A rare victory puts end to painful Bullets season

April 24, 1995|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- It was finally over and the Washington Bullets had come away with one of their rare wins, leading someone to ask coach Jim Lynam if he would have liked to have seen the season extended just a little longer.

"At this point, there's nothing to prove by extending it," Lynam said. "It was time for it to end."

It would end with a 106-90 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Washington's largest margin of victory of the season. It would end with a standing ovation from the crowd of 18,756 at the USAir Arena, the team's 30th sellout. And it would end a season that was one of the most disappointing in franchise history.

Hiring Lynam was supposed to point the Bullets in a new direction. An opening win over the Orlando Magic and a 4-1 record to start the season made the Bullets the early surprise team of the season. And the trade for Chris Webber and the signing of Juwan Howard on the same day seemingly gave the Bullets instant respectability.

Yet the numbers don't lie. The Bullets ended with a 21-61 record, the worst record since the team moved to Landover and the third worst in franchise history. It's fitting that the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Bullets ended the season with identical 21-61 records (better only than the L.A. Clippers' 17-65 finish), being they're the only two teams in the league that have failed to win more than 25 games in any of the last four seasons.

"The coaching staff, the front office, the players, we're all in this together, and we're all guilty," Bullets general manager John Nash said of the team recently. "I feel for those folks making a living selling Bullets tickets, because the product is not what it's supposed to be."

Now it's the job of Nash to improve the product, an off-season process that begins this week when he and Lynam sit down to discuss the team's future. At least the two agree on the foundation: Webber, Howard, Gheorghe Muresan and Calbert Cheaney.

"Those four have competed," Nash said. "And all four will tell you that they're fed up with losing."

In Webber, Howard and Muresan the Bullets have three young players who are able to dominate games inside. Webber averaged 20.1 points and 9.6 rebounds a game for the Bullets, and was most impressive in the final month when he became a dominant player and a team leader.

"He's among the elite players," Nash said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he will do. He's done it all so far on natural

ability and as he refines his technique, he'll be a perennial all-star."

Webber would prefer to be a winner, and for that to happen here the Bullets will need to get themselves an effective point guard. It's the same problem the Bullets had last year, and they went out and acquired Scott Skiles from the Orlando Magic.

But Skiles never did click with this team, and he spent the last five weeks on the injured list with an injured right wrist and a sore left knee. His contract was for one season, and more than likely the Bullets won't ask him back.

With no real point guard of note expected to come out of this year's college draft, the Bullets could possibly wind up using their first-round pick as bait. "We'll add a player in the draft if we keep the pick," Nash said. "If we don't keep the pick, we'll add a high quality player."

In addition to a point guard, the Bullets will need to improve their play on the perimeter. With the new, shooter-friendly three-point line, Cheaney hit 96 three-pointers this season, 95 more than he hit last year. And while his overall game improved over the latter part of the season, Cheaney wasn't a consistent threat with his outside shot.

That role could have fallen to Rex Chapman, perhaps the team's best outside shooter. But Chapman hit just 31.4 percent of his three-point shots and shot just 39.7 from the field, an overall career low. He missed 35 games with injuries, and has yet to play more than 60 games in a season with the Bullets. He could wind up being left exposed in the upcoming expansion draft.

"It's frustrating being hurt," Chapman said. "It's just been a tough season."

The injuries were a major blow for the Bullets as the team lost 314 man games to various ailments. On opening night, the Bullets had a starting lineup of Tom Gugliotta, Cheaney, Kevin Duckworth, Chapman and Skiles. The four starters that night who are still with the team did not start yesterday, although Cheaney, coming off the flu and tonsillitis, played 24 minutes. Webber, the player who replaced Gugliotta, sat out with a sprained ankle.

Because of the injuries, Nash said it's unfair to assess the job this season of Lynam. "It's hard because things have changed so dramatically so often," Nash said. "We've not had a cohesive group of players all year because of injuries.

"Everyone of our starters has been out an extended period of time," Nash added. "It's like trying to evaluate an Indy race car driver when he has a flat tire."

Which brings to mind another flaw of the Bullets, a tendency to run out of gas. Leads of 16 or 18 points for the Bullets were commonplace this season, but losing those games was common as well. Whatever group returns next year will have to learn how to put teams away.

"I wish we had played three-period games this season," Cheaney said of his teams' tendency to blow the big leads. "We would have finished up well over .500."

The games are 48 minutes, which is why the Bullets are well below .500 and will spend next weekend watching the playoffs instead of playing in them. Still, with a high draft pick to go along with the team's foundation, there are indications that a turnaround is in sight.

"It's not my job to say what we need," Webber said. "But we need to get better at a lot of positions. I'm definitely looking forward to next year, a fresh start. I want to win a championship . . . I'm optimistic about our future."

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