a big deal," Rodman says. "Here
they just fine you $5 or whatever and move on."
Rodman has been ejected from only one game, although the sight
of him tearing off his shirt and flinging it into the crowd
after he was thrown out against Philadelphia last week was
frighteningly reminiscent of his antics with San Antonio. But in
his two seasons with the Spurs, Rodman was mostly well
behaved--at least by his standards--during the regular season
before acting up in the playoffs. Krause and Jackson won't
uncross those fingers until the final buzzer of the final game.
As long as Rodman remains relatively controlled, it will be the
rest of the Bulls who make some observers reluctant to place
Chicago among the league's alltime great teams. Kukoc (11.1
points) is the only Chicago player other than Pippen and Jordan
with a scoring average in double figures, and though he has been
an effective sixth man and is a fine passer, he hasn't developed
into the star Krause envisioned when he brought him to Chicago
three years ago. Instead, he has become the Bull most likely to
take a tongue-lashing during the game. His hangdog expression
and stated desire for more minutes (he was averaging 22.9
through Sunday) and a place in the starting lineup have made him
the closest thing the Bulls have to a dissatisfied player.
With Rodman beside them under the boards, Luc Longley and Bill
Wennington have combined to perform adequately at center, and
Kerr has come off the bench and found a niche as the spot-up
shooter so essential to a team with players who draw as many
double teams as Jordan and Pippen do. But 32-year-old guard Ron
Harper (7.2 points), who starts alongside Jordan, is no longer
the dynamic slasher he once was. "I think the Bulls are
basically a three-man team," Frazier says. "You look at the box
scores and you see Pippen with 29 points, Jordan with 25 points
and five guys with three points each. I think it's a tribute to
Jordan that he's been able to carry the team like this."
But the load will only get heavier as the season progresses, and
Chicago isn't even halfway home. The greatest obstacle to a
70-win mark may be the sheer length of the season. There are
three months left for Rodman, always a time bomb, to explode.
Then there is the age factor: The Bulls were the oldest team in
the league based on the average age (29.9) of their opening-day
roster. Thus fatigue is always a concern, especially for Rodman,
who will be 35 in May; Jordan, 33 in February; and the
30-year-old Pippen. Fortunately for Jackson, Chicago's frequent
blowouts have enabled him to sit his stars for long stretches.
And there's the flaw that won't go away: the Bulls' mediocrity
at center, which could be exposed in the playoffs against a
dominant big man, particularly Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal. "With
Shaq, the Magic have somebody who can really hurt the Bulls
inside," says Portland guard Rod Strickland. "Orlando has a lot
of versatility"--including All-Star guard Anfernee Hardaway and
long-distance shooting ace Dennis Scott--"but because of Michael
and Scottie, I'd probably go with the Bulls in the playoffs.
Still, the Magic is probably the team that can beat them."
Perhaps. That path to greatness Riley talked about is a long
one, and the Bulls might just have enough supplies to make it to
the finish. But instead of wondering whether or not they'll get
there, maybe the thing to do is just sit back and enjoy the
BEST OF THE BEST?
What would Michael Jordan do if he soared toward the basket and
met the massive presence of Wilt Chamberlain, in his prime,
waiting for him? It's impossible to know, just as it's
ultimately impossible to determine how the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
would have done against the only two teams who started a season
faster: the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (37-3) and the 1971-72
Los Angeles Lakers (39-3), both of which had the legendary
Chamberlain at center. The guess here is that if you put Chicago
on an imaginary court with either team, the Bulls would put up
a good fight but in the end would probably lose a close one.
In a hypothetical Bulls-Sixers matchup, Chamberlain would give
Philly a huge advantage at center, the Bulls' weakest position.
That year he not only led the league in rebounding, with an
average of 24.2, but he also was fifth in scoring, with 24.1
points a game, and third in assists (7.8). However, Wilt made
only 44.1% of his free throws, which suggests that he would have
been hacked early and often by his Chicago counterparts, Luc
Longley and Bill Wennington.
But that Philadelphia team, which finished the season with a
68-13 record, had two other Hall of Famers, guard Hal Greer and
its sixth man, forward Billy Cunningham. They, along with
forwards Lucious Jackson and Chet Walker and guard Wally Jones,
gave the Sixers six players who had double-figure scoring
averages. The Bulls have just three, Jordan and forwards Scottie
Pippen and Toni Kukoc. "That Philadelphia team had much better
balance than the Bulls do," says Jack Ramsay, the 76ers' general
manager that season. "All of the players were pretty much in
their prime and had years that were the best or among the best
of their careers."
Jordan and Pippen would have had the edge in their matchups with
Greer and Walker, but even a rebounder as extraordinary as the
Bulls' 6'8" Dennis Rodman would have been hard-pressed to
dominate the boards against the 7'1", 275-pound Chamberlain and
the 6'9", 240-pound Jackson. And Philadelphia's superior depth
might well have been the difference.
Chicago probably would have had a better chance against the
1971-72 Lakers team that won 33 in a row and finished 69-13, the
best record in NBA history. Chamberlain averaged "only" 14.8
points and 19.2 rebounds, but Los Angeles got plenty of scoring
from guards Gail Goodrich (25.9 points) and Jerry West (25.8)
and forward Jim McMillian (18.8). These Lakers would not have
hurt the Bulls inside as badly as the 76ers would have. But like
the Sixers, they were a deeper, more balanced team than Chicago,
with a bench that included guards Flynn Robinson and a
long-haired fellow named Pat Riley.
As for the quality of competition in the league then and now,
it's logical to assume that the Bulls benefit from the effects
of expansion. But in the 10-team league that Philadelphia
dominated, only three clubs finished above .500--the Boston
Celtics and the San Francisco Warriors were the others--and the
Sixers had the advantage of beating the first-year Bulls eight
out of nine times. This season Chicago will play the expansion
Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies a total of six times.
But perhaps it's unfair to compare this season's Bulls to any of
history's great teams, not just because they haven't won the
championship yet but also because they may not even be the best
team in franchise history. The 1991-92 Bulls, the second of
Chicago's three straight championship teams and one that
included solid center Bill Cartwright, estimable power forward
Horace Grant and clutch shooter John Paxson, got off to a 37-5
start and finished 67-15. "If we can do the things that that
team did, I don't really care about history," says Jordan. "I'll