Unseld could coax, but could he coach?

May 02, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Only with the Washington Bullets, those luckless urchins of the NBA streets, could a coach last more than 500 games without answering the fundamental question of whether he was adept at the job. Such was the case with Wes Unseld.

We know that Unseld brought dignity and intelligence to the job, that he never sank to whining, that he had a way of getting players to try harder than they thought they were capable of trying.

We know that he lost a whole lot more games than he won.

But we never found out if he could coach.

Because his fortunes were inexorably joined with those of the unfortunate Bullets, the Glenn "If I Found a Needle in a Haystack I'd Prick My Finger on It" Davis of NBA franchises, Unseld never had enough talent on his roster to allow him to get fancy with matchups, offenses or substitutions -- the tools of the NBA coach's trade.

He never had a chance to see if he could handle the mixture of pressure and subtle adjustments that comes with a run in the playoffs. He was never able to play the high-level motivational games that Pat Riley gets to play. He was just trying to stay out of last place.

His seven years with the Bullets were spent basically attempting to master one trick: inventing ways to make up for his team's having less talent, which, by the way, is an impossible task in the player-driven NBA. When Unseld resigned last Sunday, he said it was "time for a new voice" for the Bullets, which, whether true or not, was typically gracious considering that the old voice, his voice, never really got a chance to sing.

He never had a legitimate center after Moses Malone left in 1988. (Pervis Ellison was never anything other than a power forward in disguise.) He never had a top, ball-distributing point guard. (Michael Adams was too small, inconsistent and injury-prone; at the end of the season, Unseld was playing Rex Chapman and Calbert Cheaney in the backcourt because Adams just wasn't a starting-caliber player.)

He never had the kind of young, multidimensional star around which to build a program. The Bullets never drafted high enough to get one.

What the franchise really needs is a change in luck a lot more than a new coaching voice. The Bullets' astoundingly consistent bad luck in the NBA's hokey draft lottery has prevented them from using the basic improvement path -- lose games, draft high, win games.

They're one of two NBA teams (the Bucks are the other) that hasn't had a pick in the top four of the first round since 1977. They've lost more than 50 games in each of the past five seasons, yet, because David Stern hasn't picked one of their balls out of the hopper at the right time, they've never drafted higher than sixth in the first round.

As Bullets general manager John Nash said last week, you have to pick first, second or third to get that special player. Had the Bullets chosen even just fourth instead of sixth in the past draft, they'd have Jamal Mashburn today instead of Calbert Cheaney.

Nothing against Cheaney, but he's a set piece on a good team. Mashburn is a future All-Star. The difference is the difference between treading water and substantively building for the future.

True, not all of the Bullets' problems are traceable to bad lottery luck. Shortsighted trades for Jay Vincent and Adams cost the team lottery picks. Ellison came in a trade, had one good year, got banged up and let the team down by failing sufficiently to rehab his injured knee last off-season. Kevin Duckworth, John Williams and Ledell Eackles seemed to prefer eating to playing.

Unseld could have ridden Duckworth and his other underachievers harder, perhaps instilling more discipline. But let's face it, he had no shot. When one-dimensional players such as Harvey Grant and Jeff Malone are the best you can offer in a trade, you need high draft picks to turn your program around. You need lottery luck.

You need Orlando luck, which gave the Magic the No. 1 pick two years running. What if Unseld was coaching the Magic instead? Now you're talking about a true barometer of his ability. Could he get Shaq to play hard and assume a leader's role? Could he squeeze the potential out of a young, talented team? Could he take the pressure? We'll never know.

Maybe it's true that the Bullets do need a new coach, that Unseld was worn down by all the losing, that his close relationship with owner Abe Pollin made life difficult for Nash. Now, Nash gets to bring in his own coach.

But what the Bullets really need is for their luck to change when the lottery rolls around. What they really need is a Jason Kidd, a Glenn Robinson -- the young star Unseld never had. If they'd gotten one somewhere along the line, Unseld probably still would be coaching.

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