No Bull: Playoffs or bust

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Chicago Bulls.

John Paxson can't make the big shot anymore, not like he did in the 1991 NBA Finals when he scored the last five baskets in the clinching victory over the Los Angeles Lakers or in 1993 when he swished the 3-pointer for the threepeat against the Phoenix Suns.

But Paxson, now the Bulls' general manager, can make a point.

He did so on the first day of training camp for the 2003-04 season.

Paxson passed out T-shirts with a slash through a circle, the international "No" sign with the word "Excuses."

Winning 30 games, like the Bulls did last season, is not enough, even though it was the most games the Bulls had won since their last championship season in 1998.

"At some point everybody has to accept the fact that we're in this business to get into the playoffs and win," Paxson said. "As patient as we still remain with our young guys, we can't let them keep hiding behind no expectations."

The expectation now for the Bulls is to compete seriously. Not just for the playoffs, but for a high playoff position and even a playoff series win.

Perhaps it's unrealistic, but the Eastern Conference is not exactly, well, the Western Conference.

Sure, Eddy Curry doesn't turn 21 until December and Tyson Chandler just turned 21. And they're starters. But they also are beginning their third seasons in the NBA. If the Bulls were right about them -- and the Bulls still believe they were, including trading Elton Brand for the rights to Chandler before the 2001 draft -- then it's time for them to start producing on a regular basis.

The history in the NBA of players who jumped straight to the NBA from high school -- and it's not a long one -- is that the third season is a breakout season. It happened for Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis and Kobe Bryant was on the way by then. Kevin Garnett was showing greatness by then. Both Curry and Chandler have been starters much of their first two seasons in the NBA, and point guard Jamal Crawford finally has no one looking over his shoulder and is entering his fourth season in the NBA. They're all top-10 lottery picks. Isn't it time?

But doing is a little different from wishing and hoping. It's why Paxson decided he needed to bring back Scottie Pippen.

No one expected it after Pippen left in 1998 amid an explosion of verbal assaults against management. Pippen said even before the 1998 season was over he'd never play for the Bulls again, repeatedly accusing them of crimes against humanity and Scottie, not necessarily in that order.

But if you stand around and wait long enough, either a bus will come along or an NBA player will change his mind.

Having no serious or significant offers for a 38-year-old with back and ankle problems, Pippen thought Chicago was the ideal place to finish his career. Two years and $10 million isn't great. But, hey, there's plenty of time to stay home with the family later.

No, Pippen wasn't going to be the defensive wizard who repeatedly shut down the opposition's best perimeter players during the Bulls' championship run. And with Michael Jordan out of a job, there was no chance of being a Wizard. But Pippen could help.

He knew those things the kids coming into the NBA these days don't know: Like a good shot. That's when you're open, as opposed to when you dribble between your legs six times and then try to duck between a triple team. Pippen knows a good pass is one that gets to a shooter in his motion and when he's open, as opposed to one from 45 feet away thrown on the run behind the back.

Pippen also has actually been in games in which his team has won. So has Kendall Gill. Curry, Chandler and Crawford haven't been in many. Neither has Marcus Fizer, another of those lottery picks.

The Bulls' post championship plan wasn't a bad one. It just didn't work. Once upon a time, players went wherever there was the most money. Then the NBA changed the rules in its new 1999 labor agreement. Now there was a ceiling on maximum salaries. Sort of a saving-the-owners-from-themselves thing. You couldn't be stupid for overpaying Jon Koncak anymore. Owners could still be stupid, just not as easily. But if there was a maximum salary, why not go to a team with some good players instead of none? So that plan to strip down just left the Bulls naked.

Then it was on to Plan B, which was building with young talent from the draft. It might work, but it goes slowly.

Curry has talent. He's 7 feet tall and about 300 pounds with quick feet and soft hands. He's a legitimate low-post center, which has started to become virtually extinct in the NBA. Chandler has talent. He's more than 7 feet tall and has the coordination of a guard. Crawford is a great shooter who is fast and and has the vision to see the floor.

But translating all of those skills into basketball success is the issue. The Bulls believe they'll learn this. They hope it will be this season.

They're not as confident as the players themselves.

"We've got all the pieces now," Crawford insisted. "If we don't win now, it's on us. No more excuses. If we don't make the playoffs, it's going to be a disappointment."

Added Curry: "This team definitely is in store for a great season. The sky is the limit for us. We're ready to step up and claim our role as one of the best teams in the East. It's pretty close to a guarantee."

The Bulls are concerned about habits. Often winners become winners and losers accept being losers. It's why they wanted to bring in players who have had success, like Pippen. But Pippen has missed at least 18 games in each of the last three seasons, and it's hard to imspire from the bench. As coach Bill Cartwright said: "It's good to have veterans. It's better when they can play."

The Bulls will get support from Pippen, Gill, Donyell Marshall, Corie Blount and Jalen Rose. But if the team is to go anywhere, it will have to be carried by Curry, Chandler, Crawford and perhaps Fizer. The loss of No. 2 overall draft pick Jay Williams to a serious motorcycle accident injury was a blow. He won't play this season and may never play, although he is predicting he'll return next season. The free-agent signing of Eddie Robinson a few years back seems a mistake and he doesn't figure to play a significant role with the team.

It depends on the kids, and like most kids, you have more hope than results. They'll eventually get there. It begins with ending the excuses.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.