Bullets gamble by not dealing best card--King


November 16, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

Faced with the breakneck pace of the NBA, the Bullets have responded by running in place. For years now, they've been a little too good to be truly bad and, yet, much too bad to be anything like good. They wallow in mediocrity. They are the worst thing you can be sports, and maybe in life, which is to say nondescript. Crowds don't naturally form.

They don't finish low enough to get a top draft pick; they don't finish well enough to make it, in good years, past the first round of the playoffs. What the Bullets have done in recent time is a lot of picking 12th in the draft, and doing it pretty poorly at that.

Now that they have their team back together, with Ledell Eackles under contract and John Williams under 300 pounds, they are in position to win maybe 35 games, or maybe 31, as they did last season. Maybe 40, as they do in good years. They haven't won more than 43 since 1978-79.

They need to get a lot better, or a lot worse, and they don't quite know how to do either.

What the Bullets have apparently decided to do is to attempt to re-sign Bernard King, their 33-year-old star who has taken us along on the remarkable journey in which he revisits his youth. RTC He is their anchor. He also provides assurance, as long as the aging process allows, that the Bullets will be only so bad. With King, they are not going to win the lottery. But given King's supporting cast, they're not going to win any championships either. It's a dilemma.

Why not just trade King for a draft pick and pretend you're an expansion team? Instead of being ordinary, go for being awful. The truth is that in the NBA, it's easier to get better from the bottom than from closer to the middle.

"Players and coaches are competitive," said John Nash, the new general manager whose job is to put new life into the Bullets. "They claw and scratch to make the playoffs, to win as many games as they can. Consequently, you can't go into a season planning to be as unsuccessful as possible. Even if it is your plan, it's very difficult to maintain.

"I think there were teams that wanted to follow that plan. When Houston had Ralph Sampson as a rookie, there were people who thought they planned their strategy to get Akeem Olajuwon the next year. I don't know if those accusations are true or not, but I do know fans, media, general managers, coaches and owners do not like losing. It's a very risky proposition."

There is some thought that the Denver Nuggets are masking their race for a top draft pick with a racehorse style of basketball that cannot succeed, but does get noticed. The Nuggets may go 0-82, which wouldtake this concept of losing in order to win to the ultimate extreme. But, of course, the Nuggets would at least lose in a hurry.

On the other hand, Paul West-head, who designed the new Nuggets, is almost certain to be fired. How do you win for losing?

The San Antonio Spurs did it. They drafted David Robinson two years before he was eligible to play. They stayed bad in those two years, got good draft picks -- Willie Anderson and Sean Elliott -- while pointing toward a Robinson-filled future. Now, the Spurs seem to the league's future.

It isn't always as easy as that. The aptly named lottery means that you can have the worst record in the league and not get the first pick. You can lose all those games and still not get your franchise player, setting up another lost season, and maybe another and another.

In trying to keep King -- Nash says: "We hope we can keep Bernard for the remainder of his career" -- the Bullets are playing it safe. Words fail in describing the wonder of King's achievement, except to say that his comeback from a destroyed knee is now the standard by which all others must be measured. But it would have been better if they could have let him go, as they did Jeff Malone in return for Pervis Ellison, who might develop but hasn't yet.

If John Williams had stepped up, if just onto a scale, the Bullets might have done it. If Williams seemed ready to become a star, instead of a casualty, in the league, the Bullets could have gone entirely with a youth movement. But they can't trust Williams. And there's certainly no indication that either Tommy Hammonds or Harvey Grant is ready to make any impact.

And so, the Bullets can hope only this much: that King will continue to play brilliantly and Williams will slowly round into form -- instead of forming into round -- and that the team is competitive in most games and that it still has the fifth- or sixth- or seventh-worst record in the league. That way, they might, if lucky, get a very high pick. And even if they're not lucky, there still might be a great draft. Among the underclassmen who could come out are Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Kenny Anderson and Billy Owens. Larry Johnson, Doug Smith, Steve Smith and Stacey Augmon are among the top seniors. The draft could be deep. And if it goes deep enough, it's bound to strike the Bullets.

Next season, with a high draft pick, with an ageless King, with a renewed Williams, with Wes Unseld as coach, with an improved Eackles, with a developing Ellison, with some new direction, the Bullets might to be ready to make some real progress. In other words, it's not exactly a sure thing.

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