In the Michael Jordan era, Tex Winter's triple-post offense was the set scheme the Bulls could improvise from; it was the chord progression to "I Got Rhythm" in Jordan's performance of "Cherokee." Since Jordan's retirement, however, the triple post has become an end in itself. Where once it was the framework for bebop, it has now been orchestrated in sonata form for a symphony. The notes are all there; it's the energy and crispness, rather than the serendipity of inspiration, that distinguishes the performance. The triple post runs more fluidly now than it ever did in the Jordan years, which is why some longhair basketball fans--the newspaper reporters who see every game, for instance--say the Bulls are playing better now than they ever have. In a way, that's ridiculous--what basketball fan, given his or her dream evening, would possibly prefer to see the Chicago Symphony over Charlie Parker?--but like all sophistry there's a certain logic to it. The Bulls are playing better than they ever have: they're getting more out of their potential, as individuals, and they're more devoted to their tactics, as a team. To the fan, their pleasures are sublime, where Jordan was an impending rush that never seemed to crest. Same team; completely different set of responses.
Still, no matter one's approach to the Bulls, there's no denying they're one of the top sports stories of the new year--not up there with Tonya Harding or the Buffalo Bills, but, for the Chicago fan especially, a lot more immediate and a lot more pleasurable. The Bulls completed the first half of their season last Friday with an almost effortless win over the Milwaukee Bucks. That raised their record to 29-12, which--with a little simple math--puts them on a pace to win 58 games, more than last year's Jordan-led Bulls and a good deal more than the 45 this space (and others) had them pegged for in November.
There are many reasons for that success, but they were put most succinctly by Head Coach Phil Jackson in a recent Q-and-A with the Sun-Times' Lacy Banks. Banks asked Jackson if the rest of the league had misjudged the talent levels of new additions Pete Myers, Steve Kerr, and Bill Wennington, three players the Bulls basically salvaged from the scrap heap this season. Jackson said the rest of the league hadn't necessarily misjudged their talent levels, but it had underestimated how valuable those humble talents were. The rest of the league, Jackson said, tends to rate players by athleticism--according to speed, agility, and leaping ability. The Bulls--and General Manager Jerry Krause deserves at least as much credit as Jackson in this regard--brought in players intelligent enough to adjust quickly to Assistant Coach Winter's triple-post offense (a long-term problem for new players since Jackson adopted it in the late '80s) and capable of handling the team's rigorous defensive preparation for each opponent. And, with a philosophy of interchangeable parts replacing their reliance on Michael Jordan, it's been defense and a fluid, balanced offense that has won games for the Bulls this year--that and Toni Kukoc's last-second miracles.
Kukoc, the star Croatian import, has been everything he was advertised to be in his rookie season--"everything," in his case, being a tall (6 feet 11 inches) adept ball handler with a decent shot (except for one prolonged drought midway through the first half of the season), but a suspect defender. His defensive lapses, however, have been far outweighed by his offensive skills, for two reasons: because the Bulls were already well-versed in covering for one another, with Jordan's penchant for steals and poaching on other players' assignments, and because Kukoc--should he play any kind of defense at all--creates significant match-up problems for opponents at the other end of the court. How does one guard a 6-11 player who can run the fast break, drive and dish, or simply lay back and shoot three-point shots?
That, however, was expected. What was not expected was Kukoc's courage at crunch time. While the Bulls deny, with Jordan gone and their offense balanced, that they have a so-called "go-to guy," the fact remains that, more often than not in the first half of the season, when they needed a basket in their final possession the ball wound up in Kukoc's hands and he was likely to take the shot. And, considering he is a rookie, he hit a surprising number of those shots, most recently two weeks ago against the Indiana Pacers, when he sank a game-winning three-pointer off the inbounds with eight-tenths of a second to play.
The Bulls are now playing such solid and effortless basketball that the game-winning shot was the only part of their game not on display against the Bucks last week. They won 113-96, in a contest that might easily be written off as routine, but that routine quality is precisely what makes it the perfect place to pick up the Bulls' season. Where a routine win for the Bulls a year ago over the Bucks might have seen them slog along for three quarters, maybe even fall behind, before Jordan took the game over, this year the Bulls built a big halftime lead through solid, fundamental basketball, weathered a storm by the charging Bucks in the third quarter, and then pulled away comfortably in the final frame.
