BOWIE -- With his struggling Washington Bullets (22-47) having lost five straight and all but guaranteed themselves a 1992 lottery selection, coach Wes Unseld yesterday accused an unspecified number of his players 14l of competing for contracts rather than concentrating on basketball.
After holding a scrimmage at Bowie State yesterday in preparation for tonight's game with the Indiana Pacers at the Capital Centre, Unseld would not name his allegedly distracted players, but said that he has met privately in the past few weeks with each of them.
"I've got guys thinking about other things than playing basketball," he said. "Apparently, they've been told by others [agents] what they need to do to help with their contracts."
Unseld strongly suggested several players had forgotten their team roles and were seeking to boost their personal statistics as bargaining chips.
By eliminating those players whose Bullets contracts extend past this season -- center Pervis Ellison, forward Charles Jones, point guard Michael Adams, rookie guard LaBradford Smith and reserve center Greg Foster, a regular tenant in Unseld's doghouse for his lack of aggressiveness -- it was easy to narrow the coach's list of suspects..
Shooting guard David Wingate ($250,000), small forward Ledell Eackles ($780,000), power forward Harvey Grant ($474,000) -- all starters -- reserve guard A. J. English ($140,000) and reserve guard Andre Turner ($130,000) will be seeking new contracts next season. All are restricted free agents, save for Wingate, a sixth-year veteran who has played for two other NBA teams.
Rookie forward Larry Stewart ($130,000) was signed for only one season as a free agent, but Unseld has had only praise for the Coppin State product who is averaging 10.4 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Unseld has made his displeasure known by quickly benching players he believes are not committed to playing team-oriented basketball.
Grant, who has been openly critical of the team's failure to renegotiate his contract this season, has been an inconsistent performer since the All-Star break.
Hampered by minor injuries, the fourth-year forward has scored 20 or more points only twice in the past nine games. In Sunday's 109-88 blowout by the Bucks in Milwaukee, Grant started but played only nine minutes.
But Grant, Adams, Ellison and injured shooting guard Rex Chapman form the nucleus of the Bullets rebuilding plans. Such fringe players as Eackles, English, Wingate and Turner must still convince Unseld and general manager John Nash that they are worth retaining.
Eackles may be the most troubling decision. Since gaining a frontcourt starting role by default following the Feb. 19 trade of Tom Hammonds to Charlotte for Chapman, the beefy 6-foot-5 forward has averaged 20 points in 17 starts.
Unseld has never doubted Eackles' scoring ability, but still shudders at his matador-like defense and wonders aloud if the New Orleans native has made a commitment to his basketball career.
"After three years, you usually know where a player stands in this league," said Unseld. "This is Ledell's fourth year, and I'm still not sure. Just when you think 'this is it,' he goes back to being the old Ledell, with all his physical limitations . . . just not working hard enough.
"But I think he's finally on the verge of recognizing the fact that he was in danger of risking his career and a lot of money."
Said Eackles: "I realize now that I've been cheating myself by not coming to training camp in shape. Instead, I've been trying to play myself into shape during the season.
"It was nobody's fault but mine. In the past, I've let personal problems distract me. Now I'm putting basketball ahead of everything. I woke up and realized this is my profession, and there are few jobs in America that pay as well."
Eackles said he has discarded longtime agent Ed Sapir of New Orleans and wants to remain in Washington next season.
"I've had an opportunity to play a lot of minutes now, and I hope I've proven I can play hard and do the job to the Bullets, as well as other teams. Hopefully, something good will happen. But now I'm thinking only basketball."