Unseld, Bullets at crossroads Draft pick, coach equally uncertain

April 27, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

Never in the franchise's 30-year history have the Washington Bullets faced as many agonizing decisions as they do now, after missing the NBA playoffs for the fifth straight year and winning the fewest games (22) since the 1966-67 season.

The team has its best chance ever to land a top-three lottery pick, and Bullets general manager John Nash will be under pressure to make the right choice. And a major trade is also a possibility -- center Pervis Ellison and forward Harvey Grant, who can become a free agent in 1994, are the most marketable.

But heading the list of issues to be resolved is whether Wes Unseld, who symbolized the best of the Bullets as a player, will be back as coach.

For the first time since stepping down from the front office to replace former teammate Kevin Loughery as coach in 1987, Unseld has come under fire from fans who have watched the team spiral downward the past four seasons, compiling a record of 148-262.

Unseld, 47, always has been treated as a favorite son by owner Abe Pollin, and it was thought that the coaching job was his as long as he wanted it.

But Unseld has doubts about whether he wants to return, and Pollin says it is a decision that must be studied.

"I've learned I can live without coaching," said Unseld, who may be leaning toward retirement.

"If Abe thinks it's in the best interests of the team to fire me, I'm sure he'll make that decision. This isn't friendship, it's business. And I'm thinking along the same lines. If I think it will benefit the team for me to step down, that's what I'll do."

Pollin, who plans to meet with Unseld in the next few weeks, said: "This is the worst season I've experienced in my 30 years of owning the team. It's taken us a lot longer than expected to turn things around. Naturally, I'm especially fond of Wes, and I think he's done an excellent coaching job under the circumstances. But I'm committed to making us a competitive team again.

"This year, we had a lot of new players getting acquainted, and then injuries to our veterans set in, and it all went downhill from there, even though Wes had them playing hard all the time."

But here, Unseld takes exception with his boss. Always a strong motivator, he sensed there were times when some of the players tuned him out.

"Eventually, players get tired of being pushed and prodded," he said. "That was the thing that most disturbed me about this year, that the total effort wasn't always there. After we lost Pervis in early March, my biggest concern was to keep us from being embarrassed."

Sensitive about criticism over his strategy, Unseld said, "I probably did more coaching than ever this year. I think I can handle the X's and O's as well as anybody in the league.

"I watch the so-called geniuses at work, and when they lose their key players, suddenly they don't look so smart. To me, the measure of a good coach is whether he gets the most out of his players."

Said Nash: "Everyone has to share the blame. The coaches can't execute. They can only diagram plays and direct. What more can coach do, especially when several of his top players aren't available?"

Asked after losing the season finale to Boston Sunday whether the current team could be competitive next season, Unseld said, "Honestly, no.

"We're in a Catch-22 situation," he said. "To improve, we know we still need to make several changes to be competitive. But if you keep changing a lot of faces, you have no continuity."

There have been several personnel decisions on which Unseld and Nash did not agree. Unseld was more inclined to retain defensive guard David Wingate, A. J. English (who went to Europe) and Ledell Eackles, (who didn't play until the last week of the CBA season).

Nash noted that the departed guards contributed to only 30 victories the previous year.

The main disagreement between Unseld and Nash, however, was over the playing time for shooting guard Rex Chapman.

Acquired from Charlotte in a swap for forward Tom Hammonds in the winter of 1992, Chapman went from a starter to the bench because Unseld found his play uninspired.

"Hammonds wasn't going to play for us anyway, so the trade was a worthwhile gamble," said Nash, who signed a contract extension last September.

Nash also noted that several trades he proposed were vetoed by Unseld, whom he claims has a voice in the decision-making process.

The draft has become more critical for the Bullets, who wasted several recent picks on Hammonds and Greg Foster and a still-struggling LaBradford Smith, who failed to seize the opportunity to take a starting backcourt job this year.

"When it comes to the draft, I really have to rely on the people who do the scouting for us," Unseld said. "When the season ends, I can review tapes of the guys we might be interested in, but it's not the same as seeing a guy in person when you can tell how he responds to pressure, coaching and what have you."

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