HERNDON, Va. -- One day after labeling the Bullets' recent play "unacceptable," general manager Wes Unseld fired coach Jim Lynam yesterday and installed assistant Bob Staak as interim coach. The club immediately began the search for a permanent replacement, which Unseld hopes to conclude by the start of the second half of the season.
The Bullets spent liberally to end an eight-year absense from the playoffs and put together a team worthy of the new arena that is rising in downtown Washington, so it was just a matter of time before another mediocre season put the coaching job up for grabs.
"This was not something that just came up at the spur of the moment," Unseld said last night at a news conference at a hotel near Dulles Airport. "Jimmy and I had talked about the importance of the team's effort and the importance of the team's production on the court. It just wasn't happening."
The timing of the announcement was curious, coming just days before the NBA All-Star break, but Unseld said that he could sense that Lynam's job security was becoming an issue, and didn't want him to twist in the wind. He didn't say exactly when the decision was made, but admitted that growing media speculation was one of the reasons he did not wait for the Bullets to come back from the current road trip.
Unseld flew to Denver on Tuesday night and broke the news to Lynam yesterday morning. Assistant coach Buzz Braman also was relieved of his duties as the club's shooting coach.
Lynam took the news hard, though he couldn't have been very surprised. He had a career 82-128 record since joining the Bullets in 1994 and knew that this was a must-reach-the-playoffs season.
"I'm very disappointed at not having the opportunity to see this through," Lynam said in a prepared statement. "I take full responsibility for the performance of the team and I certainly feel that our record is not reflective of the talent on this team."
The Bullets (22-25), whose payroll of $34.5 million is the fourth highest in the NBA, were expected to be a solid playoff contender after locking up young stars Juwan Howard and Chris Webber to long-term contracts worth a total of $160 million and adding veteran guard Rod Strickland to the backcourt, but the team opened the second half of the season with two lopsided road losses and are in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
Not exactly the level of play that Unseld and team president Susan O'Malley had hoped to showcase for prospective season ticket buyers. The Bullets are desperate to create some momentum in the second half and, with it, a surge in the sale of expensive club seats at the new MCI Center, which is scheduled to open for the 1997-98 season.
The choice of a new coach may be critical to that effort. Unseld said last night that he would name a permanent coach "as soon as possible" and confirmed that he already had narrowed a long list of candidates that included a number of top names -- such as Paul Westphal, Chuck Daly and Bob Hill -- but he would not hint at those who had made his short list.
He quickly ruled out any college coaches, ending speculation about Maryland coach Gary Williams before it could begin, but left open the possibility that he might ask permission to speak to some top NBA assistants.
"I do have a short list," Unseld said. "Hopefully, I'll be looking at those people soon. The reason I'm not talking about names is that I've got to get permission to talk to some of these guys."
That's about as specific as Unseld would get. He did make it clear that he will not take the job himself and he is not considering Staak for anything but the caretaker position. Even the qualifications for a new coach were not specifically addressed.
"A good coach, to me, is somebody who can get these guys to play the way we feel they can play," Unseld said. "I wouldn't say that I have a profile I'm looking for."
He acknowledged, however, that the decision was made -- at least in part -- because the club wants to salvage the second half of the season and carry some positive momentum into the new downtown arena.
"I think it's very important and I think it's very doable," he said. "We've got plenty of time. We've got the month of March, when there are a number of games that are very obtainable. This is a tough month for us, but we still have the opportunity to win games and get into the playoffs."
Lynam's last two games with the Bullets were a 30-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday and a 22-point loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday, but Unseld said those two defeats played only a small part in his decision.
"I just didn't like the effort," he said. "It boils down to a style of play. We just didn't get into it the way good teams do."