All you really need to know about the NBA season was captured in one brief and seemingly inconsequential sequence at USAir Arena in Landover, Md., on Jan. 15. Michael Jordan held the ball in his right hand, calmly surveying the court as Washington Bullets guard Brent Price gamely tried to harass him. Price was crouched low, working furiously on defense, but every time he slapped at the ball, Jordan simply held it farther away from him like a big kid teasing his little brother, a Globetrotter toying with a General. Jordan glanced down quickly at Price, and a slight smile crossed his face, as if he was amused by his opponent's efforts. Then he casually flicked a pass to a teammate.
Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates—most notably, forwards Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman—have treated the rest of the NBA in much the same way, rampaging through the league as if the opposition was nothing more than a minor annoyance. Chicago's 34-3 record at week's end was impressive enough, but even more remarkable is the way the Bulls have been able to dismiss teams at will, apparently allowing foes to stay close until they decide to pull away. And they do pull away. After Sunday's 111-96 win over the Detroit Pistons, Chicago's average margin of victory was a stunning 11.8 points, which, if the Bulls can maintain it through the rest of the regular season, would be the third best in league history, behind the margins of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (12.3) and the '70-71 Milwaukee Bucks (12.2). Of Chicago's 34 wins, 24 were by nine points or more. And at their current pace the Bulls would finish 75-7, six wins better than the '71-72 Lakers, who have the best mark to date. "So far they've been running roughshod over the league," says Miami Heat coach Pat Riley. "It's a long season, but they certainly look like they're on a path to greatness."
Of course, there will have to be a championship at the end of that path for Chicago to be counted among the greatest NBA teams ever. But even a title may not be enough to convince some observers that these Bulls are anything more than a very good team with even better timing. As the possibility of a 70-win season for Chicago grows more plausible, there is the feeling around the league that such an achievement would say almost as much about the expansion-weakened state of the NBA as it would about the Bulls' talent. "I can tell you right now that they're not as good as the Boston Celtics teams of the '80s or the Lakers of the '80s, and they're not as good as the Chicago team that won three in a row," says Toronto Raptors coach Brendan Malone, referring to the Bulls' title teams of 1990-91 through '92-93.
Perhaps not, but so far Chicago has been far too good for the rest of the league. Coach Phil Jackson has sent his counterparts around the NBA back to the drawing board to devise ways of dealing with a team that may well be redefining the game. Chicago has little use for the traditional concept of positions, because the 6'6" Jordan, the 6'7" Pippen and the 6'11" swingman Toni Kukoc are all skilled enough to play the point and big enough to post up defenders. "Just a bunch of small, versatile guys playing different positions," Jordan says, describing his team. "That's the way the game is going. The dominant center is starting to be eliminated. You haven't had a dominant center win a championship in eight years, and don't talk about [the Houston Rockets' Hakeem] Olajuwon. He's a small forward playing center."
The Bulls cause matchup nightmares. Do you double-team Jordan or Pippen? Whichever one you choose, the other will kill you, either by scoring himself or penetrating and creating shots for spot-up shooters like guard Steve Kerr. Do you leave Rodman in order to double-team one of the scorers because Rodman doesn't like to shoot? If you do, Rodman will snatch offensive rebounds like apples off a tree. Chicago has had an answer for virtually every defensive strategy opponents have tried. Plus, says Portland Trail Blazers general manager Bob Whitsitt, "they really play the team concept. They make the extra pass. They understand where they want to be on the court and what kind of spacing they want."
As explosive as the Bulls are offensively, however, their strength is their defense. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman are three of the best individual defenders in the game, Pippen, in particular, may have no peer. Says Orlando Magic assistant coach Richie Adubato, "Wherever you run a pick-and-roll, he's in the area. He double-teams the ball. He blocks shots, makes steals." Though the Bulls' team defensive statistics are not gaudy—at week's end they ranked seventh in the league in forcing turnovers and tied for tenth in opponent field goal percentage—the rankings are skewed by the extended garbage time in many of their routs.
Still, there are those who question whether the Bulls are a team for the ages, and the skeptics would not get much of an argument from Jordan, at least not now. "We haven't won anything yet, even though this is the best we've been at this stage of the season," he says. "To compare us to our three championship teams is unfair. Back then we played as more of a unit. Here we've been able to scrap and find ways to win, but the continuity and chemistry aren't quite the same. But that's not to say we can't win a championship the way we're playing."
The Bulls don't need to convince anyone of that. At times their games are more performance than competition, with Jordan and Pippen taking turns doing spectacular solos. "No one is even challenging them," says Adubato. "Pippen and Jordan are like they're in a playground enjoying themselves." Pippen, who through Sunday was averaging 21.6 points (16th in the league), 6.5 assists (16th) and 6.7 rebounds, is having perhaps the best season of his career, which Jordan, who seems to have appointed himself Pippen's MVP campaign manager, has repeatedly pointed out. Jordan has gone so far as to call the Bulls Pippen's team. That may be a stretch, but Pippen has proved himself to be more than a mere member of Jordan's supporting cast. "I think Pippen could be an MVP candidate, but as long as Michael's there, because of his personality and confidence and competitiveness, there's nobody better," says Whitsitt. "I'd still defer to Michael, but it's 1 and 1A. It used to be 1 and 2."
The only bumps during the Bulls' flight to the top have been losses, all on the road, to Orlando, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Indiana Pacers, but Chicago later defeated each of those teams in a rematch at home, thumping the Pacers (120-93) and the Sonics (113-87) especially badly. It is this simple: If Chicago continues at anything close to its present level, no other contenders need apply for the NBA title, not even the two-time defending champion Rockets or the Magic, last season's other finalist. At the moment the Bulls are competing against history more than against their contemporaries. Only those 1971—72 Lakers, who started 39-3, and the '66-67 Philadelphia 76ers (37-3) had more victories before losing their fourth game (box, page 34).
Whether or not it is the best team ever, Chicago is certainly the team of the moment, at least among fans. No American sports franchise can match the Bulls' global popularity, thanks to the NBA's exhaustive international marketing effort and even more to Jordan's far-reaching appeal. The league generated $3 billion in merchandising sales last year, and although the NBA does not furnish statistics on individual teams, there have been informed estimates that the Bulls account for as much as 40% of that total.