All through the early weeks of the season, it seemed that it would be only a matter of a day or two—or a couple of games, at most—before the slump ended and the Washington Bullets found themselves headed for their accustomed spot atop the NBA's Atlantic Division. After all, this was the team that had specialized in dramatic comebacks, the team that won the NBA championship two years ago, the team that was runner-up for the title last season.
Well, the days passed and the games passed and perhaps an era did, too. It is past mid-season, and as of last Sunday the Bullets were five games under .500 and struggling. The calendar, in more ways than one, had become Washington's biggest concern.
By last week the question was not when the Bullets would make their run, but if they would even be able to squeak into their 12th straight playoffs.
Just what's wrong with this once-steadiest-of-all teams? You do not play in a town where Eric Sevareid was once half-canonized, for quoting Spinoza a lot and for knowing how to spell "Machiavellian," without being subjected to your share of punditry. The most popular—and most plausible—theory is this: the Bullets are too old. Although Washington has enough young players to keep its average age at a fairly reasonable 29.7, second oldest in the NBA, the most important starters are so long in the tooth that their ages are determined by carbon dating. Forward Elvin Hayes is 34, Center Wes Unseld will reach that age in March, and Forward Bob Dandridge is 32. A while back Bullet Coach Dick Motta gave some credibility to what had up to that point been only loose talk by speculating that the reason Hayes seemed to be dropping more balls than ever was that he was too old. In the Big E's case, Motta appeared to be arguing that the hands are the first to go.
Hayes has scored his usual 20 points a game this season, and according to last week's NBA stats he's the league's eighth-best rebounder and shot-blocker. Though less biased observers have never considered Hayes' hands to be one of his greatest attributes, the Big E is so crazy about his mitts that if he weren't busy wearing them, it would be all anybody could do to keep him from donating them to the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian or maybe even to some team on which they would not go unappreciated. "What do hands have to do with it?" Hayes says. "I've had these hands my whole career. I know a lot of players who wish they had these bad hands. There's no big forward in the league having the year I'm having. My ability speaks for itself. The age thing is a cop-out. If it wasn't for the veteran players we have on the team, I don't know where we'd be now."
Motta has had nothing more to say on the subject of aging or Hayes' hands since November, when he was told by Bullets owner Abe Pollin that if he couldn't keep his opinions to himself he could start looking for work elsewhere. But that hasn't stopped others from taking note of a difference in the way Washington is playing. "We used to beat people physically," says Kevin Grevey, once the Bullets' reliable shooting guard, who's now hitting a pitiful 38% of his shots. "Teams used to dread playing us because we used to intimidate people and then wear them down. We aren't intimidating anybody now. I think they look forward to us."
Unseld, the sequoia-like team captain, ranked third in the league in rebounding last week, and he still sets the most imposing pick and throws the most effective outlet pass in the NBA. But injuries to other players have forced Unseld to play 35 minutes a game, more than in any of the past three seasons, and he knows that the pace eventually will catch up with his painfully arthritic knees. And despite his good numbers, Unseld admits that things are not as they once were.
"Some people don't want to admit it," he says, "but some of us have gotten old. What some of us have lost, we're never going to get back. I daresay we haven't any more talent than anybody else in the league, and now we're older. The Bullets used to be like a well-oiled machine, but the machine has changed. Age is definitely a factor in that change. There was a time when we would walk out on the floor and just physically beat people. We used to knock heads for 48 minutes, never giving any ground, and then see who won. We're not doing that anymore.
"I'm not saying we're over the hill. We just have to use a different approach to the game; we have to get mentally tough. And I don't know if the personnel we have here is capable of being mentally tough. I tend to doubt it. Some people just aren't going to change. If you don't bring it with you, you aren't going to find it there."
The Bullets have had no more than their share of injuries, but as Motta puts it, "Injuries have really hurt us because we have that old front line." Most troublesome have been the repeated absences of Dandridge, who missed 11 of Washington's first 40 games, often with nothing more than stiffness in his joints.
On Nov. 14, for instance, Dandridge played 33 minutes and scored 30 points against Chicago, apparently finishing the game uninjured. On Nov. 16, however, a stiff neck prevented him from making a trip to Piscataway, N.J. to play the Nets.
Dandridge started and played 33 minutes against Kansas City on Dec. 19. Then during Christmas week he missed five games with an assortment of back, knee, neck and foot ailments. Having returned to the lineup on Jan. 1, Dandridge scored 15 points in 26 minutes against Los Angeles on Jan. 9. But when the Bullets boarded their bus two days later for the three-hour drive to Philadelphia and a game with the 76ers, Dandridge excused himself from the trip and the game with a sore ankle. The Bullets were in the midst of a four-game winning streak, and a victory would have put them at .500 for the first time in six weeks. "I placed as much importance on winning this game as any we've played all year," said Motta after Washington lost 119-106.
During the off-season, the Bullets signed playmaking wizard Kevin Porter, the NBA leader in assists the past two seasons, to a contract worth a reported $200,000 a year. Having lost free-agent Guard Tom Henderson to Houston, the Bullets were in need of a ballhandler and figured that in Porter they perhaps had the NBA player best equipped to get the ball to Hayes and Dandridge. And as late as five weeks into the season, Porter was second only to Boston's Nate Archibald in the league assist race with 8.9 a game.
