Three weeks ago, owner Abe Pollin called a rare team meeting to scold his Washington Bullets for poor play and a dismal start.
Apparently his words had little effect. According to several team sources, a number of the players barely paid attention to Pollin, and some still laugh about his attempt to motivate them.
The Bullets situation no longer is a laughing matter. The team that won the NBA title two years ago and finished second last season has been struggling.Through 29 games, the Bullets are 13-16, standing 11 games behind the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division.
Most Bullet players and their coaches still maintain they will improve but sources throughout the NBA say the Bullets have some serious problems:
Kevin Porter has been a major disappointment. He has not adjusted to the Bullets and they have not adjusted to him. The consensus is that Porter can't shoot or play defense, and is hurting the team with his play more than he has helped it. No team is any better than its playmaker, and the Bullets' playmaker has not done well.
Elvin Hayes appears to have lost some of his enthusiasm. At times, sources say, he appears disinterested and does not play hard at both ends of the floor. When Hayes doesn't produce, the Bullets have trouble scoring and have no intimidator on defense.
The Bullets are one of the most predictable teams in the league. They rarely fast break and their shot selection has been dreadful. As a result, they rank 20th in the league in shooting, hitting 45 percent from the field.
Age is starting to catch up with the team. Four Bullet starters are 30 or older; their starting lineup averages 31.2 years of age, and there are no rookies on the team. The Bullets are the league's most experienced team, but sources say age has had an effect on the club's enthusiasm. The Bullets may have become content and complacent.
There is no cohesiveness on defense. Everyone seems to be playing with an attitude of "you guard your man and I'll guard mine" and there is rarely any team defense with players helping each other out.
The Bullets have become a specialized team with too many one-dimensional players. The trend in the NBA is toward all-round, do-everything type players. But the Bullets still believe in the players-to-fit-the-role approach that worked so well for them in recent years.
To add to the club's woes, there are reports of a strain in the relationship between Coach Dick Motta and General Manager Bob Ferry, as well as some uneasiness between Motta and several of his players.
And, of course, extended loss of Mitch Kupchak and Kevin Grevey to injuries hurt the Bullets' chances of a winning start.
The Bullets believe they took a major step toward correcting the Porter problem when Motta on Wednesday decided to bench the little guard and went with Jim Cleamons as his playmaker.
Sources say Porter was brought back to the Bullets largely because Pollin thought he would help the team both on the court and at the gate. But from the beginning, Motta had doubts about Porter's ability to run his forward-oriented offense. Porter has never been able to dispel those doubts.
Motta stayed with Porter as long as he felt he could. But with the team floundering and in jeopardy of not even getting into the playoffs, let alone winning its division, he felt he had to make the Cleamons move.
The change did little to excite the Bullets. They looked lifeless in a 107-97 loss to the Kansas City Kings and, for the second straight game, Capital Centre fans booed the home team.
"I don't know why they obtained Porter in the first place," one NBA coach said. "There aren't very many teams that can use him and the Bullets are finding out why the hard way."
Porter's predecessor, Tom Henderson, was the playmaker on the championship team two years ago. But like Porter, Henderson is not a good outside shooter and defenses played a zone against the Bullets, daring Henderson to take the outside shot. That strategy enabled teams to clog up the middle, double-team Hayes and Bob Dandridge inside and take away much of the Bullets' offense.
So when Henderson played out his option last season, the Bullets didn't make much of an effort to resign him, allowing him to go to Houston. Enter Kevin Porter and, now, apparently, exit Kevin Porter.
"When they lost Tommy Henderson they lost their best all-round fundamental basketball player," said Indiana's Mike Bantom, whose team has beaten the Bullets three times already this season.
"I'm not real close to the situation anymore," added former Bullet Dave Bing, "but Tommy took them to the championship one year and to the finals again the next year and that just isn't the time to make a change. They may have been rushing things. Tommy was getting the ball to the right people."
Hayes is averaging 19.7 points a game and shooting 43 percent, both below his usual standards. He also has, at times, been passive on defense and listless rebounding.
At times in the past few weeks, Hayes has demonstrated that he can still get the job done when he gets the ball in the right places. He put on a spectacular fourth-quarter display against Chicago Saturday when he scored 11 straight points.
