The sixth man is basketball’s version of a military technique dating back to Napoleon: the use of fresh troops, held in reserve, to swing the battle at a critical moment. The Boston Celtics have made a tradition of the sixth man, from John Havlicek in the 60s right up to this season, when Ed Pinckney has started ahead of Kevin McHale, just so McHale can be deployed at those critical moments when the game teeters. The Detroit Pistons became world champions last season by extending this concept to its natural conclusion, creating an entire second team almost on par with the starters. The Bulls this season have relied on rookies to come off the bench, even in the important role of sixth man. Stacey King, from Oklahoma, is a tall, large forward with a sure sense of what to do around the basket, where he usually can be found–on offense and defense. King has proved himself a master of the tip-in, and he thrives down low, under the boards, where pushing and shoving are common and fouls are a grace note. He’s a prime candidate for basketball’s version of the All-Madden rookie team, because after five minutes on the floor his shirt is usually coming untucked, and his play is never pretty, even when it’s effective. Yet, like any rookie, King has a tendency to play with his mouth open, to seem awed by what’s going on around him and to let the play wash over him from moment to moment. Midway through the season, he’d spent fewer minutes on the floor than any other sixth man in the league.
King is a typical draft choice of general manager Jerry Krause, in that he behaves just about how a general manager would like a rookie to behave. He is confident, but not cocky–humble, but only to a point. Sitting in his locker stall after a game, wearing a heavy sweater, his shoulders hunched forward, he says, “I’m used to scoring–a lot. Right now, I’m really adapting to the system and everything. I’m not really looking to score that much. But I’m progressing pretty well. I’m getting better each game, and I’m showing flashes here and there of what I can do. It’s just a matter of more minutes, getting comfortable, getting the ball. I think getting toward the second half of the season, after the break, I’ll be where I want to be.” The absence of any set figures–minutes or points per game–in what he expects of himself is notable; it reflects a team attitude.
The Bulls gave ample evidence of where they stood at mid-season late last month, in a pair of home games against Central Division rivals. It should come as no surprise that the play of King and his bench mates was critical in both games. First came the Pistons, with the Bulls, at the time, in first place by a half game. The crowd had a play-off intensity–as it always does against the hated Pistons–and Daily Herald beat writer Kent McDill told us the Bulls had had a good practice that afternoon and were up for the game. They showed it, opening a five-point lead at one point on the way to a 28-26 advantage at the end of the first quarter. Yet, after that, the game belonged to the Pistons, and the way they gathered the lead and held it was instructive. The referees called a miserable game, but on both ends of the court. At one point, Bill Cartwright suckered Bill Laimbeer for an offensive foul; from behind, it was apparent that it was all an act by Cartwright, but the call was made by an official out near half court. Another ref, who’d seen what really happened, evened out the call the next time the Pistons came down with the ball by whistling Cartwright on a foul that didn’t exist even as incidental contact, much less as a detectable foul. The officiating didn’t exactly favor one team over the other, except that it inherently favored the Pistons and their deep bench.
Detroit lost Rick Mahorn to the expansion draft last summer, so the team can no longer go two deep at every position, and Mark Aguirre was out with an injury, meaning All-Star sixth man Dennis Rodman had to start, but the Pistons still bring John Salley and Vinnie Johnson off the bench as reserves (13 years of NBA experience between them). As for the Bulls, no one fouled out, but by the end of the game four of the five starters had been charged with five fouls, and Cartwright had four. The foul trouble developed early on, meaning coach Phil Jackson couldn’t get Michael Jordan off the court for a rest during the first half, and it showed later in the second half, as Jordan missed some open shots and even kicked away a ball on the dribble as the Bulls fought to get back in the game.
Most important, the Bulls were never able to seize control by putting a superior lineup on the floor. The Pistons were always sending somebody fresh in off the bench, and Jackson always seemed to be substituting defensively rather than offensively: he was always trying to keep the Pistons from finding a dominant matchup rather than trying to find a matchup of his own to exploit. The Pistons pulled out to a seven-point lead in the third quarter, but the Bulls rallied to close to within two going into the final frame.
Here, Jackson made his attempt to seize the game, but–while his tactics were interesting–it worked out poorly. Jackson moved Scottie Pippen from forward to point guard, giving the Bulls a decided height advantage. Yet Pippen struggled trying to make plays on the offensive end, and on the defensive end Detroit’s smaller, quicker Vinnie Johnson drove past Pippen again and again and dished the ball to open shooters. It was here that V.J. earned most of his six assists and that Isiah Thomas–the recipient of several kind passes–closed on his final total of 26 points on the night. Thomas also finished with 13 assists against the Bulls’ slower starting point guard John Paxson and rookie reserve B.J. Armstrong, meaning Thomas played a direct role in almost half the Pistons’ points in their 107-95 victory. The Pistons also won the battle of the bench–convincingly–31-10 in points, 19-8 in rebounds, and 9-5 in assists.
