The Washington Bullets, featuring five new players on their roster this season as evidence of a major rebuilding job, still are missing the cornerstones of a winning foundation.
The Bullets still have a bona fide center and playmaker at the top of their Christmas wish list.
On the basis of record alone, the Bullets (7-15) are off to a worse start than last season, when they were 11-11 at this point. They finished the season 31-51, beginning a long slide after the loss of all-purpose forward John Williams, who underwent knee surgery Dec. 4, 1989.
The team's priorities in last June's draft were obvious -- a strong inside scorer and defender and a penetrating guard. But minus a No. 1 pick, the Bullets, with two second-round choices, settled for a promising, young center in Greg Foster and shooting guard A.J. English.
New general manager John Nash tried to solve part of the frontcourt problem by obtaining forward Pervis Ellison in a three-team trade that involved team scoring leader Jeff Malone.
But Nash and coach Wes Unseld acknowledged that Ellison, a slender 6 feet 10, 225 pounds, lacks the size and offensive weapons to be a consistent inside force.
"When we got Pervis, we didn't feel he'd be a center we could build around," Nash said. "We realized that we still had the need for a true center, and, hopefully, we can find one in next year's draft."
Confined to a reserve role because of his inconsistent play, Ellison is averaging 5.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.
"Right now, Pervis isn't strong enough to hold his spots on either end of the floor," said Unseld, who spent most of yesterday's practice working on Ellison's post play. "It's throwing his shot off just enough to miss, and he's not ready yet to defend the post at the other end."
Because so much is expected of Ellison, the first player selected in the 1989 National Basketball Association draft, Unseld is faced with a tough decision.
"I think everyone wants to give Pervis more minutes," he said, "but there's a conflict here. Do I try to bring Pervis around as quickly as possible or try to win as many games as possible?
"Right now, I'm more concerned with winning, but I honestly believe that you can do both -- bring guys along and still win games. You just have to compromise."
Darrell Walker isn't the prototype NBA point guard, breaking down defenses and hitting the open man in the style of a John Stockton or Magic Johnson.
But Walker contributes to the Bullets in so many other areas. He leads the team in rebounding (8.7), plays aggressive defense while still averaging a respectable 10.6 points and 6.0 assists and keeping his turnovers to slightly more than two per game.
In trade talks, Walker's name is usually one of the first mentioned.
"I don't want to discredit Darrell in any way, because his value to this team is evident," said Nash, "but we still need a legitimate point guard. If we can get one, it would allow Darrell to be available to Wes at both backcourt positions."
Said Unseld: "I know Darrell doesn't love to practice. What he loves to do is play, and he's got a competitive mean streak."
Despite his team's slow start, Unseld said he has seen some positive developments in recent weeks.
"We're getting better offensive balance," he said. "Bernard [King] doesn't have as much of a burden. We're getting consistent scoring from [forward] Harvey Grant [17.0] and A.J. English, in the last half-dozen games, has looked like he's ready to help."
Over the past five games, English has made 38 of 63 shots (60 percent) and averaged 19.6 points. The rookie's emergence has eased the pressure on veteran guard Ledell Eackles, whose lack of conditioning has been one of Unseld's major problems.
"I'm still trying to figure out who my key eight or nine men are," said Unseld, who has been giving less playing time to veteran forwards Mark Alarie and Tom Hammonds. "Different guys have come off the bench to provide a spark for us, but no one has really been consistent."