What is driving the unexpected revival of the Bulls, who at week's end had won 15 of 19 to climb into playoff contention for the first time since Michael Jordan's 1998 departure? You won't find the answer in their starting lineup. Coach Scott Skiles has turned 21-year-old rookie Ben (Junior Microwave) Gordon and 22-year-old forward Tyson Chandler into off-the-bench closers whose energetic play has helped Chicago excel at crunch time.
Last week Gordon torched the Knicks twice in the final period, scoring 14 points in an 86--84 win in Chicago, then 13 two nights later--including a runner with .1 of a second left--to close out an 88--86 victory in New York. After a slow start this season, the 6'2" Gordon had racked up nine double-digit fourth quarters through Sunday; only Kobe Bryant (11) and Allen Iverson (10) had more. "Coming off the bench, I can see what guys have been doing and how the teams are playing," says Gordon, who was drafted No. 3 after helping UConn to the national title as a junior. "I know I have to provide what I can right away."
Gordon, who was averaging 13.2 points at week's end, has the skills to heat up as quickly as the original Microwave, Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson: three-point accuracy (43.1%), a precocious mid-range game and the athleticism to get into the lane and finish. And there's room for improvement: Gordon's 5.31 turnovers per 48 minutes leads the league. "Ben can get his own shot, and he has an unselfish personality," says G.M. John Paxson. "But he struggles with knowing when to shoot and when to pass. Sometimes he'll drift because he's not asserting himself."
Paxson's plan last spring was to add experience, but when he couldn't acquire Pacers forward Al Harrington, he went the opposite way and acquired four rookies--all proven winners. Gordon, Duke's Luol Deng (the No. 7 pick) and Chris Duhon (No. 38) had a combined .825 winning percentage in college, while rugged forward Andrés Nocioni, 25, started for Olympic gold medalist Argentina in 2004. After an 0--9 start their positive approach has played a huge role in the Bulls' resurgence.
So, too, has the hyperactive, 7'1" Chandler, who at week's end was 11th in the league in blocks (1.82 per game) and 18th in rebounds (9.1), despite averaging just 27.2 minutes. With Chandler as a stopper--his block of Nazr Mohammed's shot iced that win over the Knicks in Chicago--the Bulls led the NBA in field-goal-percentage defense through Sunday (41.0%). Skiles has succeeded in getting his team to play D because he has Paxson's full backing. "He's a tough coach," says Chandler. "He has passion, and he puts in the same effort that we put in--probably more."
If they can survive a rough stretch of their schedule that starts next month, when 13 of 18 games will be on the road, the Bulls have the makings of a playoff team. And by holding out until there's a new collective bargaining agreement--which is likely to include shorter contracts for less money--Paxson may be able to afford to re-sign his young players and keep Chicago's core intact. "My phone isn't ringing anymore," he says, acknowledging that teams have given up trying to snatch Chandler or 22-year-old center Eddy Curry. "I just don't see this group changing its mentality. They're going to continue to work hard."
On the Knicks (17--23 through Sunday), who replaced coach Lenny Wilkens with assistant Herb Williams last Saturday:
"You can't blame Lenny totally because he wasn't in control. Isiah Thomas has assembled players with offensive skill, but they don't do what it takes to win. The only guy who rebounds and defends is Kurt Thomas. His reward? Daily rumors that he's about to be traded. Look at the assistants Isiah hired for Lenny--none of them is a defensive tactician. Coming up with big stops used to be their trademark. They need to get back to that if they're going to turn it around."