Terrific. Except for one thing: Porter was getting his assists at the wrong time. He generally spent so many seconds dribbling around that the shooters didn't get to handle the ball until half of the time had expired on the shot clock. "We are a power team," Motta says, "and if the forwards aren't getting the ball low, we're wasting a lot of expensive talent."
There followed what became known as "Kevin's adjustment period," during which Porter attempted to make his penetrating game fit the Bullets' patterned offense. Kevin's adjustment period had been going on for weeks without notable success when, on Dec. 4, Washington picked up Jim Cleamons, who had been wasting away at the end of the Knicks' bench. Cleamons barely had to make any adjustments—he was already a heady, conservative guard of the sort that fits perfectly into pattern play—and soon he became the Bullets' ballhandler and Porter was benched, but good. In 16 January Bullet games through last Sunday, he played a grand total of 74 minutes. "Dick had pointed the finger at Kevin," says Grevey, "and Kevin had accepted the blame."
Porter has become so unhappy that no one has seen his lips move in nearly a month. "There's nothing wrong with Kevin," Unseld says. "He could probably still lead the league in assists. The mistake was in bringing him to a team that couldn't use him."
Porter has not been the only disappointment in the backcourt. Grevey, who had averaged 15.5 points over the past two seasons, lost whatever confidence he had left last week by shooting 0 for 4 in a 114-91 loss in Cleveland. But Grevey was hardly the only culprit. Excluding Roger Phegley, the Bullet guards went two for 24. Phegley is a remarkable shooter at times—he made 10 of 17 against the Cavs—as is Larry Wright, but both have been erratic. "We've had problems at guard for 46 games now," said Motta. "We use a different combination every game. We've been so inconsistent it's starting to frustrate the players." Or as Cleamons put it, "We can't kill anything, and nothing's dying."
In 1968 the then Baltimore Bullets had the second pick in the draft and took Unseld from the University of Louisville. The first pick that year was Hayes of Houston, whom the Bullets acquired in a trade in 1972. The Bullets have not missed the playoffs since Unseld joined them, which means that for a decade and more they have not had especially advantageous positions in the draft.
"We've made the playoffs the last 11 years," Motta says, "and in that time Boston has fallen on hard times twice, Philadelphia has been up and down, and the Lakers the same. There is no other team that has maintained the level of excellence that the Bullets have. But because the whole system is set up to help the weaker teams, there will be a time when this one will have to rebuild." This makes a neat little theoretical package, but the facts only partially support it. True, Washington's pick in 1975 was 18th among 18 NBA teams—Grevey was the choice—but in each of the next three years the Bullets had two first-round selections. Only one of those picks was among the top twelve, but Washington nonetheless got Mitch Kupchak, Wright, Bo Ellis, Greg Ballard, Dave Corzine and Phegley with them. All but Ellis are still with the Bullets. Last year Washington traded its first-round pick to Phoenix for the rights to Steve Malovic, who was later traded to San Diego.
Kupchak, the best acquisition from the draft, began suffering muscle spasms in his back late last season and wound up missing all of the Bullets' 4-1 championship series loss to Seattle. In June he underwent surgery on a herniated disc and was not ready to begin practicing with the team until late November. Once among the best sixth men in basketball, Kupchak, who can play both forward positions and center, has been reduced to only 11.5 minutes a game and is making only a modest contribution at a time when the Bullets need him badly. No one expects him to be completely ready to play until next season.
Despite all the bad ball and badmouthing, Unseld could still say after last week's loss to Cleveland, "Maybe we'll surprise ourselves." And they did at home two nights later, when New Jersey easily beat them 98-87. "We haven't given up on ourselves," Grevey said after that defeat, which was something of a new low, even for these Bullets. "We're just going to try to make the playoffs and salvage the season." Added Hayes, "I know we'll be in the playoffs. That's when the floor seems to shorten itself and the teams without all our experience begin to tighten up. That's when we'll be loose."
Possibly looser than he knows. If the playoffs had begun last Sunday, Washington, which broke a six-game losing streak—its longest in 12 years—Friday night in Boston, wouldn't have made it.
It has been such a thoroughly dismal season for the Bullets that they have been unable to do the one thing that almost any NBA team can—be dominant at home. A win over Golden State last Sunday left them just 13-12 in the Capital Centre, with a seven-game road trip stretched over 10 days on the horizon following the All-Star break. Such arduous treks are usually regarded with fear and loathing in the NBA, but these days the Bullets seem to consider them a blessing. After what one player describes as "vicious booing" during home losses to Phoenix and Denver, the Bullets have begun to dread playing at home. "Our fans are spoiled. They're used to winners," says Grevey.
So, evidently, are Washington's opponents. "Teams still get ready to play us as if we are one of the premier teams in the league," says Motta. "In the old days we used to go out and just play ball. Now they find a weakness, and they go after it like a bunch of sharks."
More and more the sharks are circling around the former champions, each waiting its turn to bite the Bullets.