Losing Bullets could win big in draft lottery

JOHN EISENBERG

March 05, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

How do we know that spring is near? We know because there is baseball being played. We know because those party-animal tax doctors are showing up on the tube with their pitches. We know because "Alf" is going into reruns and there isn't a thing we can do about it.

We also know because the Bullets, those lords of the ordinary, are back in their usual predicament. It is a genuine rite of spring, happens every year. The NBA season moves toward a conclusion, and the Bullets find themselves in a position in which losing is preferable.

A few extra wins might push them into the playoffs, a pleasant little reward, but the end of the story is almost certainly a first-round exit. A few extra losses, meanwhile, kicks them out of the playoffs and into the draft lottery, where life-changing talent can be collected.

The dilemma is a short-term perk against the possibility of long-term succor, and it really is no dilemma at all. The smart choice obviously is the lottery. Sacrificing a first-round loss to the Bulls, probably a sweep, is more than worth the chance of adding a bright-lights player.

Players and coaches hate the mention of such subversion because they are paid to win and often lose their jobs if they don't. Frank Robinson screamed foul in the lost summer of 1988 when it was suggested the Orioles were better off losing. Because they did, they wound up drafting Ben McDonald. Frank no longer screams foul.

They will never admit it, but the Bullets all recognize that they need to lose, that it is necessary for their greater good. The franchise has been stuck in a cycle of mediocrity for the last decade, never the worst team, always far from the best, always hiding a busted draft pick.

They haven't won a playoff series in nine years. Drafting a basketball version of Ben McDonald is the best path out of the cycle. The Patrick Ewings do not just appear on your roster one day. You must first be lousy enough, then lucky enough to get the first pick in the draft.

It should be noted that the odds are strongly against the Bullets getting that first pick. The lottery is bottom-weighted; the team with the worst record has the most balls in the hopper, the second-worst has the second-most, etc. With the 11th-worst record right now, the Bullets would have the lowest odds in the lottery, a one-in-66 shot at the first pick.

There is life after the first pick, though, and this could be a swell year to wind up with such consolation. If it proves true that underclassmen such as Kenny Anderson and Billy Owens and maybe even Shaquille O'Neal turn pro, the third pick could be an All-Star. Maybe Larry Johnson.

Since the chances are small, though, it would benefit the Bullets to get truly serious about losing and slide past Cleveland, Dallas, the Clippers, even Orlando and New Jersey. See, the drafting order reverts to records after the first three picks come out of the lottery. Right now, the Bullets would pick 11th. Sixth sure sounds better. Sixth could be Dikembe Mutombo.

Anyway, the point is that any high pick is the Bullets' best chance at improving their lot. Free agency is another possibility, but such movement is rare. Oh, and pay no attention to that absurd rumor about the Knicks trading Ewing. It will never happen. The draft is the best hope.

By far.

Right now, the Bullets are on course. They were in the postseason running for a while when Bernard King was scoring 40 a night or very nearly, but they have lost six straight games and 12 of 14, dropping them four games out of the last playoff spot, currently held by the Knicks.

The more the losses mount, the better the future gets. The Bullets are not that far from being an interesting team. They are not lacking in talent. Adding a top college player, preferably a center or point guard, would push them into the land of the credible.

Even without another player, the Bullets probably have the wherewithal to make the playoffs. Don't pay attention to this season. It was a washout from the beginning, when John Williams and Ledell Eackles were out. The miracle is that the team has won 20 games.

But move ahead to next year. Say Williams is back in shape, ready to provide his unusual blend of strength and subtlety. Eackles should also be in shape. Pervis Ellison, who has improved all season, should be ready to make a difference. He may never be a force, but he can help. So can Harvey Grant, who became an 18-point man this year.

Then there is Darrell Walker, an underrated star. And there is King, who probably won't repeat the bravo performance of this season, but can be expected to contribute big. It is a blend of some substance. Put a hot, young player in the lineup and it is a blend capable of winning streaks.

The Bullets are that close. All they need is a few more losses this year, maybe some lottery luck. This time next year, finally, they wouldn't be in their customary, lose-or-else predicament. We would have to rely on baseball and the weather to announce that spring has arrived.

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