This was the season the Chicago Bulls, the dominant team of the 1990s, appeared ready to implode.
There was Phil Jackson signing a one-year deal, a signal that his days as Chicago's coach were short. There was the opening-night loss to the Boston Celtics. There was the blowup by Scottie Pippen, who said he no longer wanted to play in Chicago. And there was what appeared to be early-season boredom by Dennis Rodman, who hinted he might retire after a three-rebound performance against Atlanta in the first week of the season.
But at the turn of the new year, the defending NBA champions were back in a familiar position -- atop the Central Division, second in the Eastern Conference only to the Miami Heat. Michael Jordan, after what was, for him, a slow start, is leading the league in scoring and Rodman is the NBA's top rebounder.
With Pippen's return expected within weeks, the Bulls are once again shaping up to be the team to beat in the NBA. Jordan, after scoring 47 points against Atlanta eight days ago, said the Bulls are the best team in the league -- a fact that few teams outside of Seattle and the Los Angeles Lakers can argue.
"I believe that because I got the uniform on," Jordan said. "Yes, I have confidence [we are]. Until somebody else says that they are the world-championship team, we are the team to beat."
Jordan has shown little slippage in his ability to score, but the play of Rodman has been the biggest reason for Chicago's success. Always a bad hairdo away from an on-the-court explosion, Rodman has seemed to put aside the freak show to focus on playing basketball. The result is a 15.3 rebound-per-game average, and he had 21 Friday night. He has many talking about a possible All-Star appearance.
"I don't think I'll be able to vote for him because I'm in the Western Conference and he's in the Eastern Conference," Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson said. "But if I did have a vote, I'd vote for him. Sure. I've voted for him in the past. I'm not interested in any of his past problems. I'm mainly interested in what he does on court. And he's the best rebounder in the business."
Added Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, after Rodman grabbed 29 rebounds against his team Saturday a week ago: "Sure, I'd vote for him. I don't think that what he's done in the past should be used against him. I believe he should be judged by what he does on the court."
As for Pippen, he has started to run on his surgically repaired left foot and is hoping to return by the end of the month. Pippen, who asked to be traded earlier this season, has toned down his remarks and appears to be ready to help the Bulls for the second half of the season.
"Right now, I'm just trying to get myself back healthy," Pippen said. "And if I have to come back and play here [for the Bulls], then that may be what it has to be."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of returning. But if Pippen returns healthy, the other teams in the Eastern Conference, like Miami and Atlanta, will be simply playing for second.
Last year during the regular season, the Detroit Pistons were one of the top teams in the league, winning 54 games. Expectations for this season were even higher after the signing of Brian Williams, fresh off his big role in helping the Bulls win last year's title.
After Friday's victory over bottom-dwelling Toronto, the Pistons are 15-17, and are tied for next-to-last place in the Central Division. Had the season ended on Friday, the Pistons would have missed the playoffs.
Grant Hill is apparently sensing the team's desperate situation. A star who has never really assumed a leadership role in Detroit, Hill said last week that he will look to be a bit more selfish as he attempts to lead the Pistons to playoff contention.
"The way we're playing now is just not satisfactory," Hill said. "It just shouldn't be like this and maybe I have to start being more aggressive. Maybe I need to stop flirting with triple doubles, stop looking to pass and start looking to score."
That night, Hill, averaging 19.8 points going into the game, scored 29 in a win over the Raptors.
"My mentality used to be to take six or seven minutes early and get everybody else involved. But I don't think I can take that approach this year," Hill said. "With this team, I can't be a play-maker," he continued. "I have to be a scorer. The people who I passed to last year are not the same. I know it's too late to be figuring this out, but I have to get aggressive and look to score."
And that aggressiveness is apparently going to extend beyond scoring. When Williams wasn't playing hard in the Toronto game, Hill looked to Doug Collins and uncharacteristically demanded that Williams be yanked from the game.
"Hey, if I'm not doing the job, if Joe [Dumars] isn't, whoever, we have to get somebody in there who will," Hill said. "We're 14-17. Evidently some things aren't working."