The Bulls’ season–already heralded as potentially their first championship campaign–began, as in a dream, with a haze hanging over the court, the product of an indoor opening-night fireworks display during the introductions. The Bulls did little to make the smoke disperse. They played in a trance, showing almost no movement on offense and failing to get back on defense. They hit their spots on cue, but in the manner of actors in a lifeless play where the characters show no interaction. The Philadelphia 76ers went out to a 20-point lead in the third quarter and survived a mild rally by the Bulls to win 124-116. By that time, the klieg lights outside the Chicago Stadium had long been extinguished, and most of the fans had gone home.
The drama of the Bulls’ season–such as it is, until the playoffs begin next April–was amply played out over the first nine days of the schedule. In a grueling series of games that called for the team to play six times–three sets of back-to-back home-road dates–before the circus hit town this week for its annual fall run, the Bulls battled overconfidence and their own newfound but unfamiliar powers to drop the first three and then win the next three. They were almost as impressive in winning as they were dreadful in losing, and what emerged was the picture of a team of awesome potential that must nevertheless establish a new system of doing things. The Bulls are not yet champions of the National Basketball Association, but if it’s frighteningly unclear how good they are it’s frightening–at least in part–because they could be truly great.
The Bulls have added three players this season; none starts, but each is an improvement on his predecessor, and the stronger bench is what’s expected to put the Bulls over the top after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA semifinals the last two years. Scott Williams is the lone rookie, a center out of North Carolina who made the team as a free agent. For a young player, Williams has an unusual tendency to lumber; running up and down the court, his shoulders and arms never seem to move at the same rhythm as his legs. Yet he’s clearly an improvement on Jeff Sanders, simply because he’s been there from the opening of training camp, whereas Sanders suffered from an injury last season, joined the team late, and never really earned any playing time. The Bulls have also brought in free agent forward Cliff Levingston, a typical acquisition of vice president Jerry Krause in that he’s cheerful, enthusiastic, and energetic. He shares all those qualities with the departed Ed Nealy, but on the court he’s much more versatile than Nealy ever was. Nealy could be stationed at big forward or small forward, but he was always going to play like Ed Nealy, big and slow but ever ready, which is why fans loved him as the eternal underdog, the player from the weekend pickup game who made good. Levingston too can play big or small forward, but his style changes according to what’s expected: he can pop the mid-range jumper or muscle for an offensive rebound. He’s also welcomed the move to Chicago from Atlanta, where he never got enough playing time behind Dominique Wilkins. The last but most notable of the new Bulls is Dennis Hopson, a most unlikely acquisition. Krause has a reputation for preferring stable players–from a temperamental point of view–and Hopson does not fit that description. He has a tendency to look sullen, and to play the way he looks. An amazing scorer at Ohio State, he has never shown the same ability in the pros. His style is all angles, elbows akimbo, head held low, jutting jaw, as he moves up the court, and with a fondness for making 90-degree cuts to the hoop on the dribble. In the past, one got the impression that if Krause were ever going to violate his preference for generally good guys, it would be to bring in a bruising enforcer of a power forward, a fellow one could count on to elbow aside the opposition under the boards because he displayed the same ruthless table manners at family dinners. Instead, Krause brings in another scoring machine, Hopson, but a scoring machine who has never shot 44 percent from the floor in three NBA seasons. Krause believes the change in scenery and winning itself will arouse Hopson, allowing the Bulls to give frequent rest to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Hopson is, in a way, the emblem of the new season, because if the Bulls can find a way to fit him into their play they are going to be unstoppable, but if they can’t and continue to suffer through the inconsistency of their opening week, he is likely to come in for more than his share of the blame.
The opening loss to the Sixers was so embarrassing it could be dismissed as an aberration. When Coach Phil Jackson called it “a good opening night for us,” adding, “That’s the kind of game we wanted to have,” it took a moment to realize he wasn’t joking. The following night the Bulls played better, but they ran into a buzz saw toward the end, when Washington’s Bernard King hit everything he threw near the hoop in the fourth quarter, finishing with 44 points in a 103-102 victory for the Bullets.
