Although the Bullets have won only two of six games so far against teams that figure to be their biggest playoff problems, they are a better team this year than last when they won the whole ball of NBA wax.
No longer ego-crazed, Elvin Hayes may be the ultimate big forward. He is a giant who can run, jump and score inside or outside. Bob Dandridge, the gem of a small forward, can do anything he wants with a basketball. If Wes Unseld is not eight feet tall, he beats the supposed intimidators with uncommon basketball sense and strength of will.
Behind the Hayes-Dandridge-Unseld front line that may be the best afoot today -- one hestitates to call it the best ever, because an early-'70s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with two dwarfs would be hard to beat -- the Bullets have strong reserves in Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard. Kupchak is the league's most valuable reserve, an enthusiastic big man who can play center or forward. With another team, he might be a 20-point-a-night star. Ballard is solid and improving.
Coach Dick Motta does not have the gifted guards that make good teams great, and if the Bullets do not repeat as champions the guards will be the reasons. Yet Motta has concealed that weakness wonderfully with inspired use of four men with divergent talents: playmakers Tom Henderson, the steady one, and Larry Wright, forever Mercurial; and shooters Kevin Grevey, Trying to be a complete player, and Charles Johnson, who gets out of bed firing jumpers.
It is axiomatic that pros do not break up a team that wins. That is because no one really knows what makes a team win. Because the Bullets became champions when they seemed to have less talent than five or six other teams, it was supposed that some inexplicable chemistry lifted them above the crowd.
Sportswriters usually tap out the words "destiny" and "fate" when they can't explain victory. What else could it be but destiny, a sportswriter wondered, that brought Charles Johnson to Washington by helicopter when no one else in the league wanted him? Clearly, fate decreed he would create the excitement, and a few fairly amazing buckets, that would help the Bullets beat teams with greater talent.
So no one wants to break up a winning team out of fear they will upset the fragile chemistry that makes winners out of also-rans.
What, then, do the Bullets do when Phil Chenier returns to work next month?
If the Bullets get lucky, the proper decision can make them a great basketball team. They must be lucky enough that Chenier, after back surgery, returns to something near his former form. And they must be lucky enough that his return, with its inevitable change in the team's chemistry, does not break the mysterious bond that made the Bullets winners.
First, the Bullets must see how well Chenier can play. To do that, they likely will make room for him by temporarily dropping rookie Roger Phegley, a fifth guard with promise who hasn't played much.
If Chenier is no better than the five guards the Bullets now have, they have no reason to keep him. He might be traded for a draft choice.
If, on the other hand, Chenier is once again a great shooter who can win a game by himself, the Bullets have several options. The best would seem to be a trade of two guards in hopes of obtaining, either directly or in the draft, a guard of unquestioned playmaking ability.
A solid quarterback-type guard along with Henderson and a back-to-form Chenier, would give the Bullets a guard corps comparable in ability to their front line.
All this will require General Manager Bob Ferry and Coach Dick Motta to make several judgments of ability. Is Roger Phegley, a shooter who has youth and size, a better investment than an older but quicker Charles Johnson, who can bn erratic? Will Larry Wright ever by able to run an offense? Can a Chenier and a Kevin Grevey, both off-the-ball guards, coexist?
"The Bullets are a much better fastbreaking team than last year," said Seattle SuperSonic forward Paul Silas. Seattle guard Freddie Brown said, "The Bullets are awesome and, as world champions, they are so confident." "Right now, they have everything a team could want -- big men, good bench, good guards," said Dennis Johnson, a Seattle guard.
Will people say those things after Phil Chenier returns?