In the Bullets camp, and spilling over into other parts of town, there is the optimistic feeling that the pieces have finally fallen into place for Washington to have a genuine shot at an NBA title.
The trouble with this feeling is that pieces aren't enough. There must be something to hold the pieces together. And together they must form a coherent whole, with its own identity and integrity.
The Bullets should have learned that lesson. The Philadelphia 76ers gave a recent clinic on the subject, which earlier had been elucidated by professional basketball teams in Los Angeles. Chicago and a dozen other cities.
A few special teams have put the pieces together: the boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and now the Portland Trail Blazers. Label it by any cliche - glue, magic, chemistry, team concept - champions have it and star-studded [WORD ILLEGIBLE] do not. The recipe is not fixed there, are shifting and intangible and even spiritual elements in it, but some perceptible generalizations may be incurred as we wonder whether the Bullets have found it.
Single-direcleiness. Not to be confused with cairaraderie. Friction can be a source of productive energy, it is hard to conceive of genuine harmony among such strong idiosyncratic personalities as Red Auerbach. Bob Cousy, Bill RusseLL, Bill Sharman, Tom Bradley, Wait Frazier and Dick Barnett.
Yet in action there was a single team personality that prevailed an a cohesive responsiveness to a single direction of authority.
It remains to be seen whether the Bullets can achieve such monolithic strength. The chain of command and areas of responsibility for authority have not always been clear among general manager, coach and assistant coach.
The question, "Who's in charge here?" may not have been articulated in the lockerroom, but it often was mimed on court.
If Bob Ferry has to hear complaints from a superstar about individual statistics and Bernie Bickerstaff gas to handle the querulousness of a neglected bench, how can Dick Motta run the team? The key word is team and it in turn implies the necessity for well-defined authority to direct the teamwork. Without it, the team won't work.
Then there is the question of on-court wit. A coach on the floor is one thing all championship teams have had, whether in the form of a take-charge guard or a dominant center. The great teams have had several players to fill this role when necessary, so that the timeout is always called at the right time and appropriate adjustments to shifting tactics and tempos and conditions is made in time.
Dave Bing was the Bullets' best hope for this kind of leadership, though a younger, healthy Jimmy Jones might have filled the bill. Neither will get another chance. Wes Unseld always has been an important presence, but a captain who keeps his own counsel presumes that other professional will do their jobs with equal dedication. Such a premise is honorable but has not notably led to a championship conclusion.
The Bullets may be in a position where their floor leader will have to be a young guard, Larry Wright, who probably won't start.
Finally, the successful teams are always those which make the best use of their talent. The Bullets have the talent, most obviously in the classic big-man, little-man combination of Elvin Hayes adn Phil Chenier . For a while last season it seemed that Motta had completed the project begun by Gene Shue and advanced by K.C. Jones of converting Hayes from a supreme individual talent to a complete superstar basketball player. However by the end of the season he had reverted to his old selfish ways.
Chenier, on the other hand, is playing as if he himself accepts the fact that he isn't the new Walt Frazier or the new Jerry West (though in physical terms, the differences are minimal). He has ceased doing the individual things at which he excels: man-on-man defense and shooting under pressure. No coach had to sit West or Frazier down for so many fourth-quarter minutes as Motta felt compelled to do with Chenier late last season.
If the Bullets are to achieve a champsionship chemistry, the formula must begin with Hayes and Chenier intergrating into a total team concept. Unseld will do what is asked of him, though he probably will be asked less. Mitch Kupchack and Wright already have shown that they have both the talent and the attitude to make significant contributions. The big guy will be asked to do more; the little guy perhaps should be. Greg Ballard, Bo Ellis, and Coniel Norman are question marks at this point, but there are others, including Tom Henderson and Bob Dandridge.
The prospect of Henderson leading the fastbreak with Chenier. Dandridge and Hayes filling the lanes, is grand. Henderson, a competent defender, erupts on transition to offense accelerating on the break as well as anyone. Dandridge has always scored well off the break and Chenier is deadly from the baseline on an open jumper created by the break.
Yet Henderson does not always see the patterns developing in a fast break. He doesn't have the proverbial eyes in his ears of a Cousy, isn't the master middle man in a running game, and he will often outrun his wings, driving too far under in a three-on-one situation (which Cousy never did). And what happens when there is no break? Henderson has yet to show that he can direct traffic in a patterned offense.
Dandridge is equally iffy. Defensively he had not shown in recent years that he can handle good quick forwards (the term "small forward" is already archaic). His rebounding reputation is based on years when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar occupied most of the opponents' attention. He is a good shooter but was splendid only when he was getting the ball in ideal open situations created by Oscar Robertson adn Abdul-Jabba."
Neither Dandridge nor Henderson would seem to have brought the championship glue, though both are prime ingredients. Perhaps all the ingredients for the mix are new present but Motta will have to impose the blended flavor. That will be no easy job with these strong ingredients anyway, and harder still for a coach who reputedly doesn't relate comfortably to many player.
Isaacs, a professor who is on sabbatical from the University of Maryland, is the author of several books, including "All the Moves: A History of College Basketball" and "Checking Back: The Story of NHL Hockey," to be published in October.