"They recognize the fact that we have to have great effort on every single night against teams in the NBA," said Jackson, in summing up his team's strengths after the game. "We're just not that talented now we can just go out and lay it down and expect to win on talent. So they know that expertise and execution are what counts."
With that in mind, the Bucks make a most instructive opponent. Like many of the teams in the league right now--from the Charlotte Hornets on down--they seem to have more talent than their record (a measly 12-28 going in) would indicate. The Bucks have the muscular Theodore "Blue" Edwards at shooting guard and the equally oversized Ken Norman, the former Illinois star, at small forward. Sure, they're forced into starting veteran Frank Brickowski at center, but they also bring athletic former Arkansas stars Todd Day and Lee Mayberry off the bench. This team ought to be winning more than one-third of its games.
But, in one of the Bulls' first possessions, B.J. Armstrong got mismatched with Brickowski, and--with the three other Bulls pulling their counterparts to the other side of the court--Armstrong simply played catch with Horace Grant, posted up down low, until he got the open three-pointer, and he hit it.
That patient, incisive execution describes the Bulls these days. They're running Winter's triple post with a clinical efficiency. Armstrong scooted around a Scottie Pippen screen and, drawing two defenders, passed to Pippen cutting to the hoop for a jam. Wennington, setting a similar screen, trailed the ball into the just-vacated area and set up for the open shot--a play that has become something of a trademark in his short stay with the Bulls.
And, while that sort of basketball is rudimentary in any system, the Bulls are also achieving almost baroque effects out of the triple post, setting double and triple screens to set up open shots 20 feet from the hoop for Armstrong and Kerr.
Against the Bucks, they also came up with a play in which, out of their typically tangled crossing patterns over the free-throw lane, a player--usually a guard, Myers or Armstrong--kept appearing time and again all alone under the basket. It was like a magic trick; the hands passed over a black velvet background, and suddenly a dove appeared. We never did figure out how the Bulls were doing that, but we didn't feel so bad. The Bucks couldn't figure it out, either.
The danger, from a fan's perspective, is that such clinical basketball will result in a dry quality of play on the court. The Bulls, however, have a relaxed, confident on-court personality that is really a pleasure to watch. Pippen, especially, is as loose as we've ever seen him. Early against the Bucks, Bill Cartwright was charged with a sudden and almost inexplicable technical foul, and Pippen came walking down the court, a big smile on his face, asking Cartwright, over and over, what it was he had said to the referee.
And, as a group, they're always talking, whispering, gesturing to one another, mouthing assignments across the lane during free throws, drawing each other aside during breaks in the play. The Bulls, historically, have been a thinking fan's team, going back to the Dick Motta era, and their intense preparation and innate athletic intelligence is a large part of what made the Jordan teams unbeatable in the playoffs the last three seasons, but this year's Bulls look to be the sharpest bunch yet.
Asked to describe what distinguishes the 1993-94 Bulls, Jackson listed "their dedication to playing together, moving the ball, organizational skills on the floor, (and) their work ethic is very good." Discipline and determination will always win games in December in the NBA. The question is, how will the Bulls fare in March and April, or in May when the playoffs begin? To the Bulls' credit, they are already addressing that themselves, both in Jackson's quotes above and in Pippen's harsh grading: he gave the Bulls a B minus at the halfway point. Pippen has moved into Jordan's locker, and has assumed Jordan's role as the team's leader. He stayed an unusually long time after the Bucks' game, summing up the team at the halfway point. "I think we play well, but we haven't shown that we're a good road team yet," he said. "Winning home games, that's not gonna take you very far in the playoffs.
"I think we need to be better defensively. I think defense creates offense."
The Bulls are not only going to make the playoffs--something much of their competition doubted at the season's start--they're going to be in good position, with home-court advantage in at least the first round and quite possibly the second and third. What's more, they are well aware of what it takes to win, and--unlike many of their opponents--they have few delusions about what they are and aren't capable of. Once again, the team that aims to be champion is going to have to beat the Bulls. In that, this season is no different from the last three.