The Washington Bullets are dying and practically everyone around the team senses it. Now, even that last spot in the playoffs appears to be a mirage.
Some Bullet players have questioned Coach Dick Motta's substitution patterns and his coaching enthusiasm throughout this season.
"We don't know who's going to be playing one game from the next," said guard Larry Wright, one of those who has been in and out of the lineup.
Most players are not ready to criticize Motta publicly or blame him for their woes, but as one player said, "He sure ain't helping much lately."
When Roger Phegley was traded to the New Jersey Nets last week, he said one of the problems with the Bullets was that no one ever knew how much he was going to get to play from game to game.
Motta, surprisingly, agrees.
"I'd almost hate to be a sub on this team myself," the coach said. "They don't know how much they'll play or when or what. They don't know because we don't know. It's been that kind of year, the most challenging one I've ever had."
Neither owner Abe Pollin nor General Manager Bob Ferry has blamed Motta for the Bullet swoon, and they are not looking for a new coach, yet.
"The last thing I'm worried about is my tenure in the league," Motta said today, prior to sending the team through a light workout. "I don't want to get fired, but I could get another job in this league if I was.
"Ten years ago I'd be embarrassed and scared if I got fired, but not now. No one or nothing will get my spirit down and I'd never resign in the middle of a battle."
Motta, who is under contract through next season with the Bullets, added: "I'm not the least bit ashamed of this team."
The Bullets are in serious trouble however.Six teams in each conference gain the playoffs and the Bullets have to catch only two teams to sneak in. But it looks as if their spirit is gone; they are starting to feel as if they can't do it anymore.
Before leaving on a seven-game road trip, everyone in the organization from Ferry to the players said this was the trip that would either make them or break them.
They even traded one of the brightest parts of their future -- Phegley -- for what they hoped would be immediate help in John Williamson. They felt they had to do something before leaving home.
Williamson has a pulled groin muscle and the Bullets were blown out in Indiana by 30 points and in Milwaukee by 25.
They now face the Kings here at 3 p.m. today with little confidence.
Bob Dandridge, absent from the first two games of the trip with a pulled calf muscle, still is doubtful, Greg Ballard has a severly sprained thumb and something or other is ailing practically everyone else on the team.
"This is the time when we should all be pulling together and helping each other," said Ballard.
Instead, the Bullets seem to be going downhill with no one able to put on the brakes.
Ironically, Phegley, deemed too slow to play guard, had his biggest scoring games as a Bullet as a forward and that is what they've needed lately -- a small forward. Starting guard Kevin Grevey has had to play out of position some the last two games, throwing the Bullet substitution pattern off.
Motta has played the recuperating Mitch Kupchak more the last two games, although he is only a shadow of his former self and showed it shooting one for 11 against Milwaukee. Motta has shuffled everyone, except Kevin Porter, in and out of the lineup with little success the last two games. The Bullets now are in the worst position they have been all season. They have lost three in a row and 10 of the last 13 and are eight games below .500 at 23-31.
"We're doing everything we can," Motta said. "What can we do next? I don't know. The big thing we have to do is not let the players get down on themselves or we're in real trouble."
It could already be too late.
"Losing confidence and giving up is going to probably come to all of us pretty soon," said the team captain, Wes Unseld. "But quicker for some than others. You can already see it starting.
"It doesn't matter how you get beat in the long run, as long as you're accomplishing something. But we're getting blown out and not accomplishing anything. We aren't learning a thing.
"I don't care how good you are, you have dry spells. Every team has them," Unseld said. "We just can't pick ourselves up and get out of them. At times I feel we're working hard, but we just aren't accomplishing much. There's no easy way to get out of our rut. You can't wish it away."