LANDOVER -- It took veteran point guard Darrell Walker to put the Washington Bullets' new season, which will open tonight at Miami against the Heat, in perspective.
"When the Detroit Pistons walk on the floor," said Walker, "everybody turns their heads. But we're not going to scare anyone, that's for sure. Our young guys will have to
grow up in a hurry."
Expectations are understandably low for the 1990-91 Bullets, a team caught in a massive rebuilding program and still missing two of its bestplayers: all-purpose forward John Williams and shooting guard Ledell Eackles.
Williams, recovering from knee surgery that sidelined him for 64 games last season, ended a summer-long standoff with the Bullets over his rehabilitation program and rejoined the team yesterday. But he is admittedly out of shape and not expected to play until mid-December, at the earliest.
Eackles, a restricted free agent,remains a holdout. He was being groomed to replace Jeff Malone, the team scoring leader who was sent to the Utah Jazz in a three-team swap that brought Sacramento Kings center/forward Pervis Ellison to the Bullets.
Three months ago, Eackles' agent, Ed Sapir, and Bullets general manager John Nash were several million dollars apart on Eackles' contract. Sapir began the bargaining by demanding a four-year pact worth $8 million. Recent negotiations centered on the possibility of a one- or two-year pact, but the parties still differ by a minimum of $300,000, with the third-year guard seeking at least $900,000 a year.
Nash, who left the Philadelphia 76ers in June to replace Bob Ferry as the Bullets' general manager, was asked to assess the absence of Williams and Eackles.
"There is no question in my mind that we'd be competitive if they were both in uniform," he said. "Missing them is like a reporter who is writing a prize-winning Pulitzer story, and the printers decide to go on strike."
Head coach Wes Unseld, whose team won only 31 games last season with Williams on the sidelines, accepts the likelihood of an uphill struggle until all of the team's pieces are in place.
Scanning his current roster, Unseld shook his head and said: "I've just added it up, and we've got six players with two or less years of NBA experience. We're probably the youngest team [average age 25.5] in the league, including the expansion teams. We're just going to have to be extremely patient."
The Bullets seem especially vulnerable in the backcourt, where only Walker, 29, an overachiever who led the team in rebounding last year, has been a consistent starter.
Teaming with Walker against the Heat tonight will be Larry Robinson, a free-agent rookie from Centenary College in Louisiana.
Robinson used a consistent jump shot to win the starting job over fellow rookie A.J. English, a second-round draft pick from Virginia Union, who struggled to find his shooting touch in preseason.
The supporting roles also are filled by novices: point guard Haywoode Workman, who had a six-game trial with the Atlanta Hawks last winter, and Byron Irvin, acquired Tuesday from the Kings in exchange for Steve Colter. As a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers last season, Irvin played just 10 minutes a game.
The front line has a decidedly new look, albeit a more seasoned one. The only new face belongs to Greg Foster, a 6-foot-11 rookie who will be used as a forward and center. In the absence of Williams, Harvey Grant, 6 feet 9, 215 pounds, will con
tinue to masquerade as a power forward.
Ellison, whose fragile body caused him to miss 48 games in a disappointing rookie season, has been cast as the starting center. He has exhibited skills as a passer and rebounder, but has yet to show consistency as an inside scorer, a skill that was a major deficiency in the Bullets' offense last year. If anything, Ellison has been too unselfish in passing up his shot.
"When we made the Malone trade, we weren't saying that Pervis could be another David Robinson [of the San Antonio Spurs]," said Nash. "And it would be a mistake to compare him to John Williams because Pervis is not yet a proven pro.
"But in Williams' absence, he is going to be asked to do a lot of things out of necessity. We hope we don't wear him down physically. But he has the ability to play all three front-court positions. He can guard quicker people or use his agility to beat bigger guys to the hoop. But he can't be expected to match up physically against the Patrick Ewings and Brad Daughertys."
Small forward Bernard King, 33, is the Bullets' one certainty. King, whose career was jeopardized by major knee surgery while playing for the New York Knicks in 1985, has shown remarkable progress in improving his scoring average during the past three seasons.
Easily the most impressive performer in the Bullets' 0-7 preseason, he averaged 21.4 points, including 44 against the 76ers in the final game.
The 12-year veteran has been caught in rebuilding situations before, with the New Jersey Nets and the Golden State Warriors, and has mixed emotions about facing another one.
King acknowledges his leadership role on a youth-dominated team, but realizes he has only so many seasons left to fulfill the dream of playing for a championship team.
"At this point in my career, I'd like to win some games," he said. "But this scenario doesn't bode well for that happening."
This also could be a critical financial year for the Bullets. Even though home crowds increased by close to 2,000 people per game last year, Washington still finished last among the 27 teams in attendance. Owner Abe Pollin reportedly lost several million dollars.
Season-ticket sales reached an all-time high of 5,000, but another losing season could be too much to overcome. The word "more" may have to be added to the team's battle cry: "We've got some scores to settle."