Superlative as they have been, Jordan's and Pippen's performances were expected. It was Rodman, acquired from San Antonio in a trade in October, who had Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause crossing their fingers. So far Rodman has done exactly what they hoped: He has shored up the Bulls' rebounding (14.4 per game) while keeping his eccentricities largely under control. It isn't that Rodman has suddenly started paying attention to his alarm clock; he has been late more than once this season. But the Bulls have handled him skillfully, quietly fining him for his violations without public comment. "In San Antonio everything was a big deal," Rodman says. "Here they just fine you $5 or whatever and move on."
Rodman has been ejected from only one game, although the sight of him tearing off his shirt and flinging it into the crowd after he was thrown out against Philadelphia last week was frighteningly reminiscent of his antics with San Antonio. But in his two seasons with the Spurs, Rodman was mostly well behaved—at least by his standards—during the regular season before acting up in the playoffs. Krause and Jackson won't uncross those fingers until the final buzzer of the final game.
As long as Rodman remains relatively controlled, it will be the rest of the Bulls who make some observers reluctant to place Chicago among the league's alltime great teams. Kukoc (11.1 points) is the only Chicago player other than Pippen and Jordan with a scoring average in double figures, and though he has been an effective sixth man and is a fine passer, he hasn't developed into the star Krause envisioned when he brought him to Chicago three years ago. Instead, he has become the Bull most likely to take a tongue-lashing during the game. His hangdog expression and stated desire for more minutes (he was averaging 22.9 through Sunday) and a place in the starting lineup have made him the closest thing the Bulls have to a dissatisfied player.
With Rodman beside them under the boards, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington have combined to perform adequately at center, and Kerr has come off the bench and found a niche as the spot-up shooter so essential to a team with players who draw as many double teams as Jordan and Pippen do. But 32-year-old guard Ron Harper (7.2 points), who starts alongside Jordan, is no longer the dynamic slasher he once was. "I think the Bulls are basically a three-man team," Frazier says. "You look at the box scores and you see Pippen with 29 points, Jordan with 25 points and five guys with three points each. I think it's a tribute to Jordan that he's been able to carry the team like this."
But the load will only get heavier as the season progresses, and Chicago isn't even halfway home. The greatest obstacle to a 70-win mark may be the sheer length of the season. There are three months left for Rodman, always a time bomb, to explode. Then there is the age factor: The Bulls were the oldest team in the league based on the average age (29.9) of their opening-day roster. Thus fatigue is always a concern, especially for Rodman, who will be 35 in May; Jordan, 33 in February; and the 30-year-old Pippen. Fortunately for Jackson, Chicago's frequent blowouts have enabled him to sit his stars for long stretches.
And there's the flaw that won't go away: the Bulls' mediocrity at center, which could be exposed in the playoffs against a dominant big man, particularly Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal. "With Shaq, the Magic have somebody who can really hurt the Bulls inside," says Portland guard Rod Strickland. "Orlando has a lot of versatility"—including All-Star guard Anfernee Hardaway and long-distance shooting ace Dennis Scott—"but because of Michael and Scottie, I'd probably go with the Bulls in the playoffs. Still, the Magic is probably the team that can beat them."
Perhaps. That path to greatness Riley talked about is a long one, and the Bulls might just have enough supplies to make it to the finish. But instead of wondering whether or not they'll get there, maybe the thing to do is just sit back and enjoy the trip.