Bulls among best ever, but there are flaws

June 01, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

With 72 regular-season wins and now 11 more in 12 postseason games, the Chicago Bulls have removed all suspense from the NBA season.

The championship trophy has their name on it this year. Just ask the Orlando Magic.

L The only lingering question is when it all becomes official.

So, let's move up to a larger question: Are the Bulls the greatest team in NBA history?

With all due respect, no.

They're close to the best, but not quite.

Listen, it's hardly a condemnation. The Bulls belong in the all-time top five, along with Bill Russell's '64-65 Celtics, Magic Johnson's '86-87 Lakers, Larry Bird's '85-86 Celtics and the '71-72 Lakers, whose regular-season wins record the Bulls broke this year.

That's not bad company. And there is much to recommend the Bulls in comparison with any of those teams.

But also just a little too much rebuttal evidence.

Of course, the argument is hypothetical so we can't settle it. And the pro game is different now -- more pressure defense and quickness, less power and depth -- so, in a way, it's comparing apples and oranges to judge teams from different eras.

But let's do it anyway. It beats waiting around for the Sonics and Jazz to finish determining the Finals loser.

Besides, the Bulls do have much in common with the other great teams.

For starters, they have the mandatory otherworldly superstar. The others had Russell, Magic and Bird, or, in the case of the 1971-72 Lakers, four Hall of Famers. The Bulls have Michael Jordan.

He's the best ever.

I'm a Magic Johnson guy from way back, but I'm giving up the fight. Jordan is a more potent force than Magic or Bird were, and, in his own way, every bit as dominating as Russell.

No, he isn't the explosive, electrifying player he was before he retired. He racks up his points more conventionally now, with jumpers, drives and foul shots. But he scores just as much as before, and the force of his will carries the Bulls in the clutch.

Motivation is what Jordan is about; if he cares about beating you, he will. And he will never be more motivated than this year, as intent as he is on proving wrong everyone (blush) who said he couldn't come back from retirement and win a title.

Jordan is the X factor in comparison with any other team, the element no team can match.

The Bulls also have the mandatory otherworldly superstar sidekick, Scottie Pippen, just as Russell had Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, and Bird had Kevin McHale.

And in Dennis Rodman, the Bulls have a player unlike any in league history. He may dress in drag occasionally, but his immense defense and rebounding have made the Bulls what they are. Rodman is a Hall of Famer, feather boa and all.

The Bulls also play an unprecedented caliber of floor-wide defense. They don't have the intimidating stopper at center, but Jordan, Pippen and Rodman are agile, active and the best defenders at their positions.

The Bulls sometimes resemble Georgetown, frenetically pressing full court and denying the ball. It's hard to keep that up in the NBA. The other great teams didn't. The Bulls do. In game after game, they win with defense in the fourth quarter.

Throw in Toni Kukoc, a 6-foot-11 forward with point guard skills, and the Bulls bring a truly unique set of assets to the court.

Why aren't they the greatest team in history?

Too many weaknesses.

Just a few too many holes -- particularly in the middle -- to go down as the greatest ever.

Oh, they have gotten by easily in today's watered-down NBA with a platoon of Luc Longley and Bill Wennington, but how would they fare against Abdul-Jabbar? Wouldn't Russell devastate them? What about the searing frontcourt of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish?

As resourceful and cohesive as the Bulls are, they surely would have struggled against teams so formidable inside. And don't talk to me about the way they handled Shaquille O'Neal, whose next patented move to the basket will be his first.

The Bulls also don't have the depth to match the other great teams. They have just two players with double-figure scoring averages in the playoffs this year. The '86-87 Lakers had seven during the season. The '64-65 Celtics and '71-72 Lakers each had six.

It's a team game; the Bulls aren't a classic, selfless team, but, let's face it, they're a little top-heavy with Jordan and Pippen.

They also haven't had the ultimate test of any legendary team: an opponent close to their caliber.

Russell's Celtics had Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers and Lakers, mountainous challenges. Bird and Magic had each other. The '71-72 Lakers beat the teams that preceded them and succeeded them as champions.

No, you can't penalize the Bulls for the inability of the rest of the league to present a challenge. But such challenges are how a great team proves itself, and the Bulls are getting away without one.

Of course, we could argue all day about the Bulls against the '71-72 Lakers, who won 33 games in a row at one point; or the Bulls against Bird, McHale, Parish and Dennis Johnson; or the Bulls against Magic, Kareem and Worthy; or the Bulls against the best of Russell's Celtics teams.

The Bulls belong in such company, even if their won-loss record is expansion-inflated. They're the real deal, a rare force, a concert of special talents. Pro basketball teams don't get much better.

Just a tiny, tiny bit better.

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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