Coach Dick Motta spent much of the latter part of Sunday night and early yesterday morning sitting in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel, contemplating the future of the Washington Bullets.
Some of his thoughts, of course, centered on their four-game losing streak, when they played some of the poorest basketball of his two-plus years with the club.
But he pondered longer on something he feels is even more frightful. "Losing streaks have a way of being forgotten," he said. "This is a long season and, come March, I don't think anyone will remember what happened on this trip. But I don't like what I see happening in this league."
Motta fears that his style of coaching is being endangered by the new look of the NBA this season: more zone defenses and toughter enforcement of physical contact rules by the three-official crews.
He feels he can cope with the Bullets' lethargic play. More difficult will be revamping a club designed for power in a league where finesse and quickness appear to be the new trends.
"It's early yet and, when you lose, things look worse," he said. "But we are seeing so many zones, which is the way to stop this team, and no one is calling them. And they aren't letting you set screens any more either, not like you could. May offense is built around screens and picks."
Playing a zone defense is the one way opponents can negate a screening team. Screens usually don't free players in zones; instead, quick ball movement and quick players who can find open seams become all important. Motta's theory of methodically working the ball inside to his big men while running down the clock becomes ineffective.
Zones, supposedly illegal, were supposed to be called more closely this season. But through their first eight games only one Bullet opponent - New Jersey - has been tagged with the automatic technical. Los Angeles played a swarming zone all game Sunday night, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never moved out of the lane on defense. The Lakers were never penalized.
"It was incredible, what they were doing," Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson, who was scouting the contest, told Motta. "I was waiting for a call and it never came."
Motta says it takes as much as 40 seconds "to get a proper shot off a zone. With the 24-seconds clock, that's not enough time. I can coach against a zone, sure, but that's not how the NBA should be played."
What makes Motta's fears more noteworthy is that he is not an alarmist.After 10 years in the league, he has learned to remain calm in the midst of losing streaks and maintain his sanity when his teams break down, as it did this trip.
Last year, when there was talk of adding a third official after the Rudy Tomjanovich-Kermit Washington brawl, Motta warned that contact was part of the NBA style of playing and that to eliminate it would be a stereotype the game even more than it already is.
Now more fouls are being called, especially away from the ball. The results has been a string of dull games with too many free throws. And, in the process, the three-official setup doesn't seem to be working.
Currently, the lead official is stationed at halfcourt. He spends the entire game running between the foul lines while the other two referees, one of whom usually is a rookie, make the vast majority of the calls around the basket. Thus, the best referees in the league are having less and less effect on the game.
"I thought it was a valid system, but I thought they'd rotate the refs after every call," Motta said. "This way, well, I don't know. The veteran guy - the strong official - is being wasted."
Against Los Angeles, Richie Powers was the lead official. He probably made fewer than 10 calls during the game and had even less influence than either Jake O'Donnell or Joe Gushue had been in earlier contests on the trip.
"You pull at this time into training these guys (the referees) and then you don't utilize them," said Golden State Coach Al Attles. "By rotating them, all three get involved and you'd get a more consistently called game. This way, you aren't sure how a lot of the younger refs are going to call things."
All three officials, however, are cracking down vigorously on hand checking. Very little incidental contact between players is being allowed, which frees people like George McGinnis, Abdul-Jabbar and even John Lucas to use either their quickness or strength - or both - more freely.
"There is no question it's much easier to play offense this year without the hand checking," said Bullet guard Kevin Grevey. "You aren't being restrained as much. You can get a halfstep and you can't be slowed down with a hold."
Motta says the hand-checking role "also changes the nature of the game. I really don't think hand checking led to any fights, at least not since I've been in the league. But if you can't hand check and if you can play zone, it changes how you play as a team. Quickness becomes important; so does finesse.
"You wind up scouting college players differently and restructuring your club. That's something that can't be done quickly."
The Bullets are not an overwhelmingly quick club, nor are they blessed with enough good outside shooters to can nulify sagging zones. So, as will be the case tonight when Washington plays Atlanta at Capital Centre at 8 o'clock, Motta has to hope his edge in talent will be enough to overwhelm the Hawks' reliance on zones.
"Of course, the zone hasn't been the reason we've lost four in a row," said Motta. "They could have played anything against us and probably won. We just didn't have live legs. We couldn't get anything going, period.
"But eventually, if everyone else sees the zone working, they will switch to it too. And what will be our alternative?"
For the present, both the coach and his players are hoping a return to Capital Centre will restore their enthusiasm and offense, both of which were sorely lacking on the West Coast.
Motta probably should send out a missing person's report on the fast break. The last four games, the Bullets hardly ever ran in the four games, which playmaker Tom Henderson blamed in part on the absence of Larry Wright.
"Without Larry, I was being more conservative and tying not to lose the ball," he said. "But we need Larry to pick up the tempo and get us running. I know I'll be glad when he gets back."
Wright is hobbled by a sprained foot and hasn't played in 10 days. His return is expected on a day-to-day basis although he is not expected to play tonight.
Although Motta says appearances are deceiving, the Bullets are playing as if they are out of shape. He feels that fewer turnovers (they averaged 21 on the trip), better shooting (they shot only 43 percent) and more scoring from Elvin Hayes (he averaged just 12 points) will restore life to the team.
"No one ever said that defending our title was going to be easy," he said. "I think we got that message loud and clear on this trip."