Reloaded Bullets open with high-caliber hopes Bigger front line buoys rebound bid

November 05, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

It's an item that jumps off the page of the statistical yearbook, a list of the 10 smallest crowds in the NBA last season. A closer look reveals a common thread:

Los Angeles Clippers at Washington (5,834); Milwaukee at Washington (6,165); Dallas at Washington (6,214); New Jersey at Washington (6,903); Philadelphia at Washington (6,904); Miami at Washington (7,041). . . .

Having been host to the six smallest crowds in the league during a 22-60 season, the Washington Bullets got a clear message that their fans hate a loser.

Only the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks finished with fewer wins than the Bullets last season. The team had no real center, no real muscle and few players capable of taking a game over.

With that dismal season in mind, it's strange to listen to the Bullets on the eve of the 1993-94 season that begins tonight in Philadelphia.

Owner Abe Pollin, a self-described "nutty optimist," talks about a winning team -- and seems to mean it. Coach Wes Unseld appears to have a twinkle in his eye when he discusses the day he'll get a chance to field a full team. And general manager John Nash even goes as far as saying: "I do believe that the playoffs are a realistic goal."

Playoffs? It seems unlikely, but Washington may have improved enough at least to rise from the Atlantic Division basement. And once the team becomes healthy, look for Washington to rebound from the franchise's worst record since the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets finished 20-61.

One season after Pervis Ellison sacrificed his body at center for ,, the good of the team, the Bullets have their first real center in five years in Kevin Duckworth, acquired in an off-season trade. Washington had to give up its top scorer, Harvey Grant, but in return got a player who can withstand the punishment of the position and provide a legitimate low-post scoring threat.

"Playing without a center was stressful," said second-year forward Tom Gugliotta, who at times spelled Ellison at center. "It didn't make a difference who we played -- every game you knew the team was going to send the ball low. We never had a break."

With Duckworth at center, Gugliotta was supposed to move to small forward. But Gugliotta, who made the All-Rookie first team last season, stays at power forward while Ellison starts the season on the injured list to recover from off-season surgery on both knees.

Overmatched and limited to 49 games last season, Ellison is a key to Washington's success.

"When we get him back, get him healthy and get him playing," Unseld said of Ellison, "this will be an interesting team to watch."

Calbert Cheaney, the team's first-round pick out of Indiana, steps into the starting lineup at small forward. His transition to the NBA was rough, as injured hamstrings kept him out of practice, but once he got healthy, he displayed the accurate jump shot that helped him average 22.4 points during his senior season and win consensus Player of the Year honors.

"I would say I'm about 90 percent right now," Cheaney said. "It'll be a couple of weeks before I'm completely healthy, but I'm ready to go."

In the backcourt, Rex Chapman will start at shooting guard, although he may move into a backup role once Ellison returns. Chapman, 26, came into camp in the best shape of his career and appears ready to live up to his potential.

"He's been impressive since the day he entered camp, particularly on defense," Unseld said of Chapman. "There were times last year where he got picked three or four times on one play. Now, he's exerting energy and getting by picks."

Michael Adams, 31, is the oldest player on a young team and again will start at point guard. The knock against Adams had been that, at 5-10, he's too small to run the point effectively and that he shoots too much. But Adams cut down on his shots considerably last season (831 field-goal attempts, compared with 1,233 the previous season) and was instrumental in the few wins Washington had -- in the 12 games Adams missed, the Bullets were 1-11.

Playing key backup roles will be 7-7 rookie center Gheorghe Muresan (who has the chickenpox and will start the season on the injured list), guards Doug Overton and Brent Price and forward Don MacLean. Free agents Tito Horford, Kenny Walker and Mitchell Butler made the opening-night roster as free agents in what will serve as extended auditions -- once Ellison, Muresan and forward Larry Stewart (broken bone in right foot) get healthy, more changes will have to be made.

The Bullets will have a big audience in the home opener against the Boston Celtics tomorrow night -- that game became a sellout yesterday. Wednesday's game against the New York Knicks is nearing a sellout.

The Bullets played in front of 20 sellout crowds last season, including the four Baltimore games. How long the crowds will stay around depends on how well the Bullets play.

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