Over the next few months, the Washington Bullets will try to win another NBA championship while maintaining what one team official calls "the integrity" of an already bulging $2 million payroll.
The Bullets enter the playoffs next week with three unsigned players-Kevin Grevey, Tom Henderson and Wes Unseld-and unresolved contract differences with a fourth starter, Bob Dandridge.
A second straight champion ship likely would escalate the future salary demands of those players, although the club's general manager, Bob Ferry, said, "We aren't concerned about what a second title will do to our financial picture.
"That's a problem you can't worry about, because it would mean two straight championships. We want to win that title first; then we'll worry about everything else."
But, Ferry added, the Bullets are intent on staying with "a balanced salary situation."
"I think that is one reason we've been in the playoffs so many years," he said. "Psychologically and cohensively, it lends itself to team play rather than individual play. You have to keep things in perspective."
Unseld is the highest paid player on the team, at about $350,000 a year, although Elvin Hayes eventually will earn about $450,000 under a new contract that starts next season.
Phil Chenier, who signed a seven-year contract just before the 1974-75 season, is the third-highest-paid Bullet at $300,000 annually. Chenier, who has two years left on that pact, underwent surgery in September and has been struggling since mid-January to regain his pervious all-star form.
But those salaries are still far below the glamorous figures being handed out to David Thompson ($800,000) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ($650,000), Artis Gilmore ($600,000) and Bob Lanier ($500,000).
The Bullets who had their best attendance ever (an average of 12,789 a game) this season, are set to raise ticket prices next year. Although Ferry would not comment, it is understood the price will go up anywhere from 50 cents to a $1, hiking the top ticket to $9.50 or $10.
The added revenue brought in by the price increase is needed to help offset what the Bullets admit will be heavy payroll load next season, even without adding in any new player salaries. The club will be hit especially hard by the onset of deferred payments from contracts of players (Gus Johnson and Acrchie Clark) no longer with the organization.
This is the situation regarding the four starters with contract questions:
Unseld's name did not appear on a recently released list of potential league free agents, but Ferry said the veteran center signed another "one year contract last summer, which is the way he and (team owner) Abe Pollin do business."
Unseld has talked about retiring for several seasons. However, he is enjoying what Ferry considers "his best season since we came to Washington" and there seems no reason why he would not return next year, probably at an increase in pay.
Henderson and Grevey both had preliminary contract talks during the season, but now all parties have agree to postpone further negotiations until after the playoffs.
"We didn't want to get into a back and forth situation while we are trying to win a title," Ferry said. "I didn't think the distractions would help anyone."
In a luncheon meeting this week with Washington Post editors and writers, Pollin said he was confident "we will sign both players. That's my gut feeling right now."
Ferry said it will come down to a matter of money. "We don't have an unlimited budget, we can't spend freely. Can we afford them? If we can, we will sign them. Mr. Pollin signs the checks and he seems to feel we will reach agreements."
The Bullets would be compensated if another team signed either player. Although Ferry has maintained he does not want to break up a successful lineup, he also said he doesn't feel "we will be left naked if anyone goes somewhere else."
"You take the Sonics when they lost Marvin Webster to New York last year. They got Lonnie Shelton and a first-round pick in exchange, and that probably will give them the No. 5 choice in the draft."
Grevey and Henderson said they would like to play for Washington next year and will negotiate fairly after the playoffs. But Henderson certainly will test the salary waters around the league to see what he is worth before reaching any agreement with the Bullets.
One agent feels Grevey, because he is a rare commodity (a white, goodshooting big guard with an engaging personality), can draw as much as $350,000 a year on the open market, a substantial increase over his current $165,000 wage. Others say that estimate is too high and $250,000 is more realistic.
Henderson is one of the few pure playmaking guards in the league. Teams will have to weigh his leadership qualities against his defensive liabilities against small, quick opponents. Sources around the NBA feel he also is worth at least a $250,000 salary. He's making $160,000 to $180,00 this year.
Dandridge boycotted training camp while trying to force Pollin to renegotiate the last two years of a three year $250,000 contract. Pollin refused saying he does not alter existing contracts, and Dandridge finally joined the team.
At midseason, the veteran forward reiterated his lingering unhappiness with the team over the contract and will not deny he would contemplate sitting out next year if he does not receive a raise after the palyfoffs.
Those bargaining table difficulties, however, have not prevented Dandridge from enjoying his best season of an 11-year pro career. His outstanding play has led some members of the Bullets organization to think he is bluffing about any futher contract threats but his friends say the club would club making a mistake "if they don't take Bobby seriously. He's no body's fool."
Dandridge's attorney, Scott Lang, who also represents Henderson, said Dandrige''s entire contract problem "is secondary right now to the Playoffs. It's something we will deal with later. Bobby wants another championship and he is going after one. The last thing anyone needs to do now is start any problems. That's how he feels and that's how we are dealing with it."
The Bullets avoided further contract difficulties on the team by signing Hayes to his new, three-year by pact early in the season, then coming to terms with motta and assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff the following month. Both coaches received two year extensions.
Next year, Ferry will be faced with signing Larry Wright Dandridge (barring resolution on his current problems) and, possibly, Mitch Kupchak, although clauses in his contract could hinger his bargining power for another season.
Kupchak, who currnetly earns about $135,000 a year, is considered one of the primce bargains in the league. On an open market, agents say he would command at least $350,000.possibly more because of his ability and personality.
Ferry said the Bullet payroll this year "ranks in the top third of the leagues. We aren't misers by any stretch of the imagination."
He also admitted he is concerned about the club's ability to compete with such big-money teams as the New York Knicks when the present compensation rules are replaced by a right-of-first-refusal option in two years.
"I just haven't figured out a way to replace guys that are bought away from you by another team," Ferry said. "We don't have minor leaguers where you develop people. How do you compete under those circumstances when you are trying to keep sanity in your salary structure""