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IS THIS THE YEAR THE DYNASTY DIES?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last days of the late, great Bull dynasty. . . .

Aside from the usual distinctions on this best and most celebrated team in 30 or 40 years--such as Living Legend and mere mortals--is a new, overriding one: players who are signed for next season vs. ones who aren’t.

Because only four are--Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Randy Brown and Keith Booth--and because Coach Phil Jackson (unsigned) has encouraged everyone to express his emotions, you can imagine what the projected emigrants are saying and the projected holdovers are hearing.

Unsigned Steve Kerr, whose No. 25 jersey now sells in stores--he has a one-word explanation: “Chicago"--wonders what would happen if a lockout this summer lasted until training camp, so management wouldn’t have time to sign anyone and, instead of the usual complement of 20, had to start the new era with four.

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Harper says the unsigned guys keep telling him he’ll be the elder statesman of the New Bulls and presumed Coach Tim Floyd will make him practice twice a day in camp.

Harper thinks it’s funny, except the part about two-a-days--"which I refuse to go two-a-days for my coach, I don’t give a heck who they hire. . . .

The only way to do it is to laugh. You know this game is just a game, still, even though you pass three-four years, they’re fun years.”

Harper looks around the dressing room, which is empty minutes before the last game with the stars ducking reporters, but might empty for other reasons soon, and lists the names of his friends/upcoming free agents.

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“MJ, Scottie, Dennis, Luc, Steve, Jud, Bill, Joe,” Harper says. “Damn, I’m here almost by myself!”

In Chicago, they hang on every morsel, hint and change in body language of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, Kerr, Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington and Joe Kleine. In the rest of America, they’d just as soon skip all the updates. But among the Bulls, it’s a given that everyone’s gone.

“I just wait to see,” Harper says. “You don’t ever say it won’t happen, but it don’t look like it’s gonna happen. Seems like everybody gonna go and do their own thing now.

“And so you just go with the flow and enjoy it, enjoy the last few weeks and play basketball.”

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Oh yeah, there’s that. Everywhere else, they call it the NBA playoffs. In the Bulls’ dressing room, it’s the end of life as they’ve known it, so they aim to make it count.

Unbeatable?

You want the odds on me coming back? OK, 70-30. Which way? Whichever way you want.”

--Jordan in ESPN the Magazine

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This should serve as a warning to cease inquiries and suspend speculation until the season ends and Jordan assesses his options and decides.

Until then, he wouldn’t tell if he knew, which he doesn’t. For what it’s worth, those closest to him say he’d like to stay, but, assuming the likely departures of Jackson and Pippen, they think he’s gone.

Jordan loves this. It would be better if he didn’t have to answer questions about it, but surprising and confounding “you guys"--the media and, by extension, everyone--is the best revenge he has found for surrendering his privacy in the bargain he didn’t know he was striking so many years ago.

The play’s still the thing and never more than this spring, which will establish the all-important context for the decisions. Titles soften owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s heart, and the thought of the vilification he’d reap by breaking up an ongoing dynasty and forcing sport’s greatest star into retirement may again frighten him into postponing his famous rebuilding plans, as it did last spring when he vetoed that Pippen-to-Boston-for-three-No. 1s trade.

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In Chicago, this spring’s slogans are already cliches: The Bulls are working on the “repeat three-peat,” a reference to the 1991-92-93 titles that preceded this 1996-97 run.

Everything is falling into place so neatly. The Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns in ’93 without home-court advantage, as they would have to if they face the Utah Jazz this spring.

The Bulls didn’t even have home-court advantage in the ’93 Eastern Conference finals. The New York Knicks won 60 games at the zenith of the Pat Riley era, to the Bulls’ 57, a drop from 67 the season before, as the twice-defending champions unraveled in the stretch.

The Knicks led their series, 2-0, too, with the weight of controversy pressing on the Bulls after Jordan’s visit to Atlantic City splashed into headlines. Then the Bulls won twice at home, blocked four Charles Smith layups at the end of Game 5 in New York and closed out the Knicks in six.

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In the first Bull run, they won 61, 67 and 57 games. In this one, so much older, odder (thanks, Dennis) and yes, wiser, they posted the greatest three-year victory mark ever, 72-69-62, the last in a season in which they started 8-7 without Pippen, who didn’t arrive until mid-January.

That’s how far they have moved ahead of the pack. That’s how far the pack will have to close to catch them.

And they’ve still got it. Despite the exasperation of the early season, Jackson, looking at a softer schedule and a healthier team, said they might “run the table” after the All-Star break, a preposterous goal--which they almost reached.

With 10 days left in the season, the Bulls were 25-2 post-break. One of the losses came at Dallas, after blowing a 10-point lead in the last minute, so angering the once-mellow Jackson, he left the bench in the closing seconds of regulation and never came back. While they fell in overtime, a TV camera caught him lounging in a hallway, clipping his nails.

