Great team? Only 3 in row will prove that

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- Great player? Definitely. Great team? Not so sure.

In another era, winning back-to-back NBA titles would be enough to assure a place among the great champions of all time. But in the 1990s, winning consecutive championships is merely a prerequisite to get you on the list of teams to be considered.


By disposing of the Portland Trail Blazers in six games in the just-completed NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls became the third straight team to win consecutive titles, following the lead of the Lakers (1987 and '88) and Detroit Pistons ('89 and '90).

"Some people might have thought [last year] was a fluke, so to come back and do it again stops that fluke attitude," Michael Jordan said Sunday after Chicago clinched the title with a 97-93 comeback victory.


No, nobody will ever consider the Jordan-led Bulls a fluke team. But are they a great team? Should they be mentioned in the same breath as the Boston Celtics of the '60s, the '67 Philadelphia 76ers, the '72 Lakers, the '77 Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers of the '80s or even the Pistons of three years ago?

The Bulls' 67-15 regular-season record this year confirmed their status as overwhelming favorites before the playoffs began, and as the 1988 Lakers proved when they were extended to a seventh game in each of their last three series, it's considerably more difficult to repeat with everyone in the league gunning for you. So the fact that the Bulls were extended to seven by the New York Knicks and six each by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Trail Blazers does not necessarily dampen their achievement.

But something about this Chicago team just doesn't add up. It's just a gut feeling, wholly subjective and perhaps unsupported by reason. Yet it is a feeling that may not go away until the Bulls break with tradition and win a third straight title -- a goal that is entirely reachable considering their average age is 27, and Jordan will only be 29 next season.

Clearly, Jordan is among the best ever. He can control a game from start to finish, and no one has ever been a better player in the clutch. Power forward Horace Grant, Mr. Unsung Hero, is as fine a complementary player as you would ever want.

Then there is Scottie Pippen. The 6-foot-7 small forward is a legitimate All-Star and had a terrific championship series for the second straight year. Jordan said Pippen's big-time performance in Game 6 should erase, once and for all, the criticism often lobbed his way that he disappears in critical situations. Yet what bothers me is the truism that if Pippen has a bad game the Bulls usually are in trouble. Something just doesn't add up, and I'm getting a migraine trying to figure out.

The real question marks, though, come after Chicago's Big Three. That four-headed monster of Bill Cartwright, Scott Williams, Stacey King and Will Perdue is the darnedest center combo in recent memory. How you win back-to-back titles without knowing who among them will be there down the stretch is mind-boggling.

In the backcourt, slow-footed sharpshooter John Paxson and undersized B.J. Armstrong seem too limited to form the perfect lead guard, or are they the shooting guard? Role players Bobby Hansen, Cliff Levingston and Craig Hodges are what they are: role players who occasionally hold you over until the regulars return.

In sum, where's the greatness? OK, Jordan is the greatness.


Or is it the Bulls just don't have any real competition. The Lakers of 1991 may have overachieved just to reach the final, and who knows what might have happened if James Worthy wasn't playing on a bad ankle. This year the Trail Blazers and Cavaliers allegedly were the best of the rest, yet certainly not in the same league as the Bulls.

It wasn't so long ago that great teams had to beat other great teams to lay claim to special status. When the Boston Celtics were in the midst of their "eight-peat" beginning in 1958-59, they had the likes of Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn supporting Bill Russell. Not only that, but they had to beat Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers and Elgin Baylor's and Jerry West's Lakers to clinch their titles.

It wasn't until 1967 that the 76ers -- with Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham surrounding Chamberlain -- put it all together to win a title.

The bottom line is the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s may indeed belong on the list of the greatest teams ever assembled. Like the '77 Trail Blazers -- whose only superstar was Bill Walton -- the sum total may exceed the value of the individual parts. Let's just say I prefer to hold judgment until after the complete story has been written. Remember, repeating as champions has been done. It's old hat. Win a third straight, then we'll talk.