Two days earlier, in Richfield, Ohio, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he turned in an effort that included 25 points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots and three assists and sank the winning free throws with three seconds left in overtime.
"They can't win without Hayes, but sometimes he just seems like he doesn't feel like playing," one opponent said. "He looks like he's out there only because he doesn't have anything better to do.
"I don't think his legs are what they used to be and he doesn't seem to be as intense as he used to be, but when he wants to be, he is still unstoppable. He could probably play for three or four more years if he just makes some minor adjustments in his game."
"When there's criticism to be handed out, why do I always get it?" Hayes asked last week. "I guess I was born to be criticized, but I've done just as much as anyone who has ever played the game and all I want is a little recognition for it.
"All I see though is negative, negative, negative. What more can I do? I've done almost as much as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Kareem and all of them. I'm one of only six players to get 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, yet people are always knocking me. What do they want me to do?"
The Bullets are basically a slow team without quick guards and particularly fast forwards to fill the lanes. Therefore, they don't fast break well. They are reduced to setting up on offense practically every time down the floor and running the same plays over and over.
Motta's offense works, but the Bullets are not getting any easy baskets, a necessity in the NBA.
As Dandridge said after the loss to Kansas City when the Bullets shot 38 percent and the Kings hit 55 percent, "We're shooting jump shots and everyone else is shooting layups."
Too often the Bullets shuck their set offense and freelance one on one.
"Age has to be considered when you talk about the Bullets because they are getting old," said one NBA assistant coach. "The ideal situation is to have one or two guys with a lot of experience and a young guy or two with them. The Bullets are old, but I don't think it's showing as much in individual performances as in the team performance. There's no enthusiasm or fire with them. They never had much when they were younger and they have even less now."
But, this coach added, "The Bullets are the type of team that can still do all right in the playoffs no matter what they do in the regular season because after everyone else has burned out they'll still be there beating up on you."
Another player said, "The Bullets are hurting in the quickness department. Part of that is because of age and part of it is because of personnel. A lot of people think Ferry is a genius, and he might be, but one thing is different about them this year -- they just aren't the same intimidating team they once were. People still respect them, but they don't fear them anymore."
Motta has tried numerous combinations to get his team rolling. Nothing has worked, although some of the younger players, especially Roger Phegley and Greg Ballard, have played well at times.
Still, this team is built around it's veterans and, with the possible exception of Wes Unseld, who has rebounded well, they haven't done the job.
The way to play defense in the NBA is to make your man go the way he doesn't want to go, funnel everything into your big people and then help each other as much as possible. The Bullets play that way now only occasionally.
"Our defense has been horrible all year," one Bullet said. "In fact it's the worse it's been in the last three years. We have no team defense at all. It seems like everybody is afraid to help somebody else out because then his man might score and he'll end up looking bad."
Some NBA observers and even some people within the Bullet organization say the game may be starting to pass the Bullets by, and suggest they have become too specialized and lack versatility.
"We are hung up on roles here," said one Bullet. "They want shooting guards, defensive specialists and things like that. A team of specialists. But we're playing against teams who have real basketball players who can do everything. It's easy to see who has a better chance to win in a situation like that."
Motta has tried every tactic imaginable to get his players on the right track.
He has instituted mandatory day-of-the-game practices. He has been filming games, with detailed break-downs and more detailed scouting reports. He is putting in more time and he is making the players do the same. r
Said Pollin: "I still feel strongly that this team has the ability to win the championship again this year and I don't think anyone should count us out."
"It's not going to be easy to make the playoffs this year," Ferry said. "If we improve we will; if we don't, it'll be a long season. I'm just not that negative about this season. We're still in the thick of things.
"In analyzing this season, you have to realize that we're not the same team this year we were last year at this time. One reason is Kevin Grevey has played in only 13 games; Mitch Kupchak hasn't been a factor yet; and Dandridge missed a lot of games (five). These aren't excuses, but reasons for where we are."
Not everyone in the NBA believes the Bullets are on the way down. Philadelphia 76er Coach Billy Cunningham, for one, says, "The Bullets will be around at the end, and anyone who thinks they won't be doesn't know what he's talking about."
Boston's Red Auerbach said, "The Bullets are having some problems, sure, but they'll iron them out. The season has a long way to go yet and they'll be around somewhere when it's over."