The scene at practice yesterday typified the kind of year it has been so far for the beleaguered Washington Bullets.
John Williamson was in his street clothes because back spasms prevented him from practicing for the second straight day; Mitch Kupchak's Achilles' tendon was acting up again, so he watched from the sidelines; Bob Dandridge has a sore leg, so he too, was a spectator. Finally, Coach Gene Shue wasn't even in town. He was at a court hearing on the West Coast pertaining to a suit filed against the Philadelphia 76ers when he was their coach.
With only eight healthy bodies, there wasn't much Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff could accomplish.
The Bullets are off to a horrible 2-7 start, their worst since they moved to Washington eight seasons ago. They are in dire need of any help they can get. Going into last night's games, only the 1-6 Detroit Pistons had a poorer record.
The Bullets' basic problem is easy to see, but hard to correct. They can't shoot.
For Shue's running offense to work, the Bullets have to be able to shoot the 15-foot jump shot. Or at least be able to rebound their frequent misses. They do both poorly.
The Bullets are shooting 44 percent from the field as a team. Only the Seattle SuperSonics are shooting worse in the 23-team league. The Bullets also are 19th in the league in offense, averaging 99.6 point a game.
Individually, practically everyone is having a subpar shooting year. Elvin Hayes is averaging only 13.9 points and shooting 38 percent, compared to a 23.6 average and 45 percent for his career. Dandridge is averaging 13.4 points and shooting 39 percent compared to 18.9 and 49 percent for his career.
Kevin Grevey is the leading scorer with a 14.7 average, but he is shooting only 40 percent. For his career, Grevey is a 43 percent shooter.
"We're getting the shots, they just aren't going in," said Grevey, adding that most shooters have slumps and simply have to shoot their way out of them. "We just have to keep shooting."
Hayes said he is having trouble getting in his shooting rhythm and once that is done, he will become more effective.
"If I can get the ball inside, I can score," he said, "but we haven't been getting it in very much."
Throughout his career, Hayes has been a player who didn't need to do much of anything to stay in shape. Seldom did he pick up a basketball in the offseason and seldom was it necessary for him to stay after practice and take extra shooting.
He did yesterday, staying nearly 20 minutes longer than anyone else, shooting jump shots from both sides of the basket.
"If we're going to win, I've got to score more points," Hayes said. "It's that simple. And I have to take the shots where they come."
Even the big scorers off the bench are struggling. Greg Ballard, who was brilliant last year, averaging 15.6 points and shooting 50 percent, is down to 9.4 points a game and is shooting only 44 percent. John Williamson is averaging 5.1 points and shooting 37.2 percent.
Ballard has been somewhat of a mystery this season, both in his performance and in the way Shue has used him. He hasn't gotten much playing time and was perplexed Saturday at Capital Centre when he didn't get into the game until the fourth quarter.
"I'll accept whatever the coach does," Ballard said yesterday. "I know my role is coming off the bench, but that game I got in much later than I anticipated. I think that affected my play the next night in Milwaukee. My attitude just wasn't right that game because I didn't know what to expect."
After the Celtic game, Shue said he didn't use Ballard more because Dandridge was playing so well. If he had Wes Unseld, Dandridge and Ballard in the game at the same time, that lineup would have been too small to get many rebounds.
"I haven't been as consistent as I should be," Ballard said. "I think I just need playing time to get that consistency."
Ballard has averaged 16 minutes a game over the last five games.
In the past, the Bullet strength has been their forwards and their ability to score inside. Ballard commented:
"Coach Shue has a philosophy on offense where you work from the outside in. You have to consistently hit the 15-footers to open up the inside game. Last year, we did it the other way. We worked from the inside out. Our inside game opened up the outside shots."
The Bullets have been getting enough good shots. The players say they are waiting for their shooting touch to return.
A close look at the Bullet roster, though, shows that after Grevey, Ballard and rookie Carlos Terry, they don't have any pure jump shooters. Hayes and Dandridge are scorers, not shooters, and Unseld isn't asked to score. Point guards Wes Matthews and Kevin Porter are both clever assist men and effective scorers when they're driving to the basket. But neither has much of an outside jump shot. Williamson is a master at the running, off-balance one-hander. He seldom even shoots a regular jump shot. Kupchak gets most of his points by hanging around the basket.
Terry has a good jump shot, but his playing time is limited. The other Bullet rookie, center Rick Mahorn, had a good jump shot in college, but so far, virtually all his scoring has come inside.
The Bullets are off until they play the New Jersey Nets at Rutgers Friday and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden Saturday. . . Former Bullet Dave Corzine, now a San Antonio Spur, is the NBA leader in field goal percentage, making 65 percent of his shots and averaging 11.9 points a game. . . Unseld is fourth in field goal percentage at 61 percent and Matthews is tied for eighth in assists with 5.8 a game. Grevey is 10th in three-point field goal percentage, making six of 21 for 29 percent.