The Washington Bullets' battle cry for the 1991-92 NBA season was: "You Gotta Believe."
But the Bullets based their hope of becoming contenders on two shaky beliefs -- that scoring leader Bernard King, at 35, would rebound from another knee operation and all-purpose forward John Williams would solve his persistent weight problem.
Neither King, whose return is doubtful for next season, nor Williams, who has been suspended without pay since June 3, played a single minute, and the Bullets went 25-67, missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
The Bullets could not find adequate replacements, and with nagging injuries also keeping center Pervis Ellison and forward Harvey Grant sidelined for long stretches, coach Wes Unseld seldom knew in advance what his starting lineup would be.
"Had King and Williams both been available, I still believe we would have been contenders," said general manager John Nash. "But now we have to prepare for next season with the idea that they won't be here."
Said Unseld: "I quit playing at 35 because I found I could no longer push myself that hard to fight through the pain. That will be the biggest part of it for Bernard, not the injury itself."
Williams, who has two years remaining on his contract, is a more perplexing problem. If he approaches the 260-pound limit imposed by the Bullets medical staff, the team at least would have an opportunity to trade him. But his trade value has diminished considerably, and Nash will not give him away.
"Sooner or later, you have to make a call," said Unseld, "and right now it's really John's decision as to whether he wants to play again. He's dumped on too many people who have tried to help him.
"There is an old Biblical saying, 'Love the sinner, not the sin.' I don't like what John is doing now. What has happened to his basketball career borders on the criminal. If he looked in the mirror and judged the crime he has done to himself, he could spend the rest of his life in jail."
King and Williams will be easier to forget if the Bullets get lucky in the May 17 draft lottery. With the league's fifth-worst record, they will have seven of the 66 pingpong balls in the hopper, improving their odds of landing All-America center Shaquille O'Neal of Louisiana State or power forward Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown.
"It's obvious that we need a physical front-court player," said Nash. "You can't expect Ellison to give away 30 to 40 pounds every night to opposing centers. It has to take its toll."
In addition to seeking a rugged rebounder to complement Ellison, Unseld said he would like to acquire consistent scorers at shooting guard and small forward.
Rex Chapman, who was obtained from the Charlotte Hornets on Feb. 19 but did not make his Bullets debut until the season finale in Philadelphia on Saturday because of foot problems, is expected to fill the void at shooting guard.
Other major personnel decisions will hinge on how high a draft pick the Bullets secure. Selecting O'Neal or Mourning would bring a $3 million price tag, necessitating considerable trimming of contracts to stay within the league's $14 million salary cap.
A lower selection would save perhaps $1 million and allow the Bullets more leeway in trying to satisfy their key free agents -- Grant, Ledell Eackles, David Wingate and Larry Stewart.
Free to go?
Predictions on whether the Bullets are likely to re-sign their seven free-agent players:
P ...Player...... ..... Salary....... Re-sign
F ...M. Alarie... ..... $550,000..... No
F ...L. Eackles.. ..... $780,000..... Yes
G ...A.J. English ..... $350,000..... No
F ...H. Grant.... ..... $474,000..... Yes
F ...L. Stewart.. ..... $130,000..... Yes
G ...A. Turner... ..... $130,000..... No
G ...D. Wingate.. ..... $250,000..... Yes