“All the pieces are in place,” coach Dave Wannstedt once infamously said of the Bears, when neither the pieces were in order nor even the places. This season’s Bulls appear to have all the pieces–perhaps too many of them–but certainly not in the proper places.

Last season the Bulls put together a “drive and kick” offense: their skilled young perimeter players drove the lane, drew the defense, and dished out to a teammate for an open shot. But the Bulls lacked a presence in the middle, and this is what they added during the off-season by signing big Ben Wallace, the defensive specialist who led the Detroit Pistons to an NBA championship two years ago. The Bulls opened this season by pasting the defending champs, Shaquille O’Neal’s Miami Heat, by 42 points. But the next night the Bulls lost in Orlando to the Magic, and last Friday they lost their home opener to the Sacramento Kings. The pieces seemed a jumble, a jigsaw puzzle fresh out of the box. But what makes the Bulls so fascinating is the unique challenge all this young talent poses to coach Scott Skiles. Disappointing as the Bulls’ first games were, the team looks like it could become something special–perhaps even a championship team.

Among the returning players on the immensely and variously gifted roster that general manager John Paxson put together, the leader is undoubtedly point guard Kirk Hinrich, who seems to have been dribbling a ball since he was a toddler and has added a dependable outside shot to boot. Then there’s Ben Gordon, the streaky shooter who either controls the game or watches it like a spectator, rarely anything in between. There’s Luol Deng, the lean, swift Dinka tribesman from the Sudan via Duke whose increasingly potent outside shot is fired up with a low, flat trajectory that recalls Bob Love’s. There’s Andres Nocioni, the scrappy Argentine with the chin beard and anguished way of baiting opponents and referees, and Chris Duhon, whose main talent as a guard is for playing within his more humble abilities. Of all these, Nocioni is the oldest at 26 and Deng both the youngest at 21 and, for all his skills, the one with the most untapped potential.

Of the newcomers, there’s P.J. Brown, providing a veteran presence at power forward, and, at the other end of the experience spectrum, top draft pick Tyrus Thomas, a 20-year-old leaper out of LSU who impressed even O’Neal with a powerful tip-slam in the opener before he broke his nose and some of the bounce went out of his game. There’s 22-year-old Thabo Sefolosha, a six-foot-seven shooting guard from Switzerland who looks smooth on offense though he’s feeling his way on defense. But defense figures to be the domain of Wallace, the four-time defensive player of the year. He’s given the Bulls what they lacked–not just a “man in the middle” (as newly returned PA announcer Tommy Edwards said with special emphasis in the introductions before the home opener) but also an animated leader.

The opener at the United Center was declared “Fear the ‘Fro” night, in honor of the unruly Afro Wallace sometimes sports when he hasn’t braided his hair–the first 10,000 fans were given Afro wigs. There was some doubt about whether he’d go along with the gag, but after the other Bulls had been warming up for a few minutes Wallace literally skipped onto the floor. During the game he displayed a surprisingly fluid turnaround jumper–offense not being considered his area of expertise–and raked down rebounds as if he were playing with a jai alai basket.

When the Bulls of 20 years ago added Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan, it was obvious that all they needed was a center and a spot-up shooter. They added Bill Cartwright and Paxson himself, and championships soon followed. More would come with Luc Longley and Steve Kerr in those roles and Dennis Rodman replacing Grant. The current Bulls, by contrast, are so talented in so many ways that it’s hard to say what Skiles should do with them. Should he set Deng, Thomas, and Hinrich loose and let them run or should he play half-court scrums behind Hinrich, Gordon, and Nocioni? Concentrate on interior defense with Wallace, Thomas, and Brown, or stress perimeter offense with Hinrich, Gordon, Sefolosha, and Deng? Is the answer all of the above, depending on the situation?

The wealth of options yielded predictable results in the early going. Everything meshed against the Heat, but the Bulls looked out of sync against the Magic and the Kings and their opponents undid them with star power. In each game the Bulls struggled for continuity and were beaten by a trio of scorers: Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Grant Hill of Orlando, Kevin Martin, Mike Bibby, and Ron Artest of Sacramento. All topped 20 points but Hill, who had 19.

It’s worth remembering that the sort of unity Skiles stresses, on offense and especially on defense, takes time to develop. After trading Eddy Curry last year the Bulls sputtered all season before arriving at the drive-and-kick. Then the Bulls won 14 of their last 20 games to finish 41-41 and threw a scare into the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Skiles is an inquisitive thinker and a brilliantly unconventional tactician, and he’s the perfect coach to be guiding this young team–a tough taskmaster and strict disciplinarian for what appears to be an intelligent group. I think it will take him until the end of the calendar year to get a handle on his squad–then, look out. It should be fun to watch the process play out, but when the wins come the fun will really begin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.