As overmatched as the Bulls played against the Pistons, that was how much they overmatched the Atlanta Hawks a week ago last Monday. The Hawks are a team on the decline, in transition, an old squad surrounding an old center, the former league MVP Moses Malone. They started the season quickly, but the long schedule is already beginning to wear this team down. The Hawks have also been having to make do without injured point guard Glenn “Doc” Rivers; his replacement, Anthony “Spud” Webb, won the NBA All-Star slam-dunk competition a few years ago–mainly by being able to dunk at all at five-foot-seven–but as a starting point guard he leaves much to be desired. The Bulls’ Paxson played one of his best games of the year against Webb and the Hawks. The Bulls jumped out to the early lead, and Paxson wouldn’t relent. Where the Bulls had built a big lead earlier in the month against the New York Knicks and then slowed the game down and went at the Knicks inside, looking to get them in foul trouble, here the Bulls just kept pressing, looking for the fast break. “We wanted to push the ball up the floor,” said Jackson after the game. “We had to go at them, and if you go at this ball club they retreat poorly.”
Paxson is flawed as a point guard; no doubt about that. He has his troubles against the Isiah Thomases and Magic Johnsons. Yet he is quietly having what is easily his best season. As a guard, shooting from the outside, he is nevertheless among the ten most accurate shooters in the league (a product of the open shots he gets when Jordan is double-covered). Against the Hawks, he hit 7 of 11 shots for 16 points, but he also handed out 11 assists, including a couple of lovely alley-oops on the fast break: the first to Pippen in the first half, the second to Jordan in the second half, which struck like a miracle. Pippen stole an inbounds pass beneath the Hawks’ basket and dished it out to Paxson on the run. The two came downcourt hurrying against a pair of retreating Hawks. Paxson passed high–much too high for Pippen–and the referee covering the play blocked our view of Jordan, who suddenly appeared above the basket as if he had dropped from the sky and slammed the ball home. Paxson’s shooting has improved, we assume, because he has practiced it more, but how has he improved his fast break? “Oh, I don’t know,” Paxson responds. “For me, it’s just a matter of you get guys like Michael and Scottie running out, and they’re good in the transition game. You know, if I can get the ball and get some speed generated, then it just comes down to making good decisions.”
Only the previous Saturday, in the home game in between the dates with the Pistons and Hawks, the Bulls’ starters had turned a commanding lead over to their bench against the lowly New Jersey Nets. The bench players had practically blown it–as Jackson left them out there longer than most of the fans had desired–but Jordan returned at the end to carry the team home. Now Jackson again turned the game over to his second string–King, fellow rookies Armstrong and Jeff Sanders, redshirt rookie Will Perdue, and Craig Hodges–in hopes they could keep the lead from leaking away before time ran out. This time they responded, sluggishly at first, then more confidently. King was the ringleader. He made a couple of his usual tip-ins, another garbage basket on an air ball, and then he showed some offensive moves, even against Malone, getting the ball down low and somehow finding a way to twist to the hoop for a short open shot. He finished with 15. Perdue came off the bench to his usual mixed crowd response–a sort of mass trepidation–and then made no fewer than four jams on the way to 10 points. One of the stuffs came on a rebound in which he went high above the basket to make the play, sending the fans into a rhapsody of “Will, Will, Will!” Craig Hodges, last year’s late-season starter at off guard when Jordan played point, also hit three of four long shots on the way to 14 points off the bench.
Jackson doesn’t refer to “chemistry” in a group of players; he prefers to talk about “glue.” The semantic difference is telling. Chemistry takes time, and–when it occurs–it usually transforms everything involved. “Glue” implies that everything is already present in the state it should be, and it’s simply a matter of getting everything to fit together properly, to find the right adhesive. After the game, Jackson described Hodges as “the glue that held them together,” “them” being the Bulls’ second team, and he described their success in holding the lead–compared to their failure against the Nets–like so: “A couple of timeouts and a couple of harsh words–to get them to play aggressively is the key. They have a tendency not to rebound well. They have a tendency to be a little bit loose with the ball. We told them to loosen up, move the basketball the way they know they can move the basketball, find the right guy offensively.
“They have to show a glue of their own, so that they as a unit, a five-man unit, can play, so that they can get some moments on the floor as a group.” For anyone who remembers how depressing it was, last spring, to see the Bulls playing well against the Detroit starters, only to suddenly find five fresh players on the court, kicking the Bulls’ ass, no more need be said. The Bulls’ bench is younger, rawer than the Pistons’ bench, but if it can play as a group the Bulls will have something not even the Pistons have anymore. Understand that it isn’t likely to happen–that the Bulls’ bench is really too young and too raw to play the way the Pistons played a year ago–but if King and Perdue and Armstrong can settle in to NBA basketball in the second half of the season, then the eventual and inevitable play-off rematch between the Bulls and the Pistons is likely to be far more satisfying from a Chicagoan’s standpoint.