When the trade for Kevin Porter was made, Bullet minds danced with anticipation. They concocted an offense designed to take advantage of his extraordinary strengths and at the same time hide a major team weakness.
In theory, it seemed spectacular.
In practice, it was awful.
In part, it explains why the second coming of Porter has been a failure, why an exquisite player last season seldom plays this season. It does not explain why Porter seems to have lost the near-arrogant attitude that helped make him special, for the reason that the new offense did not work was not entirely his fault.
In truth, the offense hardly was radical. Lots of teams run a 1-4. They are the ones with an agile guard who can slice through a defense at will, who can invent plays in a mass of arms and legs near the basket, who can twist his body for layups or pass off to an unguarded teammate.
Kevin Porter was such a guard
But the offense would give the Bullets more than Porter's flair. It would allow them to put their five best players on the court at the same time. And as nearly everyone was convinced after the playoffs last year, the Bullets' five best players included just one guard.
So when Porter was not flying downcourt, grabbing a 50-foot Wes Unseld outlet pass and scoring a layup, when the Bullets were forced into a half-court offense, he would float toward the basket with Greg Ballard, Elvin Hayes, Unseld and Bobby Dandridge lined in a row about the free-throw line, sideline to sideline.
Then all manner of creative plays would take shape. The possibilities seemed endless, for picks that would free Hayes, Ballard and Dandridge while still keeping Unseld in position for rebounds. Or everyone simply could scatter out of the way for Porter to dart to the hoop.
The benefits would carry over to defense, for either Ballard or Dandridge would be assigned to the opposition's shooting guard, usually the larger one, the George Gervins and Paul Westphal, who so often had beaten the Bullets.
It seemed ideal, a coach's dream. The Bullets worked on it heavily during training camp and planned to use it sparingly during the preseason, and in small-town games where opponents were not likely to send scouts.
They were going to spring it on the league quickly, drive all those suddenly fashionable zone defenses daffy.
Instead, it was the Bullets who became dizzy. The more they ran the offense the more it became evident that the overlooked liabilities overshadowed the assets. The experiment never left the lab.
As usual, it involved basketball chemistry, players mixing in an unusual environment and creating poison instead of perfume. What had gone so well before Porter left the Bulets five years ago failed on his return.
In Porter's last year, 1974-75, the Bullets had the best record in their history but were embarrassed in the NBA finals by the Golden State warriors. They were swift and unerring Bullets -- and Porter was their trigger. Every regular played to each other's strength.
This time the problems came early and would not leave.
"We worked and worked and worked," said the assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. "But we just don't have the personnel to run the passing game. And for that offense to work there mustbe at least five passes, all of them tight, through hands and arms."
Among other things, the Bullets discovered that Dandridge was their only other instantly imaginative player under pressure, that Hayes was not nearly as effective shooting around the perimeter as he was from down low and to the left of the basket.
Porter's troubles were best explained by someone who never saw him play, who may well have never seen a basketball game, a former Washington soccer coach named Andre Nagy. His analysis of a wild Argentine midfielder fit Porter perfectly:
"He is too much the dribble boy."
Instead of setting up teammates at e xactly the right moment, Porter would take one too many dribbles, or take the ball inside himself too often, as he had done so well in Detroit on inferior teams.
Even a semingly uncomplicated matter like clearing the lane for a Porter drive was doomed. The reason was that no one would follow Unseld.
To open a path for Porter, Unseld had to move to a corner, or somewhere that would allow him only a long shot. He was not put on earth to shoot long jump shots, so his defender would wave goodbye -- and lie in wait for Porter.
"Denver tried the same thing with (Marvin) Webster and (Paul) Silas," said Motta. "Wes and Elvin aren't passsing-game players.
"As far as Kevin is concerned, we were teaching him two offenses instead of one. He had to adjust to the existing personnel more than the existing personnel had to adjust to him.
"It's hard to explain in a rational manner how he feels, how we feel."
On-the-court imcompatibility is an important reason for the Bullets' -- and Porter's -- fade this season, though hardly the only one. Porter's permanent perch on the bench also came about because he did not do what he was primarily hired to do: run under Unseld's long passes.
The fire Porter had when he left Washington has not been stoked on his return.Possibly, Motta's impatience is partly to blame. But veteran Porter watchers were dismayed when he turned fancy at all the wrong times, they were incredulous when he actually admitted early on that Larry Wright was playing better and deserved to start.
"The league also has changed since Kevin was here," an insider said. "A 6-foot guard is in real trouble now. And it's a zone league now, not man to man. But Kevin's matured now. He's realistic. He has his head on straight.
"He's taking all this sort of in stride. And that's the trouble. I wonder if the toughness is gone."