The Bulls’ next game, at home against the Boston Celtics, was both another loss and the night they turned it around. It was after this game that they could identify their strengths and weaknesses and decide what needed to be done. “Chemistry, continuity is not there,” Jordan said afterward, but at least it was within reach; the Bulls possessed it for most of the first three quarters. In fact this was the game when it became clear that the Bulls’ bad start was not merely the players feeling themselves out but Jackson feeling out the players, deciding what sets worked best together in what situations. He had fumbled with his groupings and substitutions in the first two games, in part because of foul trouble among the starters, in part because he was searching for the same chemistry the players sought. In the Boston game, however, he called the shots and kept the Celtics on the defensive. Boston started Ed Pinckney at power forward, but its strongest front line consists of Robert Parish at center with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale at forwards. When Joe Kleine replaced Parish–the oldest player in the league at 37–in the first quarter, Pippen went wild penetrating to the hoop and center Bill Cartwright got into the offense–both for the first time this season–sending the Bulls out to an 11-point lead. The Celts struggled back against the Bulls’ second team, but along the way Stacey King was forcing Pinckney into foul trouble; he picked up his fifth just after halftime. The Bulls retained their 11-point lead after three quarters, and Jackson prevented the Celts from deploying their best front line by keeping Pippen in the game. Bird was shooting well on offense but he simply couldn’t stay with Pippen on defense, and he spent most of the final quarter on the bench.
In spite of this savvy coaching, the Bulls squandered the lead with sloppy play at both ends of the court. “We just didn’t stay in touch with each other offensively,” Jackson said. Jordan explained the mess at the other basket by saying, “Our defense hasn’t been consistent. We’ve played good stretches and we’ve played bad stretches. Unfortunately, the bad stretches have come down to the end of the third, the fourth quarters.” For the first time in the three games, Jackson stuck with his starters in the final minutes, but they couldn’t regain the lead, and when Boston’s Brian Shaw converted an air ball into a basket at the buzzer, the Bulls lost 110-108.
“One of the things teams always have to learn in this league is how to win the close ones,” Jackson said. “When you’re playing the numbers we’re playing sometimes it takes guys a while to get warmed up.” All 12 Bulls played against Philadelphia; and against Boston, with Levingston out with a hand injury, the only healthy player to sit through the game was the rookie Williams. Yet patterns were forming. Craig Hodges is the team’s designated three-point shooter, but Jackson discovered he couldn’t play Hodges and Hopson at the same time because the defensive liabilities were too great. Point guard John Paxson was still recovering from an ankle injury and needed to be picked up by his understudy, B.J. Armstrong. Both King and Will Perdue showed a tendency toward tentative play when sent in with the starters; they proved to be more aggressive when paired together.
And, of course, there was the issue of overconfidence. “The thing about it is,” Jackson said after the game with the Sixers, “we’ve been spending the last week in Chicago with people telling us we’re going to win the NBA championship.” When asked if that had affected the players, Jackson responded, “Hard not to. I mean, aren’t we human? Someone pats you on the back all the time, you think you can just go out there. You’ve got to go out there and go to work, and we know it.”
That didn’t sink in, however, until the loss to Boston. After that, the Bulls went to Minnesota and beat the Timberwolves, then destroyed the Celtics by 20 points at Boston Garden, with the Bulls’ deep bench–the supposed difference between this year and last–doing much of the damage, Armstrong scoring 16, King 14, Hopson 13, and Levingston 12 with 12 rebounds.
Even with Williams learning on the bench and Hodges saved for special occasions, i.e. when the team needs a three-point hoop, the Bulls still have two complete units of five. Jackson played the second team together for much of the game in Boston, and again last Saturday at home when they whipped the Charlotte Hornets by 19. “That second unit,” he said, “I’m trying to give them some kind of identity. I think they’re starting to feel they know who we are and what our system is. That’s the important thing, that they start feeling comfortable on the floor and produce for us.” The haze was lifting, and the players’ roles were becoming more clear. Jackson was able to say, “I think there are still a lot of rough edges in our play,” and speak with a sort of confidence.