Some time ago, the Ritz brothers had a popular comedy
routine in which the leader, Harry, played a fortune-teller using a crystal ball to answer questions from the audience. At one point, someone would ask for an explanation of Einstein's theory of relativity. Harry Ritz would shake his turbaned head and say, "Such a big question for such a little ball."
As the Washington Bullets open training camp for the 1991-92 NBA season this afternoon at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, it is much the same: so many big questions and such a little ball.
* Who will supply the 28 points a game produced by Bernard King, the All-Star small forward, sidelined until December after arthroscopic knee surgery?
* Who will provide defense and rebounding from the backcourt )) after the trade of team captain Darrell Walker to the Detroit Pistons?
* Who will find a scale big enough to weigh forward John Williams and shooting guard Ledell Eackles, who have shown little inclination to report in shape?
* Who will provide the inside scoring that has been missing since Moses Malone departed for Atlanta three years ago?
Such problems are nothing new for coach Wes Unseld, who suffered through a 30-52 record last season, when his starters missed a total of 64 games and Williams, his all-purpose reserve forward, did not receive a medical clearance to play until February.
"I can't worry about things I can't control," said Unseld.
"I can't fret about missing King at the start of this season, because I didn't expect to have him once he underwent surgery. And I'm not going to worry whether Williams or Eackles report in shape. If they're not ready, they won't play. It's that simple."
But Unseld's remedies are not that simple.
"We're going to have to be very innovative," he said.
Unseld plans to revamp, or at least refine, his favored passing game by using the quickness of Michael Adams, the veteran point guard obtained from the Denver Nuggets in June for the Bullets' lottery pick.
Adams, who averaged 26.5 points and 10.5 assists for the Nuggets last season, has the ability to penetrate the defense in a half-court game and also to supply a much-needed perimeter game with his shooting range. His 167 three-pointers easily led the league.
"Last year, our transition game suffered because our three fast-breaking big men -- King, Harvey Grant and Pervis Ellison -- were consistently beating our point guard [Walker] down the floor," said general manager John Nash. "That's not going to happen with Adams leading the break."
The absence of a power game on either end of the floor also has prompted Unseld to restructure his defense. He plans to rely more on traps and full-court pressing.
"We've lost four old legs," said Unseld, referring to Walker, 30, and King, 34, who will miss at least the first month of the season. "Hopefully, our younger guys will be able to apply more defensive pressure, but it's one of those wait-and-see experiments."
The Bullets had an opportunity to sign veteran guard Vinnie Johnson, 35, released by the Detroit Pistons, but Nash and Unseld appear resolved to use youth as their rebuilding foundation.
Asked if there were any positives derived from the disappointing 1909-91 season, Nash quickly responded, "Grant and Ellison.
"They both improved tremendously last year," Nash said. "Right now, I'd rate Ellison among the top centers, although he is really a power forward, and Grant among the best 15 forwards. If you add Adams, who belongs among the top dozen point guards, you've got the start of a solid nucleus."
Ellison, a major disappointment when he was hampered by injuries during his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings, proved the wisdom of the three-team trade that sent Jeff Malone to the Utah Jazz. After a tentative debut in Washington, Ellison, 6 feet 10, averaged 15.3 points and 9.4 rebounds as a starter the last 37 games.
"It was all a matter of confidence," said Unseld. "First, Pervis had to win my confidence, and then he gained confidence in himself. He still has a long way to go. He doesn't have the body strength to post up rival centers, but we have to learn to utilize his quickness on the offensive end."
Add holdovers Tom Hammonds, promising Greg Foster and defensive specialist Charles Jones, and the front line should have enough depth to survive King's absence for four to six weeks. Again, a healthy, trim Williams is the key.
But the backcourt is replete with question marks.
"It can't be much worse than last year," said Unseld, who was forced by injuries to open the 1990-91 season with CBA graduate Haywoode Workman and free-agent rookie Larry Robinson as his starting backcourt.
A year later, Adams appears the only certainty. His supporting cast of Eackles, A.J. English, Robinson and No. 1 draft pick LaBradford Smith, injured (sprained ankle) and unsigned, does not include a backup point guard. Free agent Kurk Lee of Towson State, released by the New Jersey Nets, will get a long look.