Move puts Bullets in tough, but not impossible, spot

February 11, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

BOWIE — "What it gets down to is that everyone wants some form of discipline. I'm not afraid to give direction." -- Bernie Bickerstaff

"My mother disciplined me. I'm a very disciplined individual. I don't need any more discipline." -- Chris Webber BOWIE -- Sorry, too late for a do-over.

Webber is stuck with Bickerstaff, and Bickerstaff is stuck with Webber, and may the Bullets live happily ever after.

The hiring of Bickerstaff won't necessarily prove a mistake -- Webber isn't as uncoachable as his critics suggest, and Bickerstaff probably isn't as inflexible as some of his former players make him sound.

Still, even if Bickerstaff and Webber get along famously, the Bullets are asking an awful lot.

New coach, young team, midseason change -- the situation fairly screams out for patience.

Yet, the first thing Bickerstaff talked about yesterday was conveying "a sense of urgency" to his players.

Why?

Because the Bullets need to sell season tickets and luxury suites at the new MCI Center in downtown Washington.

That's the worst possible reason for a coaching change, but the Bullets were correct to fire Jim Lynam, who was too deferential to his young stars.

The hiring of Bickerstaff is another story.

It's a curious move at best, a dangerous one at worst, a risky proposition for a franchise in desperate need of a sure thing.

No, the Bullets can't be trusted, not when they haven't made the playoffs since 1987-88 or won a playoff series since 1981-82.

Bickerstaff, 53, received a three-year, $4.5 million contract solely to coach, when his greatest strength is probably as a talent evaluator.

The Bullets should have just named him the interim for the rest of the season, then decided whether he should remain coach or move to the front office.

Bickerstaff probably still would have come -- he resigned as Denver's coach last November, and the Nuggets reportedly were on the verge of firing him as their GM.

But the Bullets made his decision easy.

They could have stuck with assistant coach Bob Staak as the interim, then pursued potential free agents Phil Jackson or Larry Brown in the off-season.

They didn't need to recycle a coach with a .486 winning percentage, a coach who alienated Dikembe Mutombo and Jalen Rose in Denver.

No doubt, Webber already has spoken to Rose, his former teammate at Michigan, about the horrors that await the Bullets.

Even Elvin Hayes said it would be a "great mistake" to hire Bickerstaff -- and Hayes played for the Bullets' 1978 world championship team, for which Bickerstaff was an assistant.

Bullets GM Wes Unseld also was a member of that team, but insisted this was not a "buddy hire."

Well, it certainly was a family hire.

And the Bullets' obsession with family would be more understandable if the team had the tradition of, say, the Boston Celtics.

But you know what? This still can work. Bickerstaff's mission is to teach Webber and Juwan Howard how to win. Both could benefit from a firmer hand.

The problem is, when you commit $160 million to two players in their early 20s, they're almost by definition more powerful than the coach -- a reality that was all too clear to Lynam.

His double standard was so evident, Webber and Howard often led the fast break instead of Rod Strickland, who just happens to be the point guard, and one of the best in the game.

"We've got to maximize him," Bickerstaff said of Strickland. "He has to have the ball to make people better. We've got two of the great finishers when you talk about Webber and Howard."

Tell it to Webber, who threw a behind-the-back pass into the stands on a three-on-one break in Los Angeles, with the Bullets trailing by a large margin in the first quarter.

Lynam didn't bench him, and to many, the sequence symbolized all that was wrong with the Bullets. Bickerstaff left little doubt he would not tolerate such playground antics.

"Things will happen," he said.

The question is, how will Webber respond?

Some NBA observers view him as responsible for the firings of two coaches -- Don Nelson in Golden State, and now Lynam.

Neither perception is accurate.

Webber was vindicated by Nelson's failure to relate to other players in Golden State and New York, and he got along fine with Lynam.

Of course, that might be because Lynam didn't ask Webber to play more minutes at center.

Webber is engaging, intelligent and honest -- too honest for his own good. He's also a little spoiled. But the bigger issue is that he's a power forward, same as Howard.

The day he signed his six-year contract with the Bullets, Webber said he didn't mind playing center -- "I'll be a cheerleader if they want," he said.

Now, his image is at stake.

He can't afford another public-relations hit.

"We'll have some conversations," Bickerstaff said. "We'll figure out what's best for the basketball team.

"That's the only thing that's important. Not what's best for me, not what's best for Chris Webber as an individual, but how do we win? That's what we have to sell."

OK, Chris, what about playing more center?

"He hasn't said it, so I'm not worried about it right now," Webber said.

It all could work out fine, if the Bullets make the playoffs and the players embrace Bickerstaff the way Shawn Kemp and Dale Ellis did in Seattle.

Unfortunately, that's the only acceptable outcome.

The Bullets are a desperate team.

And in sports, desperation rarely translates to success.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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