The Bullets, who will play tonight at New Orleans without Kevin Grevey and Bobby Dandridge, will have an excellent opportunity to determine whether Phil Chenier will be able to help them in the upcoming playoffs.
Dandridge aggravated his chronically sore neck Sunday against Cleveland and will not play against the Jazz (8:30 p.m. WDCA-TV-20). He joins guard Grevey on the Bullets' battered body list.
Dandridge is expected to return Wednesday against the Knicks at Capital Centre, but the same cannot be said for Grevey, sidelined once again with a hamstring pull also suffered against Cleveland.
Grevey said yesterday he will be out for at least a week. He will be reexamined then by team physician Stanford Lavine to determine if the hamstring has healed sufficiently to allow him to play.
"I may have to sit out the rest of the regular season," Grevey said. "I've tried everything else and I'm really frustrated. I'm just going to have to take things as they come and see how the hamstring responds to rest. I've never been so low in my life."
In the past, Grevey's absence has opened up more playing time for reserves Larry Wright and Charles Johnson.
But that pattern could change over the last three weeks of the season. Chenier most likely will be given a good chance to see whether he can produce quality performances consistently.
If Chenier, who has been on the active roster five weeks after having back surgery in September, can regain the form of his all-star seasons, the Bullets would get a large lift at the troublesome big guard spot.
Otherwise, the Bullets face the possibility of going through the playoffs hoping that Grevey's hamstring problems do not reoccur. With him unavailable and Chenier not up to par, the team would have a major weakness that playoff opponents would surely exploit.
And now, with forward Dandridge ailing, Coach Dick Motta hardly has any completely healthy players.
Greg Ballard, who will start for Dandridge, is nursing a sore knee. Mitch Kupchak has back and Achilles' tendon problems, and Tom Henderson and Wright are shaking off sore ankles. Wes Unseld's knees have not been sound for years.
Ever since Grevey pulled a hamstring Jan. 17 against Chicago, Washington has been plagued with an assortment of ailments. Although the Bullets won 18 of 27 games after Grevey was hurt, Motta is concerned that the physical problems are going to catch up with the team over the remaining 13 games.
"We just can't seem to get everyone healthy," he said. "We are playing some of our starters longer than we want and now we have a lot of games over a short period of time. I would hate to go into the playoffs like this."
Chenier's emergence as a reliable player could ease some of the problems.
In the 16 games since he was activated after a year's absence because of the back injury, Chenier has shown flashes of his former abilities.
He scored 17 points against Chicago, helping the Bullets win in the fourth quarter, and he has made seven of his last nine shots. But he also has lacked the quickness and surehandedness to earn him more minutes. In all, he is averaging five points a game while shooting 46 percent.
Although Chenier says he is in good condition, Bullet officials have been concerned over his occasional on-court awkwardness. At time, his legs appear so shaky it seems he is stepping on eggs or running on stilts.
"He isn't as strong as he was before he got hurt," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "Anyone can tell that."
Chenier has been effective on open shots, but his lack of strength shows up when he tries to shoot in traffic. He does not release the ball as smoothly as he did when he was healthy.
Motta has been trying to spot Chenier about six to 10 minutes a game while trying not to interfere with his regular guard rotation. Chenier admits he would like additional time, but he also has never complained about his situation.
It has not been an easy time for him. He has had to swallow his pride, listen to friends who think he isn't getting a fair shake and then accept whatever role Motta gives him.
"For a guy like Phil, who was a big star, what he is doing is something," said Kupchak. "He is paying his dues and not complaining. How many other guys who have done what he has done in the past would work like he is to come back?"
Motta says he would like nothing better than to have Chenier force him to play more. But so far, he said, "He just doesn't have the sharpness yet. But hey, he was out a year. I always believed that for every day you miss, it takes two to come back. I don't want to put any pressure on him. If he could help us out by the playoffs, that would be great. I've always felt that way."
The Bullets are convinced that if Chenier can't perform consistently in regular-season games, he will not be that helpful in the far more intense atmosphere of the playoffs.