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Even players who have been around this offense for a while can get thrown by the terminology. It took five minutes for Paxson to reconstruct something that Jackson had said at a recent practice. "It went something like this," recalls Paxson. "Phil said he wanted 'reverse action off the blind pig [a defender the Bulls try to catch in a backdoor cut], to triangle on the weak side, with a two-pass to the top of the key, to a pass down the gut.' Look, maybe you should just go buy Tex's book."
In embracing Winter's offense—something that Jackson's predecessor, Doug Collins, would not do—Jackson is walking a tightrope. And he certainly knows it.
"No, Michael doesn't need the offense," said Jackson last week. "It limits him, no doubt about it. But we've let Michael clear out and try to win it by himself, and we've come up short. So let's see if we can get other people involved, let the offense help them get their shots."
Jackson became further convinced of the merits of Winter's offense this summer after he researched the fate of teams for which NBA scoring champions have played. He discovered that only once since the 24-second clock was instituted in 1954 had a scoring leader been on an NBA championship team—in 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the title. What bothered Jackson was Jordan's unusual dominance of the Bulls' point total: While winning the league's scoring title in each of the last four seasons, Jordan had produced nearly one third of Chicago's points.
"It's not like we're saying that Michael absolutely cannot win the scoring title," says Jackson. "We're trying to reduce his points a little and bring our team total up, get better balance." That they have done. Through last weekend, Jordan had scored only 26% of the Bulls' points, while the team had averaged 112.7 points, up from last year's 109.5.
This is Jordan's dilemma: He is smart enough to know that he can't win a championship without a strong supporting cast—Lord knows, Detroit has drilled that into his head—but every bit of his considerable instinct, talent and ego tells him to trust only himself.
"I fight the offense when we lose close games and I haven't given the output I could've given because of the system," said Jordan last Friday. "On the nights we win, obviously, it's fine. I only want to win. I think the offense can work. But one of the problems is that the offense takes time to perfect, and we still make a lot of mistakes. And it's worse for the second team, which doesn't get as much time to run it. Theoretically, this offense should never be stopped if you have the right guys in the right places. But that doesn't always happen."
Jordan has hit on the two weaknesses of the system. First, it's not the starters who are hog-tied by the sideline triangle; when things go wrong, many times Jordan will simply improvise, as he did when he scored 16 first-period points on all manner of creative shot-making against Portland. And, in fact, the offense appears to have helped another starter, Cartwright, the heavy-legged workhorse who is shooting .509 from the field, his best percentage since 1987-88. But the Bulls' backups—B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and Levingston—are frequently out of sync when they're on the floor together. During such moments, a pained look of concentration appears on Armstrong's face, while Levingston often resembles a kid trying to find his way out of an amusement-park maze. And whatever the Bulls thought Hopson (5.8 points per game, .427 percentage from the floor) would add to the team when they gave up three draft picks to get him from the New Jersey Nets last summer, he has not provided it. Second, detractors of the offense say that decisions often must be made by players who aren't good decision makers. On the Bulls, that means Pippen, one of those classic open-court players who are hindered by too much structure.
Still, the Bulls are playing through their ambivalence about the offense, and there's no reason that they should not continue to do so. For one thing, Jackson is not really keeping them from the fast break: If Jordan or Pip-pen gets out alone, as they frequently do, they're free to go all the way. For another, the Bulls' tendency has been to jump on teams immediately, get a lead and let the offense take some time off the clock. To that end, Jordan has been coming out before games to warm up, something he hadn't done since his rookie season. His first-quarter point totals in the Bulls' last six games have been 15, 20, 13, 8, 15 and 16, an average of 14.5. Doesn't sound like someone ready to surrender his scoring title, does it?
Pippen, despite being an erratic midrange jump shooter, fills up a box score almost as well as Jordan; through last weekend, he was out-rebounding Jordan (7.4 to 5.8), out-assisting him (6.7-6.2), out-shot-blocking him (1.6-0.74) and almost matching him on steals (2.8-2.4) while averaging 15.5 points. Grant, the pride and joy of Bulls strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil, has given himself a new upper body that, if nothing else, distinguishes him from his identical twin, Harvey, the Washington Bullets' power forward. "I post Harvey up with ease now," says Horace. "I love it. I'll bet he'll be getting after the weights soon."