All that's wrong with the Bullets is that they won the NBA championship two years ago. We may call it The Two Years Later Blues. It happens to practically every NBA champion.Two years after the championship, the once king is a commoner. Old age arrives quickly in the NBA.
Did you know that the Bullets' front line will be 100 years old in March?
On March 14, Wes Unseld will be 34. Elvin Hayes already is 34 and Bobby Dandridge 32. Together with the starting guards, Jim Cleamons, 30, and Kevin Grevey, 26, these Bullets are old enough to have gone one on one with that famous power forward of his day, 6-foot-4 Abe Lincoln out of Illinois.
These Bullets are 155 years old.
At this season's end, it will be time to break up these Bullets.
Bobby Dandridge wants more money. Fine. He deserves it. Let him get it somewhere else. The Bullets than can demand compensation for him, the compensation being a real live playmaking guard.
If Elvin Hayes wants to go to Dallas, where they are talking of expansion next season, buy him a ticket in the form of a No. 1 draft choice that can be turned into a power center to replace Wes Unseld, who can't play forever for the simple reason he already has played forever.
These Bullets are past their time.
Which is not to knock them.
It's simply history.
Two years after they win an NBA championship, pro basketball teams of the last decade generally have done poorly, just as the Bullets now are doing terribly.
Of the last 10 NBA champions, none has won back-to-back titles.
Of the eight teams that have completed The Two Years Later Cycle, six did not win a single best-of-seven playoff round in the second year after their championship. (The Knicks of 1971-72 made it to the finals, there losing to the Lakers, and the Celtics of 1976 won it all.)
Another measure: Two years after their championships, none of the eight teams won as many regular-season games as they had in the big year. The decreases ranged from four more losses to 13 more losses. And none of the teams maintained as large a victory margin as in the championship season.
What the Bullets are suffering, then, is hardly new in NBA annals.
It is old age.
Has any NBA team ever had a front line 100 years old?
No guarantees come with this research, but three hours with various NBA record books turned up no front line ever as old as these Bullets. (The 1968-69 Celtics and Lakers had some old men. The Celtics' front line was 97 years old -- Bill Russell 35, Bailey Howell 32, Tom Sanders 30. The Lakers had Elgin Baylor at 34, Wilt Chamberlain 33 and Mel Counts 28 for a total of 95.)
Only the Bullets of the last 10 NBA champions started three men over 30 years old.
And now, two seasons after the championship, the Bullets are starting four elderly gents over 30.
In contrast, the reigning NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics start five men 131 years old with only one over 26, Johnson at 32.
No game ages players more quickly than professional basketball. Too much is asked of them. They are asked to play 82 regular-season games, another 15 or so exhibitions and maybe 20 more playoff games. All that running and jumping on hard surfaces in a game that includes unpadded contact is in addition to a coast-to-coast travel schedule that is killing in itself.
Listen to Jerry West, who retired at 35 still able to average 20 points a game.
"When you get old, it's not so much that you're not the physical player you used to be, though of course you're not; it's that you can't get mentally up, you can't get excited every night the way you used to," he said.
"You just go through the motions sometimes even if you don't want to."
Boredom. That's what West is talking about. "Sometimes I wouldn't even remember who we were playing," he said. And in the midst of a season in which the Bullets are 21-27 -- having lost six straight games for the first time in 12 years -- might it not be understandable if Hayes or Unseld or Dandridge caught a quick nap during a fast break?
Two or three quick naps a night, your team loses. At their current rate, the Bullets will lose 46 games this season -- eight more than two years ago, 18 more than last season.
And if old age isn't the whole reason for the Bullets' collapse -- after all, Hayes is averaging 20.8 points, Dandridge 18.5 and Unseld 9.5, all right at their career averages -- it if isn't that these stalwarts are geezers on their last legs, then what is it?.
The Bullets blew it with Kevin Porter.
They blew it either by misjudging Porter's abilities or by using them incorrectly.
Certainly, the Mitch Kupchak of old is missing. He is not yet fully recovered from back surgery and is 10 points away from the 15-point average he carried before the injury. Greg Ballard and Roger Phegley have made up most of those points, but at a cost of depth on a team that once used depth to overwhelm tiring opponents.
By now it is certain the Bullets will trade away Porter, if they can find a taker for a $250,000 guard who is nailed to the Washington bench. When the trade comes, the Bullets will be admitting their biggest mistake since -- well, since they traded Porter away the first time, back in 1975 after a championship-round loss to Golden State.
One school of thought maintains that Porter can't play for these Bullets because he cannot shoot or play defense.
He never could.
Everyone knows that. The Bullets knew it and wanted him anyway. He set an all-time NBA assist record last season with Detroit, averaging 13.4 assists a game, and the Bullets saw him leading a zillion fast breaks with Unseld's outlet passes.
He's not doing it. His assist average is 5.6 and falling every game. Once the object of Dick Mota's lust, Porter now is an afterthought in the coach's mind, as proven Friday night when Bobby Dandridge, on the court, said to Motta, "If you want to win this game, you better get a ballhandler in."
Motta sent in Larry Wright.
Whatever the problem is it is made double costly to the Bullets because, to make room for Porter, they let go Tom Henderson, the guard who ran the offense in the previous two seasons.
So when the Bullets gave up on Porter a month into the season -- isn't that quick to give up on a $250,000 guard who set an all-time NBA record a year ago? -- they were forced to trade for Jim Cleamons, a journeyman of no particular distinction. And now the Bullets trust Cleamons with the ball in high-risk situations.
To win consistently now, the Bullets need 40 minutes a night from their front line of old men, along with Cleamons. To ask 40 minutes a night from anyone for 82 games is too much. And when you're 100 years old, you're happy to breathe for 40 minutes, let alone go one on one with Moses Malone.