What Abe Pollin must do before he considers rebuilding his bullets, before he trades Elvin Hayes and attacks the Bobby Dandridge puzzle, is to decide whether Dick Motta should be the coach.
Pollin is on record as saying he wants Motta back. But does Motta want to return?
In truth, Motta was anxious to be somewhere else this season. Specifically, Los Angeles. And Pollin's biggest mistake, perhaps the one that help fuel the dandridge controversy and other dissension, was holding Motta to his contract.
Motta perhaps sensed the downfall of the Bullets more quickly than anyone, knew the mercenary nature of Dandridge and the extreme limitations of an offense with few instantly creative players. Very likely, he was the first to give up on these Bullets, possibly by the end of training camp.
Undoubtedly, Motta realized the Lakes, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and rookie Magic Johnson would be infinitely preferable to a team that either could not -- or would not -- respond to coaching.
Pollin's vein of honesty might be too wide. Because he honors every agreement -- regardless of the burden -- Pollin assumes everyone else will. Technically, Motta did this season -- but with little enthusiasm. eDandridge was even more blatant.
Motta prides himself on not being a career drifter, at having had just four jobs his entire athletic life. But if he wants another challenge, Abe, let him go after it. The fellow to his right on the bench, Bernie Bickerstaff, has been ready to become a head coach for at least two years.
But if Pollin is as sincere about rebuilding the Bullets as he insists, if he wants to make a genuine effort at establishing a new team with a solid foundation, Motta ought to be the coach.
Wasn't that why he was hired in the first place? Weren't we told four years ago that the Bullets would be in transition -- and thus in need of a coach would could teach? Who could be innovative? Who could inspire?
Light a fire under Motta. Give him the sort of players he covets. Abe, there is no better way to put this: it's time to bite the bullet.
As a superior builder himself, Pollin knows that nothing remains firm and attractive without the proper matierals. For that reason, he must realize that old cornerstones need to be replaced.
Whoever the Bullets have that anyone wants -- with the exception of Greg Ballard -- ought to be swapped for the draft-choice rock necessary for a new team.
Hayes says he wants to end his career in Texas. Accommodate him. Convince the new Dallas team he will make it instantly attractive, sell hundreds and hundreds of season tickets. The price: not its No. 1 draft choice this year; it's No. 1 draft choice next year.
This year, its first, Dallas will have the 11th pick in the draft. Next season it ought to be bad enough, even with Hayes, to have a much higher selection. The reason Dallas might opt for a Hayes deal came last week, when Boston won a coin flip with Utah for the first choice in this year's draft.
Every few years there is a player so tall and gifted that teams will go to any length to acquire him. No other sport places so much value on such a man, a Russell, a Chamberlain, an Abdul-Jabbar, a Walton.
The latest wonderchild is Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 freshman at Virginia who has uncommon grace -- and a 15-foot jump shot.
Dallas could mortgage its future on him, tell the fans he is worth one season of sustained awfulness. More probably, he will be a Boston Celtic before Dallas plays a game. It says here the Celtics would be foolish not to offer hm Cape Cod to leave college -- and that Sampson would be foolish not to accept.
The reasons are obvious: with Sampson, Boston has a chance at another dynasty. And Sampson has a season or so to gain relatively pressure-free expreience, to mature among young and splendid players.
"Every good team has to finish last once at the right time," Motta said. "Or get lucky."
Celtic luck is still alive.
If Dallas has no Sampson to sell, perhaps it could be persuaded to buy Hayes, in exchange for what could prove to be a high enough No. 1 in 1981 for Washington to get a Mark Aguirre. Or gamble on a college freshman, Earl Jones. Or a high-school senior, 6-11 Pat Ewing of Boston.
This is the sort of long-range view Pollin ought to take, unless he knows a way to grab Marvin Webster from the Knicks. oThat would help immensely. Webster would blend well with both Ballard and the suddenly sensational Kevin Grevey -- and allow Wes Unseld the rest he needs during games.
Unself should return. If the Bullets could somehow arrange a deal that would allow them to draft Jones out of Spingarn this year and learn behind Unself for perhaps two seasons, he might well be their future.
Dandridge is a frustration of the highest order, arguably the best small forward in the NBA, bright and glowing with ability only basketball junkies totally appreciate. For three years, he has been the only Bullet a significant numbers of fans would pay serious money to watch.
But he plays too often on his own terms. Even for fans who understand his impact on the Bullets Dandridge is tough to believe. He has flaunted practice -- and games -- tooo often for us to totally accept any injury that does not require crutches.
The positve aspect of Dandrige missing so much of the season has been Ballard's emergence as a dependable, smart, hard-working small forward with an unerring jump shot behind anyone willing and able to set a pick.
Despite his reputation, Dandridge just might be marketable. The Gene Shue Home for Free Spirits in San Diego has an opening for a small forward -- and might be willing to part with the first-round choice it has from Cleveland.
That would be the ninth pick in the draft, not high enough to draft a dominant player but good enough for perhaps a Mike O'Koren or a Ronnie Lester, players with more than one dimension to their game.
Or perhaps Pollin can produce a contract suitable to Dandridge's disposition, with incentives appropriate both to his history and pride. Given his skills and what others are making, Dandridge is underpaid at $250,000 per year.
Clauses could be added to make him among the highest-paid players in the NBA, say $10,000 for reporting to training camp, $50,000 for staying the entire time, $5,000 for not missing more than two practics a month, $2,000 for checking George Gervin and any other troublesome guard.
When Dandridge chooses to play, there are few better. But his loss, while considerable, would not be as sad as the failure of Mitch Kupchak to return to health. Dandridge stirs our imagination; Kupchak stirs our hearts.
For Pollin, the encouraging aspect of rebuilding is that it can be quicker than in any other sport -- and not tied to any single design. NFL teams can build only through the draft; baseball teams need more than one or two players to re-establish championship form.
Pollin can be both daring and traditional, for this is the last year compensation is required for anyone signing a free agent. After next season, all an owner must do is open his wallet wider than anyone else.