With greater talent, but same old record, maybe Wes should go

December 20, 1993|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Back in his playing days, when an unsuspecting opponent ran into a pick set by Wes Unseld, the arena lights flickered and worms used to come crawling out of the ground. The Richter scale people would call, checking on casualties and property damage in the area.

Maybe it's time that Wes ran into one of his own bygone picks, figuratively speaking, of course. It just might shock him into an assessment of what kind of a career he has had coaching the Washington Bullets.

"Bad" probably doesn't do the six-year career justice, especially considering the past few seasons and the suddenly hopeless start this campaign.

Riding a 10-game losing streak after starting promisingly enough, splitting its first 12 games, the team hits the road for a week, where it carries a sorry 1-9 record already. Doesn't bode well for a quick turnaround, does it?

Add three games the next week, two on the road, before the new year, and it's easy to see where this could be classified as another rebuilding (alias lost) season even before half the ZTC schedule has been completed.

During the 1990s, as Washington's win total has dwindled from 31 to 30 to 25 to 22, Unseld has repeatedly been given the benefit of the doubt, with the argument that the Bullets didn't have much talent on the roster.

That was plain to see, and, for a while at least, Wes' teams were given credit for being the hardest-working around. But that has worn off and no longer is the cast regarded as one of the worst in the league.

The plain fact is the Bullets have reasonably good talent and have appeared to draft well lately while making a couple of moves to improve what looked to be glaring weaknesses. Still, nothing's happening.

Game after game, it's the same old story: The Bullets play well for long stretches and appear to be on a par with the opposition until the late going, when they fall into a swoon.

In their latest misadventure against Utah Saturday night, for instance, everything pointed to this being the end of the losing streak. Assuming command midway through the second period, Washington was up by nine points at intermission and by as many as 13 in the last quarter.

In the 12-minute period, Washington ended up scoring 12 points, which did wonders for the famed point-a-minute football team at Michigan in the early part of the century but just doesn't go in the NBA. Once again, Unseld wasn't there with the moves to halt the winning surge of the Jazz, which had all but accepted the fact that this one was headed for the loss column.

In the final analysis, it's the execution of the players that wins or loses games. But it's the responsibility of the coach to develop and get the most out of his talent. It's his duty to know who to have on the floor at crunch time and what style of play best serves the talent on hand.

If, as Tom Gugliotta pointed out, "We play pretty well for three quarters, then just go nuts with bad shots, not realizing the clock is in our favor," it would seem to be Unseld's job to drum the proper way of doing things into the offenders.

At the same time, when a guy who is expected to fill the team's need for a bona fide center shows up in laughable condition, it's the coach who has to correct the situation, not, in effect, give in to the player (Kevin Duckworth) by giving him added playing time that he obviously can't handle.

It's usually a losing proposition arguing the strategy employed by the coach because it's totally subjective. When individuals or a team don't achieve an acceptable percentage of their potential and the coach doesn't appear to be in control and getting the most out of his talent, a change usually is contemplated.

For a man who has never appeared to have much trouble dumping coaches -- Gene Shue, K. C. Jones and Dick Motta were all sent packing after turning in some fine seasons -- Bullets owner Abe Pollin has let it be known that he is completely averse to throwing the switch on one of the great friends of his life, Wes Unseld. And if you don't believe Abe is one of the most loyal human beings ever, recall the career of player-coach-general manager Bob Ferry.

People have been known to resign, however. During the off-season, Unseld reportedly thought long and hard about staying on as coach of the team, which has averaged 55 losses each of the past four years. Finally, he concluded it was in the best interest of all concerned to continue.

Is it time for Unseld to ask himself if he made the right decision?

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