With no dumb luck, Bullets play it smart

JOHN EISENBERG

July 02, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

In their attempt to reconfigure themselves as a real NBA team, the Bullets have demonstrated wisdom and foresight and all those good things. Unfortunately for them, what they really needed was luck.

Yes, they'll be better next year. That was a 60-spot they dropped into the loss column last season. They can't get much worse. But they'll still lose their way back into the lottery next year, and keep losing their way back, until they stumble into some dumb luck.

The kind that allows you to draft a Chris Webber instead of a Calbert Cheaney. A franchise player instead of just a player.

It's true that their rebuilding efforts have been thwarted over the years by, well, themselves. The Bullets haven't won a playoff series in 11 years, haven't even made the playoffs in five, yet have had only three lottery picks in all that time.

Five times they were just good enough to miss the high picks and lose in the first round of the playoffs. They couldn't do any more to assure their mediocrity if they tried. Twice, they traded first-rounders that wound up lottery picks. (For Jay Vincent and Michael Adams. Ouch.)

Still, the absence of luck has been their biggest problem. In their three lottery shots, they have come in ninth, sixth and sixth. Meanwhile, the Magic lands the top pick two years running -- this year on a 1-in-66 dumb-luck shot.

(And when I mean dumb luck, I mean d-u-m-b. The Magic could have had a championship frontcourt with Webber and Shaquille O'Neal. The rest of the league would have been playing catch-up for years. But they had to get cute and trade Webber. And don't talk to me about any salary cap trouble. When you get a chance to make your franchise, you make some sacrifice, any sacrifice.)

It's too bad. The NBA is so hot right now that you could cook a hamburger on it, or at least a major-league baseball marketing campaign, but you won't find any excitement around here. We're in an NBA dead zone. Yes, even with that exciting new arena name. (Q: Now that it's USAir Arena, will any games take off on time?)

The Bullets deserve better. They really do. Maybe they didn't when Bob Ferry was running around drafting busts, but current management knows what it's doing. That's evident from the past few weeks.

Let's start with the key move, trading Harvey Grant to Portland for Kevin Duckworth. It doesn't look smart, considering that Grant is a better player, but it was smart for three reasons.

First, Grant was going to leave after next season, so the Bullets needed to unload him before they wound up getting nothing for him. Second, having committed to drafting Cheaney, they needed to find him minutes. With Grant around, there weren't going to be any. And Grant is one-dimensional anyway, just a scorer.

Third, and most important, the Bullets just couldn't operate any longer without a real center. They were getting blown apart in the middle. Duckworth is a marginal talent, but he's big and can bang and that's all the Bullets need. Now Pervis Ellison can move to power forward before his career is ruined -- he might be an All-Star there -- and Tom Gugliotta can move to small forward, where he will be a handful. Suddenly, it's a big, competitive frontcourt.

The decision to draft Cheaney, instead of trade the pick for Detlef Schrempf or Mark Price, also was sound. Schrempf was an All-Star last year and Price is a top guard, but the Bullets don't need 30-year-old players who aren't going to get any better. They need young cornerstones, not Band-Aids. That was the lesson of the Michael Adams trade.

Of course, it's no certainty Cheaney will be a productive pro. He has in-between size and has to learn to create his shot, which are points of concern. But he was the best college player last year, a sharpshooter with range, and he's worth the shot. (And forget this stuff about prior Indiana stars not making it. What does that have to do with him?)

As for this second-round pick: hellooooooooo up there! Gheorghe Muresan is a 7-foot-7, 315-pounder from Romania, which means that he might be able to dribble and talk at the same time, but the word is that he tore up the French League. Of course, tearing up the French League is like having the lowest ERA in Italy. Still, most second-rounders amount to nothing, so why not take a chance?

In all, the Bullets couldn't have done much more with the lousy hand they were dealt on lottery day. But the sad fact is that it's all basically busy work until they get some dumb luck. They just aren't going to generate any real excitement in USAir Arena (also known as Sorry for the Delay Arena) until they get a top three pick. If they ever do.

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