"There's a reason there's so much coach control today," says Phil Jackson. "When you have young, inexperienced teams, you have situations in which coaches are afraid to let the players play. There are more talented, skilled players than ever. But that doesn't necessarily add up to better teams."
That is why the Bulls, overall, are not just good for the NBA—they're essential, if only to serve as a model. All over the league young, unprepared players are being handed the ball and, with it, the hopes of a franchise. Here it is, son. Now go sell us some tickets! With the spectacular but undisciplined Allen Iverson serving as bandleader this season, what chance did the 76ers have of becoming anything other than a sometimes exciting but deeply flawed sideshow? Do you think Iverson, christened franchise savior, wants to hear about a motion offense that restricts his shots? Do you think his coach, Johnny Davis, is confident enough in his job to install a system that takes time to work?
This situation is not unique to Philadelphia. Now that a player can become a free agent after only three years in the league, player movement is at an alltime high. (The Bulls, who held on to 11 of the 12 players from last season's opening-day roster, are an obvious exception.) Too many franchises are paying too much money to young players who have neither the maturity nor the supporting cast to succeed. But coaches can't take the time to sit and school the youngsters because ownership is impatient. Other franchises are going after quick-fix free agents and breaking up whatever chance a coach has of building cohesion. And too many coaches are trying desperately to keep control by slowing down play and, consequently, turning off the sport's electricity. After Seattle slogged by the Cavaliers 72-66 in Cleveland on Feb. 25, Sonics guard Hersey Hawkins said, "A couple times I looked in the stands and was amazed people were still there."
They are for now, Hersey. But will they be when the Bulls aren't around to build and sustain the buzz? Will the game's popularity go into serious decline in the three or four years it might take fans to, as Jordan says, "decrease expectations"?
Commissioner David Stern is sure it won't. "People said we were in trouble when Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird left the game," says Stern. "Great stars leave, great stars replace them."
Even a skeptic such as Barkley, who has criticized some of the league's young players, says the future is bright. He singles out the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers and the Heat as franchises with potential and pizzazz. In fact, says Ainge, "it'll be better when the Bulls break up. More teams will feel they have a chance to win it all."
Maybe, but those on-the-rise teams should still study Chicago. No, those clubs won't have Jordan, a once-in-a-millennium player. But they should note that the Bulls built slowly, role player by role player. They should note that the Bulls put their coach clearly in charge. They should note that the Bulls did not drain the fun out of the game but kept it—what was Casey's word?—fluid, employing a style that is at once disciplined and wide open. And the other teams should note that Rodman's occasional transgressions notwithstanding, the Bulls played with class and sportsmanship.
But even if there is another model franchise by the turn of the century, it will not be enough. There had better be two or three. No single team could lead the NBA caravan as spectacularly as the Bulls and Jordan have. "I think some players are just happy to be on the same court with Mike, the fans to be in the same arena," says Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo. "I cannot imagine that it could be like that with anybody else."