Night in and night out, these bullets are not going to win.
They are not going to win, say 45 of their 82 games. They will not do anything in the playoffs, if indeed they realize the small distinction of being one of 12 teams in a 22-team league to reach the playoffs.
The way Coach Gene Shue has the Bullets playing, they are doomed to fits of inconsistency.
He is asking these Bullets to be a runnin', gunnin', shoot-it-up-from-outside team.
He might as well ask the Washington Monument to fly.
Any team with Elvin Hayes at forward and Wes Unseld at center is foolish to do anything but what these great players have shown they do best.
For a decade, Hayes has owned the box on the left side of the free throw line. Get E the ball there, down low. Get everybody out of his way. tLet him turn and shoot.
If it didn't go in, here came Unseld to get the rebound. Or to tip the ball somewhere, just keeping it alive.
Keeping it alive to start another play, this time with Wes at the top of the key, setting a Sequoia pick to give a quard a way to get loose. Or if Unseld had the ball out there, next thing was a quick pass to the open man on the baseline. No center ever did better those little jobs that made a winner out of every team Wes Unseld ever played on.
But now Gene Shue wants Hayes and Unseld to play a different game.
LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan, will have been president while Wes Unseld has been chairman of the boards for the Bullets. Billy Kilmer came to the Redskins, played forever and retired while Wes Unseld kept Hayes' shots alive. Like the monument, Unseld has always been there, mighty and majestic, a source of reassurance that however much the world fretted, some things you could depend on.
You could depend on Elvin's turnaround jumper. Give Elvin his 19 shots a night, he will get you 22 points a night (those were his averages in the last four years with Dick Motta as coach, years in which the Bullets won an NBA championship and finished second another time).
You could depend on Unseld doing beautifully what he called the dirty jobs no one else wanted to do, or could do. He set picks that, in Ali's phrase, would shake up a fellow's ancestors. With the strongest, surest hands in basketball, Unseld owned every loose ball within 125 miles. For four years under Motta, he averaged his normal nine points and 12 rebounds a game. Just as important, he had more than four assists a night.
Now Hayes gets 14 shots a game.
Now Unseld is out of the offense: two assists is his average.
This is not by accident, just as it is no quirk of the early season. The Bullets have played 14 regular season games; they have worked under Shue for three months, and the coach has pronounced himself very happy with the way the team is coming along.
One imagines him standing on the Mall, looking at the monument in its grandeur, saying to reporters at his side, "Look at it, it is about ready to fly. Isn't it wonderful that after all these years of just sitting there, now it will take off into the winter sky?"
These Bullets can not fly.
Abe Pollin, the Bullets' owner, made the wrong decision last year.
He let Dick Motta go.
He kept the players.
He needed to trade Elvin Hayes. Though he is the oldest player in the league, Hayes, 35 on Nov. 17, still had value. The Bullets needed to trade Hayes for a piece of the future, either in the form of a young player or a No. 1 draft choice. Never again will Hayes be for the Bullets the player he was. And if you can't win a championship with Hayes, why keep him? Why keep him when he has publicly said he wants out?
The answer, obviously, is that no one in the NBA wants Hayes now. Pollin missed his chance to give General Manager Bob Ferry the go-ahead to make a Hayes deal. An NBA coach said last week he heard the Bullets were trying to send Hayes to Houston for young center Robert Reid. The Bullets deny it.
Same goes for Bobby Dandridge and Kevin Porter. Nobody wants them. They want too much money.
Neither does anyone want Unseld, who is the league's second-oldest player (35 next March 14) and most valuable in a deliberate offense that minimizes his slowness and makes the best use of those talents that Gene Shue has decided the Bullets no longer need.
The Bullets are trapped.
They are trapped with Porter, who has this year left on a $250,000-a-year guaranteed contract. The little guard is a liability on the court, obsessed as he is with dribbling the ball until the air falls out of it.
To get Porter, the Bullets gave up a No. 1 draft choice.
Then, partly because Porter was terrible, the Bullets went into panic last season and traded away Roger Phegley, who had been a no. 1 draft choice, to get John Williamson, who was worse than Porter.
In effect, then, Pollin gave up two No. 1s to get a guy who dribbles too much.
And because the Bullets still needed a little guard, they had to use this season's No. 1 draft choice to take Wes Matthews. Ferry would rather have hired a big man on that first round, someone to take over when Hayes and Unseld hang it up.
Making it all worse is the hiring of a coach who wants to run 'n' gun when he has maybe one runner (Matthews, who is, remember, a rookie) and maybe one gunner (kevin Grevey, who is, remember, a 43-percent career shooter).
If Pollin, a gentleman of sentiment and compassion, wants to keep Hayes and Unseld out of thanks for their decade of good work, that is nice.
But if he wants to sell tickets, it is nicer to win lots of games.
To do that, the Bullets must get the ball to Hayes inside for his 20 shots a night. They must use Unseld's considerable, and unique, strengths in the offense. These things are not being done in Shue's offense, and offense whose basic design goes against the truth that a system must be built to accommodate the talents of the available players.
Greg Ballard must play more. Outside of Unseld and Hayes, Ballard and free agent rookie Carlos Terry are the only Bullets with a taste for rebounding. If you're going to run 'n' gun every night, you need more than just your two old-man rebounders. You can't beat the good teams consistently if you have only two rebounders.
Greg Ballard, in fact, should be a starter.
When Bobby Dandridge is healthy again, he ought to be the first man off the bench -- both at forward and at quard.
And Shue ought to look again at the way Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge won a championship for Motta.
"If you compare it to football," one Bullet said, "we've gone from being a team that runs off-tackle on every play to one that passes on every play."
The set offense, of which this Bullet spoke, is only, say, 40 percent of the Bullets' work in a game. So it's not a total, startling change from the Motta offense that Hayes calls "pound it up the gut."
And against teams such as last week's opponents, Dallas and Detroit, that 40 percent difference means nothing. A pickup team of you, me and the Pointer Sisters could beat Dallas and Detroit. But against the Philadelphias and Bostons, teams that are better than the aging, trapped Bullets in any case, that 40 percent difference is lethal.