Dick Motta will start his second season as coach of the Washington Bullets Friday when the club opens against Detroit in Capital Centre. His first year in Washington was marked by a large turnover in personnel, a loss to Houston in the playoffs, some player dissatisfaction and a change in coaching style from his days with the Chicago Bulls.
In an interview with staff writer Paul Attner, Motta discusses his feelings about this season and about some of the players he has to coach.
Q. You haven't got a dominating center or a Julius Erving. Should fans realistically expect the Bullets to compete with L. A., Philly and Portland for the league title?
A. This is a big man's game, and that's one of the flaws I don't particularly like. We have to be realistic and realize there are only four or five dominant centers in the league. If you are a basketball purist, you'd probably say those teams have the best chance of winning. If you don't have the great dominant center, which is the same problem I had for 10 years in Chicago, you strive every day to improve the supporting cast, to make the perimeter people around our center as functional as possible, to make everyone team-and have as much desire as possible so oriented and have as much desire as possible, so maybe you can overcome the center handicap.
I think we have a good basketball team. I think there are a number of teams capable of winning an NBA championship and the Washington Bullets are one of them. Our goal is to win the divisional championship, get as many home-court games as you can in the playoffs and go as far as you can with the home-court advantage and then hope when the playoffs come around you are clicking. And then you have to get a little lucky. You can't hope for anything else.
Q. At one point, the team was considering trading Elvin Hayes last season. Why didn't you?
A. I don't think we ever seriously considered trading him. When the history books in this league are cleared, he'll go down as one of the great big forwards of all times. His running ability, his shooting ability - he's a great athlete. You don't trade the great talent away, unless you think you can get something to fulfill a greater need.
Q. By keeping him here, does that mean you think you can improve with him this year?
A. One of our problems last year was that we were a two-man scoring team. Two men had to carry too much of the scoring burden. That's a coaching problem and we are going to try to solve it this year. With Mitch Kupchak's growth and Larry Wright and the acquisition of Bobby Dandridge and Tom Henderson, I think Elvin will have an enjoyable year. I expect him to.
But I think he's reached the point where I don't think he's a 48-minute player anymore.
Q. From what you've said, you apparently won't hesitate to substitute for Elvin or Phil Chenier if they go through shooting slumps this year?
A. There were very few places we could go last year. We didn't have the depth I enjoy now. Now I've got Tommy and Larry and I liked what Kevin Grevey did at guard during the exhibitions. I've got more people in the backcourt now that I can trust. The same up front.
Q. Chenier has been criticized for having an off year defensively last year. Do you agree?
A. Phil has that back problem. Anyone who has had a lower-back problem knows that functionally from the waist down there's pain. Anytime there's pain there, there is caution. The only way you can play defense is with complete abandon. He's only practiced a few days with us this year, but I truthfully see better movement and mobility on defense than he had all of last year.
He likes to play; he likes to play basketball. He brought his scoring average up for us last year. He's a great player without the ball. I thought he had a pretty good year. His reputation in the league hasn't changed. They know you can't leave him alone. When opponents set up their game to stop a man, they really respect him.
Q. Many people thought you would replace Wes Unseld at center with Mitch Kupchak this year. Why haven't you?
A. Wes' playing weight is better and his rebounding and outlet passing are on a par with two years ago. Mitch has a great talent to come off the bench and make things happen. The defense gets used to one thing and then this kami-kaze comes in and he runs and shoots and goes crazy. This is the first time I've had a big man who I can bring in with confidence. It makes me so much more relaxed knowing I have Mitch Kupchak sitting there down from me ready to make things happen.
When Wes retires and Mitch becomes the starter, I think he'll appreciate the starting role more for what he is going through. And you've also got to remember Wes' knees. It takes them a while to warm them up. After pregame warmups, he's basically ready and I think it would be foolish to let him sit on the bench for eight or 10 minutes and let him stiffen up before sending him in.
Q. After what Kupchak did against Houston in the playoffs last year, do you think people will expect too much from him this year?
A. In any lesser individual, it might affect him. But you know the saying, if you build a tiger he'll eat you. And no doubt about it, he's building a tiger. There is a freshness about him. There is a lot of boy about Mitch but an awful lot of man. He'll always be in control of himself. I respect that.
Q. People were surprised last year when your team ran, considering your teams played more deliberately at Chicago. Was the change that drastic for you?
A. I love to run, but I like to win More. I didn't have a fast-break team at Chicago and I was there so long it became easy to say I was a coach of discipline and control. But I think the way the Celtic's play is the way you should play basketball. It's the purest way.
That's what I'd like to do with this team, what Portland does. Get your center, get it to him, cut around him, play pressure defense all over the court, take the fast break when you can. If I didn't take advantage of Wes' outlet passes, there would be no reason to play him. You've got to take advantage of your strengths.
Q. When last season ended, you had just lost to Houston in six games, Hayes said he wanted to be traded and Dave Bing was critical of your dealings with the players. How is this team going to be different?
A. I thought Elvin had a good playoff series and I think got a lot of the blame for us losing but I don't think he should have taken all the responsibility for the loss because it was a complete team effort. Dave's reaction was normal. I was in a very difficult position with David last year. I came into an entirely set-up team from the year before. We gave it a good go but it was very apparent that we weren't going to be successful. I probably delayed my coaching decision longer than I should because it was inevitable. We had to replace him in the lineup.
There were some changes that had to be made. Some weren't that popular but like any other decision I've ever made, I put a lot of thought in it and made it strictly a basketball decision.
I've been coaching for 23 years and I can't ever remember having a decision where there wasn't a lot of agonizing thought put into it. And they've usually turned out right.
Q. Now that you've been here a year are you going to make any changes in how you do things?
A. There won't be much of a change. You are what you are. This is my 10th season in the NBA and my second with this group. I think we know each other better. I know them on an individual basis better. I feel much more comfortable around them and I hope they feel more comfortable around me. I think they do, unless their actions in camp aren't true actions. There aren't as many mysteries as there were a year ago. They are relaxing and having a lot of fun. I am, too. And that's good.