Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson has been around the NBA long enough to be able to identify a crumbling dynasty. The telltale signs include an aging roster, a sudden inability to win on the road, nagging injuries to key players and a general malaise. "When it goes, it goes quickly," says Jackson, who experienced such a decline as a member of the New York Knicks, who won a championship in 1973 but couldn't make the playoffs three seasons later.
Are Jackson's Bulls on a similar downward spiral? After losses on consecutive nights last week, 101-80 in Cleveland to the Cavaliers and 90-83 at the United Center to the Washington Wizards, the defending champions were mired in mediocrity with a 4-4 record (0-3 on the road). After those two defeats, Chicago, which tied with the Utah Jazz for the NBA lead in scoring last season with an average of 103.1 points, was producing 87.5 points a game, last in the NBA, and had not broken 100 in any game. Perhaps more ominous, the five-time-champion Bulls' aura of invincibility had evaporated. Losing to the Cavaliers by 21 points? Could a squad that still included Michael Jordan have deteriorated into just another team?
The answer may have come, in part, last Friday and Saturday in Bulls' wins at the United Center over the Charlotte Hornets, 105-92, and the Cavaliers, 79-70. In those victories Jordan exhibited some of his trademark swagger, dunking and shooting and playing defense with an exclamation point. Crisis averted—for the moment, anyway.
Still, the Bulls' worries for the long term lingered. Although Jackson conceded that Chicago had reached "its lowest ebb in three years" last week, he reserved final judgment until seven-time All-Star Scottie Pippen, who underwent surgery on Oct. 6 to repair a soft tissue injury to his left foot, sees his first action of 1997-98, probably in mid-December. "I'm not going to beat these guys up over losing games we would have won with Scottie," Jackson said last Friday.
Pippen's absence, however, has shown how vital a cog he is in the Bulls' machine. While Pippen has long been recognized as one of the game's top players, his accolades customarily have come with an addendum: He couldn't have done it without Jordan. What hadn't occurred to many observers was that perhaps Jordan couldn't have done it without Pippen.
Pippen is central to the delicate balance of Chicago's triangle offense. He's the primary ball handler and an unselfish distributor who often passes up his own scoring opportunity to create a better one for a teammate. Moreover, as a perimeter threat, he makes opponents pay for double-teaming Jordan.
Take Pippen out of the lineup and Jordan becomes the Bulls' primary ball handler. This additional chore is already wearing him down. Chicago is trying to shift some of that responsibility elsewhere, but steady guard Steve Kerr landed on the injured list last week with a deep bruise in his left knee and another backcourt-man. Randy Brown, while an able ball handler, has trouble igniting the Bulls' offense alter bringing the ball past half-court.
Without Pippen as an outside threat, the opposition is boldly doubling and tripling Jordan, daring him to kick the ball out. To compound the problem, the other Bulls have been dumping the ball back to him as the shot clock winds down. That has often left Jordan with no choice but to force shots. Thus at week's end he was scoring 24.8 points a game, down nearly five points from his league-leading average of last season. Moreover, he was shooting just 39.7%, a decrease of almost nine percentage points from '96-97.
Pippen isn't the only missing ingredient. The center position was weakened when the Bulls lost free agent Brian Williams to the Detroit Pistons and reserve Bill Wennington was sidelined by tendinitis in his right elbow. A healthy Wennington keeps defenses honest by stepping out and canning the short jumper.
Chicago assistant coach Tex Winter, the architect of the triangle, says Pippen's absence isn't solely to blame for the Bulls' abysmal shooting, which at week's end was at 41.9%—24th in the league. "Scot-tie or no Scottie, the execution is clearly lacking," Winter declares.