Since repeating is no longer a big deal (both the Lakers and the Pistons did it in the four years before the Bulls won the championship last season), there is no reason, barring serious injury, that Chicago cannot do it. Yes, the Bulls were extraordinarily fortunate last season when starters Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and John Paxson missed only seven games between them. But with the maturation of the second unit during postseason play, coach Phil Jackson should be able to buy more rest for all of the starters. And, the 34-year-old Cartwright excluded, all of the starters are young enough to be fresh for the playoffs. Portland—and Portland alone—has the talent to beat the Bulls. But the Blazers are still a year away from finding out exactly how to do it.
Herewith a look at all the teams in the league, from strongest to weakest.
The Playoff Teams
The Bulls' assistant coach Johnny Bach pondered the difficulty of successfully defending the championship. "Well, it's like what Liz Taylor's seventh husband said: 'I know what has to be done. I just don't know whether I can make it interesting.' " What has to be done is not much. The Chicago defense—intelligent at the same time that it is predatory—is state-of-the-art, and the offense is versatile, able to both milk the clock with assistant Tex Winter's triangle formation and score in bunches whenever Jordan and Pippen find the open spaces. MVP Jordan promises individual improvement in turnovers (202 last season) and free throw percentage (.851). Only the possibility of clashing and clanging egos can wreck this team, and, indeed, Jackson knows that his toughest coaching task is in front of him, not behind him.
Sixty-three! That's a number that hits the Blazers with all the force of a Cartwright elbow. How did Portland win 63 games in a strong Western Conference in 1990-91 and still end the season on such a sour note? "Everybody keeps talking about how we blew it in the playoffs," says backup guard Danny Ainge, "and all we keep thinking is, Hey, we won 63 games, so something was awful right here." And it will be right again. From one through 12, the Blazers are again the most talented team in the league. Having learned some hard lessons in its conference playoff loss last spring to the Lakers—the value of concentration and the importance of executing a half-court offense, to name two—Portland should be able to make it past L.A. The Blazers won't win 63 again, but they will be a stronger playoff team. Not strong enough, however, to beat the Bulls.
The major reason Los Angeles did not run as much last season was not that rookie coach Mike Dunleavy preferred a careful, half-court offense. It was that quarterback Magic Johnson was simply out of gas from playing 37 minutes a game. With added reserve help from guards Sedale Threatt and Tony Smith, the 32-year-old Magic's tank should be full, and the Lakers will be more like the uptempo Lakers of old. Still, L.A. desperately wants to get younger. That's why the Lakers were pursuing Washington's overweight forward, John Williams. If the team doesn't get some more help, it won't have quite enough in the reserve tank to get by the Blazers.
Yes, Phoenix blew it with forward Xavier McDaniel, for whom the Suns traded early last season in the hope that he would be the final ingredient in a championship mix, and ended up trading him to the Knicks for next to nothing. But it was not a fatal mistake. Phoenix needs to determine whether or not the high-scoring Kevin Johnson-Tom Chambers duo is good enough to produce a title. It won't happen this year.
Point guard Rod Strickland just doesn't get it, does he? With David Robinson in the pivot, he has a real chance of winning a title and establishing himself as an NBA presence. Instead, as of Sunday he was holding up the Spurs in a pointless salary dispute that could only be destructive. Sign on the dotted line, Rod, and head for HemisFair Arena immediately, before you lose all of your credibility.
Like Larry Brown at San Antonio, Utah coach Jerry Sloan is talking about using a Doug Moe-style passing game, though how he proposes to play it with immobile center Mark Eaton bolted in place is not completely clear. But the Jazz can't help but be formidable with Olympians Karl Malone and Stockton, and they're looking for an All-Star season from guard Jeff Malone and help off the bench from rookie David Benoit, a 6'8" small forward who played in Spain last year.
Anyone who says he has a fix on this team is having delusions. Everyone knows how much coach Chuck Daly will miss the contributions of Mr. Instant Offense, guard Vinnie Johnson (who was an unsigned free agent as of Sunday), but don't underestimate the loss of free-agent forward James Edwards (he was traded to the Clippers), whose methodical low-post game jump-started the Detroit offense almost every night. Still, the Pistons' demon defense will keep them in most games, and the NBA world might finally get to appreciate the versatile talents of former Bullet Darrell Walker, who joins Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in another formidable three-guard rotation.