Coach isn't only need of Bullets

February 10, 1997|By John Eisenberg

The Washington Bullets are in the process of changing coaches, which is all well and good as long as they realize that what they really need is to change some players, too.

Replacing Jim Lynam with Bernie Bickerstaff is a reasonable enough move, although it's probably not going to turn the franchise around; both coaches have career winning percentages of under .500, so we're not talking about a major upgrade.

But Lynam had tolerated a loose, two-tiered system in which stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland were absolved for making the same mistakes for which the lesser players were castigated, so maybe Bickerstaff can make a difference if he comes in as a disciplinarian treating everyone the same.

And yet, as is so often the case when a coach or manager is fired, the move doesn't begin to address the team's real problems.

The Bullets, as currently constituted, have structural problems that are going to limit their success, regardless of who is coaching them.

Yes, they're in better shape than some teams because of Webber and Howard. Such young, proven talent is a precious commodity. The Boston Celtics would trade rosters in a heartbeat.

But the fact that the Bullets have the league's fourth-highest payroll is grossly misleading. They're not anywhere close to the league's fourth-best team.

It's easy to accuse them of underachieving, given their high payroll and mediocre record, but the reality is that they have a lot of shortcomings for such a high-priced team.

What's wrong?

For starters, their two best players play the same position. Webber and Howard both belong at power forward. Howard has shifted to small forward, but it's not a desirable arrangement. Howard still plays a power game, leaving the Bullets without a true small forward who can slash to the basket and shoot jumpers.

With the immovable Gheorghe Muresan starting at center, the frontcourt doesn't have the kind of inside-outside scoring balance that all top teams do.

The Bullets would be smart to trade either Webber or Howard for a top player with different skills. They certainly could use a real starting center to control the middle. Muresan is a lot of fun, but, let's face it, a guy that slow and unathletic should be a backup.

Another option would be to move Webber to center and Howard to power forward -- a move that would help the team in the short run. The only problem is that Webber doesn't want to get beat up at center, and, in the long run, he would be most effective at forward.

Of course, the Bullets aren't about to trade Webber or Howard, not with the team changing its name and moving into a new arena in downtown Washington next year.

Webber and Howard are an exciting, marketable package, and an essential component of the franchise's plan to reinvent itself.

Never mind that they're being asked to lead the team when they're 23 and 24 years old and have no idea what leadership on the pro level is all about.

Maybe Bickerstaff, who turns 53 tomorrow, can show them the way better than Lynam.

In any case, the Bullets also have problems at shooting guard, where Calbert Cheaney has never lived up to the promise that convinced the Bullets to draft him with the sixth pick in the first round in 1993.

dTC He averaged 22 points a game as a senior at Indiana, but only 14.7 in his first three seasons with the Bullets and a lame 9.5 this year. With Webber, Howard and Strickland dominating the team, Cheaney simply wasn't getting the ball in Lynam's offense.

Bickerstaff either needs to get Cheaney the ball more often or get him out of here in a trade. A team whose starting shooting guard has only two three-point baskets at the All-Star break, as Cheaney does, is a team with serious problems.

The Bullets need more outside shooting, period. Tim Legler's return should help some, but not enough.

Strickland has played solidly at point guard, but his position and power forward are the only two at which the Bullets are set in the tradition of the league's top teams.

In other words, they need a whole lot more than just a new coach.

The truth is that Lynam really didn't deserve to get fired. The team sank a lot of money into Webber and Howard, raising expectations to unrealistic levels. Lynam took the fall.

Replacing him with Bickerstaff seems a sideways move at best. They're basically interchangeable as part of the NBA's recycling program; combined, they have coached 13 full seasons in the league and won one division title.

Yet Lynam's style clearly wasn't working, as the Bullets showed on their horrendous trip prior to the All-Star break, so a change wasn't surprising.

Bickerstaff's record doesn't give the fans a reason to expect success, but he has a history with the franchise and general manager Wes Unseld and owner Abe Pollin obviously are hoping simply that the chemistry is right among him, Webber and Howard.

That's fine, as long as Unseld and Pollin realize that the hiring of a new coach is just one of the many changes their team needs to make.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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