Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson has been around the NBA long
enough to be able to identify a crumbling dynasty. The telltale
signs include an aging roster, a sudden inability to win on the
road, nagging injuries to key players and a general malaise.
"When it goes, it goes quickly," says Jackson, who experienced
such a decline as a member of the New York Knicks, who won a
championship in 1973 but couldn't make the playoffs three
Are Jackson's Bulls on a similar downward spiral? After losses
on consecutive nights last week, 101-80 in Cleveland to the
Cavaliers and 90-83 at the United Center to the Washington
Wizards, the defending champions were mired in mediocrity with a
4-4 record (0-3 on the road). After those two defeats, Chicago,
which tied with the Utah Jazz for the NBA lead in scoring last
season with an average of 103.1 points, was producing 87.5
points a game, last in the NBA, and had not broken 100 in any
game. Perhaps more ominous, the five-time-champion Bulls' aura
of invincibility had evaporated. Losing to the Cavaliers by 21
points? Could a squad that still included Michael Jordan have
deteriorated into just another team?
The answer may have come, in part, last Friday and Saturday in
Bulls' wins at the United Center over the Charlotte Hornets,
105-92, and the Cavaliers, 79-70. In those victories Jordan
exhibited some of his trademark swagger, dunking and shooting
and playing defense with an exclamation point. Crisis
averted--for the moment, anyway.
Still, the Bulls' worries for the long term lingered. Although
Jackson conceded that Chicago had reached "its lowest ebb in
three years" last week, he reserved final judgment until
seven-time All-Star Scottie Pippen, who underwent surgery on
Oct. 6 to repair a soft tissue injury to his left foot, sees his
first action of 1997-98, probably in mid-December. "I'm not
going to beat these guys up over losing games we would have won
with Scottie," Jackson said last Friday.
Pippen's absence, however, has shown how vital a cog he is in
the Bulls' machine. While Pippen has long been recognized as one
of the game's top players, his accolades customarily have come
with an addendum: He couldn't have done it without Jordan. What
hadn't occurred to many observers was that perhaps Jordan
couldn't have done it without Pippen.
Pippen is central to the delicate balance of Chicago's triangle
offense. He's the primary ball handler and an unselfish
distributor who often passes up his own scoring opportunity to
create a better one for a teammate. Moreover, as a perimeter
threat, he makes opponents pay for double-teaming Jordan.
Take Pippen out of the lineup and Jordan becomes the Bulls'
primary ball handler. This additional chore is already wearing
him down. Chicago is trying to shift some of that responsibility
elsewhere, but steady guard Steve Kerr landed on the injured
list last week with a deep bruise in his left knee and another
backcourtman, Randy Brown, while an able ball handler, has
trouble igniting the Bulls' offense after bringing the ball past
Without Pippen as an outside threat, the opposition is boldly
doubling and tripling Jordan, daring him to kick the ball out.
To compound the problem, the other Bulls have been dumping the
ball back to him as the shot clock winds down. That has often
left Jordan with no choice but to force shots. Thus at week's
end he was scoring 24.8 points a game, down nearly five points
from his league-leading average of last season. Moreover, he was
shooting just 39.7%, a decrease of almost nine percentage points
Pippen isn't the only missing ingredient. The center position
was weakened when the Bulls lost free agent Brian Williams to
the Detroit Pistons and reserve Bill Wennington was sidelined by
tendinitis in his right elbow. A healthy Wennington keeps
defenses honest by stepping out and canning the short jumper.
Chicago assistant coach Tex Winter, the architect of the
triangle, says Pippen's absence isn't solely to blame for the
Bulls' abysmal shooting, which at week's end was at 41.9%-- 24th
in the league. "Scottie or no Scottie, the execution is clearly
lacking," Winter declares.
The Bulls have made some adjustments. Jordan has been asked to
post up more, a strategy that was effective in the win over
Charlotte because it allowed him to shoot more quickly. For his
part, Jordan has asked Jackson for shorter stints on the bench
to keep his right wrist, injured in the preseason, from
Yet technical adjustments can't compensate for an enervated team
psyche. "The frisky, pesky teams bother us," says Winters.
"They've got two things we haven't had: vigor and vitality."
The Bulls concede that they lack their usual enthusiasm.
Hypotheses for that shortcoming abound: age (the players'
average age is 30.3, making Chicago the NBA's second-oldest
team, behind the Knicks); the weariness from having defended the
title into June and having taken a preseason trip to Paris to
play in the McDonald's Championship; the fallout from the
acrimonious contract negotiations between Jackson and the front
office over the summer; and the realization that a roster with
nine free agents almost certainly will undergo an overhaul next
summer. Says one Chicago veteran, "It's hard to get too excited
over a season you know will end with your head getting chopped
Jordan's advice is: Get over it. He dismisses everything,
including Pippen's injury, saying, "What we need is to step up
and take a little responsibility for each other."
Jackson delivered a similar message before last week's game
against the Hornets. He sat the Bulls down to watch game film
but asked them to focus on their glaring lack of emotion on the
bench. He then issued a personal challenge to mercurial forward
Dennis Rodman, whose game is predicated on boundless energy. The
Worm had been lifeless in the loss to the Cavaliers, and he had
spoken so openly of retirement that Jordan finally suggested
that he go home. Because Rodman didn't sign a new contract until
late in the preseason and was slowed by bronchitis, he still
isn't in peak condition. Jackson contends that all will be right
with Rodman by Christmas. Yet there was Rodman early last week,
complaining about his minutes. Last Friday, Rodman arrived at
the United Center 15 minutes before tip-off against Charlotte,
blaming Chicago's traffic for his tardiness. Afterward Rodman
addressed his lateness, saying it was an "honest mistake," and
while Jackson said he would fine Rodman ($100, as it turned
out), he also claimed that seven other Bulls had been delayed by
traffic. Perhaps Jackson and the Bulls players minimized the
Worm's transgression because Rodman contributed 14 boards and
six points in 23 spirited minutes against the Hornets.
Twenty-four hours later he hauled in 18 rebounds in the rematch
victory over the Cavs.
The Bulls play their next seven games on the road. Jackson said
that he was looking forward to hunkering down with his players
away from "outside distractions," but Rodman said that even
after the convincing win over Charlotte, he expected Chicago's
struggles to continue. "I ain't gonna lie to you," said the
Worm. "There's something missing, and it's not just Pippen."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The strain is evident on an overburdened Jordan, who has tried to fill Pippen's shoes, as well as his own. [Michael Jordan sitting on sideline with ice packs on his knees next to Scottie Pippen, who is dressed in street clothes]