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It isn’t the classic approach, but, as wins piled up later, Jackson called it a key moment. “The Dallas blip might have been the thing that pushed us to another level,” he said. “Probably the greatest move made in March is when I walked off the court with seven seconds to go and let them know how disappointed I was in their effort.”

They’re still the Bulls. They’ve got the greatest clutch player ever and can still hold you to 88 a game, or less if necessary, until he can gun you down.

With 10 days left, it was obvious they would trip blithely through the East, where no one was remotely good enough to challenge them, and stroll refreshed into the finals to deal with whomever was left after the Jazz, Lakers and Seattle SuperSonics finished waling on each other.

Then they’d have the parade at Grant Park, where Jackson would say something funny at the expense of Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause and, for one last moment, at least, paradise would still be the biggest little town in Illinois.

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Waiting to Be Put Out of Their Misery?

Then they lost at Cleveland as Jordan shot 10 for 24.

Then they played the Indiana Pacers in the United Center. The Bulls almost always win at the United Center, especially when they’ve just lost or there’s a credible rival in town. Oops, they lost this one too, as Jordan went seven for 19 and lost it for a moment, throwing the ball at Mark Jackson and hitting him in the head.

They beat the Orlando Magic but, still trying to nail down best overall record, went to Detroit and lost to a bunch of guys who didn’t even make the playoffs, as Jordan shot seven for 25.

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By the Bulls’ finale, the Jazz had already moved past them and secured the best record. The game against the Knicks, potentially Jordan’s regular-season farewell, was carried live in prime time Saturday by NBC but might as well have been a summer league contest to the contestants.

Pippen showed up at 6:05, five minutes late, and ran into Jackson outside the dressing room.

Jackson looked at his watch.

“Two minutes late, Coach,” Pippen said.

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At 6:19, Rodman walked in. Three years ago, the Bulls promised to make him follow all the rules, but 1,000 late arrivals later, no one even remarks on it.

Not that there was nothing at stake. Jordan was only 25 points ahead of Shaquille O’Neal in the scoring race. Now, Jordan will always deny this but, like a mutual-fund manager trying to make his performance come out right at the end of a quarter, he’ll take a flier here and there to protect the numbers he holds most dear. In last season’s finale, he shot it every time he touched it in the first quarter, trying to protect his old string of 30-point average seasons--he failed, the Bulls lost and blew the chance to post the first back-to-back 70-win seasons.

This season, forget the 30. Jordan went into the finale at 28.6, his lowest for a full season since he was a rookie. It had been that kind of year for him--no Pippen, defenses ganging up on him early, a battle from the get-go. The career 51% shooter didn’t reach 47% for any month until March. His free throws (84% lifetime) were at a career-low 78%. Against the Mavericks, on his way to a four-for-10 performance from the line, he tried a free throw left-handed, and missed.

“I was missing them right-handed so I decided to try one left-handed,” he said afterward. “That didn’t seem to work either.”

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Said Jackson, frostily, apparently missing the humor in the situation: “I have no comment.”

There is even a buzz around Chicago, blaming this season’s late slide on Jordan’s attempts to secure his 10th scoring title in a row.

Sure enough, Jordan had 25 by halftime against the Knicks, but they didn’t know this was a lark and grabbed a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, obliging Jackson to play his stars to the end, lest they risk surrendering their home-court advantage against the Lakers too.

Jordan finished what might have been his last regular-season game with 44 points but wasn’t exultant. He opened his postgame news conference with: “Make it quick.”

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He also said he wasn’t worried about any scoring title.

“If Shaq goes out tomorrow and scores 100--[smiling] which he’ll probably need--then he deserves it,” he said.

Of course, the Bulls are only a few merely human performances by Jordan from being thrown on the junk heap of history, so what he has left is all-important. On one hand, he’s Michael Jordan, still the greatest thing going. On the other, it has been a long season, he’s 35 and, ever so slightly, fading.

“I have great faith in his ability to rejuvenate himself, to refresh himself mentally and physically,” Jackson says.

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“I think that’s been a unique aspect of his athletic career, is that given a couple days, he’s right back at it.”

Jordan will give it all he has, that’s for sure. They might be Bulls only for another eight weeks (or less), so there’s no sense holding anything back now.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

CHICAGO FIRE

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Most regular-season victories by NBA teams since 1990-91 season:

Chicago Bulls: 490

Utah Jazz: 450

Seattle SuperSonics: 445

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Phoenix Suns: 422

New York Knicks: 409

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

CHICAGO FIRE (Southland Edition)

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The Bulls’ remarkable run: *--*

Season Record Result 1990-91 61-21 NBA title 1991-92 67-15 NBA title 1992-93 57-25 NBA title 1993-94 55-27 Jordan retires 1994-95 47-35 Jordan returns 1995-96 72-10* NBA title 1996-97 69-13 NBA title 1997-98 62-20 Best record in East

*--*

* NBA record for victories

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