Bullets don't need King-sized obstacle

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 09, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Short on vision, shorter on luck, only the Bullets could find themselves in a position where a gifted scorer with an unparalleled work ethic might actually be harmful to the team.

The player, of course, is Bernard King. His latest comeback is to be admired, but only from afar. It's time for the Bullets to purge this last remaining dinosaur. If they're so committed to youth, then show it.

This is not about King, who displays an indomitable spirit rare among professional athletes. This is about a star-crossed franchise that finally chose a direction, and again is threatening to veer off course.

Bernard King is 36, with a right knee that has taken 16 months to recover from arthroscopic surgery. Two years ago, he was the NBA's third-leading scorer. Now, he wants to rejoin the Bullets, a team moving forward without him.

If he's indeed healthy, King might mean the difference between, oh, 25 and 30 wins. But his return at forward likely would force the release of Buck Johnson, take minutes from starters Tom Gugliotta and Harvey Grant and impede the progress of reserves Larry Stewart and Don MacLean.

This is good?

The Bullets recently committed $17.5 million to Gugliotta, $17.1 million to Grant. They've got four rookies (Gugliotta, MacLean, Brent Price and Doug Overton), and five other players age 27 or under (Grant, Stewart, Rex Chapman, Pervis Ellison and LaBradford Smith).

King can't understand the fuss -- "I would like to believe the Washington Bullets are committed to winning," he says -- but the Bullets are at the same point the Orioles were in the late 1980s. They need to accelerate the rebuilding process -- even at the expense of winning games.

"Certainly, the development of Tom and Harvey as go-to players late in the game might be something that could be retarded," general manager John Nash conceded yesterday. "On the other hand, Bernard certainly has provided a great deal of experience and inspiration to previous teams."

Fair enough, but at this point, King represents so much clutter. This is a painful decision -- King's first comeback was the team's only selling point a short time ago. But exactly how much do the Bullets owe him?

King signed a two-year contract extension after his remarkable 1990-91 season, and hasn't played since. If the Bullets cut him, they must pay the balance of his $2.5 million salary this season, and the $500,000 he's guaranteed in his option year.

That's a lot of money, but King gets it either way. Thus, the question is, what's best for the team? Owner Abe Pollin probably knows the answer, but he's notoriously thrifty. He's already paying off Greg Foster's $435,000 contract, and no doubt wants a return on King's.

Keep it up, Abe: The Bullets haven't made the playoffs since 1988, haven't won a playoff series since 1982. King won't make an impact beyond this season. But knowing the Bullets' luck, he'd probably cost them a lottery pick.

It's always something with this team -- a John Williams here, a Bernard King there, one dark cloud or another. Judging from his self-centered remarks Thursday, King won't accept a reduced role, as Mark Aguirre has done in Detroit. No, he wants to be the man.

Why not play him for a month, then trade him to a contender like the New York Knicks? It's a thought, but again King must prove he is healthy. This is the same knee on which he had reconstructive surgery in 1985. His latest recovery is more than a year behind schedule.

His health, his age, his salary -- all would work against a trade. What's more, Nash said yesterday that it will take at least six more practices for the team to decide if King is ready. That would take the Bullets to the end of January. The trading deadline is Feb. 25.

Nash himself is gun-shy -- "If we cut a player and two days later Bernard goes down, what have we gained?" he said. King wants a decision by Monday, but as Nash said, "What Bernard says and what we need to do might not exactly be the same thing."

Which is the whole point -- King is going in one direction, the Bullets another. King would provide desperately needed scoring in the fourth quarter, but his lack of lateral movement would be a major detriment to a team already struggling defensively.

There comes a time when all teams must confront reality to control their destiny. For the Bullets, this is that time. They should thank Bernard King. And then they should say goodbye.

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