LANDOVER -- Ten days ago at the Capital Centre, Buck Johnson was walking in one door of the Washington Bullets' office while Ledell Eackles was walking out another.
At the time, the symbolism surely was lost on Johnson. But, yesterday, when he was introduced to the media as the newest Bullet, Johnson had to realize he was being counted on to replace Eackles as the team's starting small forward this season.
General manager John Nash made no secret of that.
"Right now, if we had to name a starting lineup," Nash said, "I'd say we'd be starting Johnson up front with Harvey Grant and Pervis Ellison, with Michael Adams and Rex Chapman in the backcourt. But we still have to go through a whole training camp."
Meanwhile, Eackles' future remains unresolved. "We haven't made a final decision in regard to Ledell," Nash said. And coach Wes Unseld said, "Don't count Ledell out."
The Bullets have been savingEackles' $780,000 salary slot in an effort to sign first-round draft choice Tom Gugliotta, causing Eackles' agent, Ed Sapir of New Orleans, to explore European options for the three-year veteran.
"I hope they'll make their decision concerning Ledell expeditiously," Sapir said.
Asked whether Eackles might consider a pay cut, Sapir said: "Ledell is still a young man. I don't think it's time for us to play hardball. If they'd make a fair offer with incentives, we'd have to consider it."
In any case, Johnson, who filled retired forward Mark Alarie's $550,000 slot for the first year of his two-year contract, said he was happy to be anywhere but in Houston, where he played his first six NBA seasons, the past four as a starter.
In fact, Johnson, 6 feet 7, 200 pounds, reportedly turned down more lucrative offers from the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls to accept a pay cut (he earned $725,000 last season) to play for the rebuilding Bullets.
"I'm not worried about the money at this time," he said. "I'm more interested in getting an opportunity to exhibit all my basketball skills. I never got that chance in Houston.
"John Nash and Wes Unseld made me feel wanted right from the start," Johnson added. "With the Bulls and Knicks, it was more a case of, 'We'll get back with you.' I didn't feel a need to wait. Washington suited me perfectly."
A 1986 first-round pick (20th overall) from Alabama, Johnson became a starter in 1988, but was the odd man out last year when the Rockets went through a tumultuous season marked by All-NBA center Hakeem Olajuwon's suspension and a midseason coaching change, with Rudy Tomjanovich replacing Don Chaney.
In February, Johnson was benched in favor of Carl Herrera, then realized he no longer figured in the Rockets' plans when they used their first-round pick to select forward Robert Horry of Alabama.
"I don't know why I was benched," said Johnson, whose scoring average slipped from 13.6 to 8.6. "Probably the money situation."
Unseld said he sees Johnson being more creative in his motion offense, and that he'll provide defense superior to that of Bernard King or Eackles in recent years.
Nash said he has turned his attention to obtaining a veteran reserve guard to relieve Adams and Chapman and ease the pressure on rookie Brent Price, the team's second-round draft pick.