The Bullets' good work this week says a lot. The dumping of Elvin Hayes says the good ol' days are gone forever. The drafting of Frank Johnson says the Bullets have the distant future in mind. Sifting the clues offered by Johnson's drafting, we divine that the Bullets will make Mitch Kupchak rich. Best of all, the week's work shows the Bullets will run, run, run.
Save for the Capitals, who have never built anything in the first place, this town's pro teams are rebuilding. This is the Reconstruction Era of Washington sports. The Diplomats were razed by New York carpetbaggers and the Redskins were undermined by an old Whittier Poet not named Nixon. The Bullets were victims of Abe Pollin's misguided benevolence, compounded by the machinations of Father Time.
Now the sound of the rebuilding hammer is heard across Foggy Bottom. Bobby Beathard is whacking away out on a limb above his general manager's office at Redskin Park. The Diplomats' main brain, Ken Furphy, is making do with strangers learning to win together. The Caps, bless 'em, keep drafting hot shots not named Trottier or Bossy. Now they've even drafted an American.
This week, Bob Ferry crawled out on that general manager's limb with Beathard, the two of them indisputably full of brass and daring if, to hear some grousers, woefully short of smarts. As the nitpickers nibbled at Beathard's ears for (among other things) trading away next year's No. 1 to get a center in this year's third round, so will they be on Ferry's case for an assortment of alleged sins this week.
There will be cries of outrage that Hayes was traded to Houston for only a pair of No. 2 draft choices. Fact is, as Ferry will tell us later, the Bullets would have given Hayes to his hometown Rockets for nothing. As for Frank Johnson, there is this question: did Bob Ferry take his brain in for repairs and forget to pick it up?
He is innocent. And praiseworthy. Whatever Ferry does for the Bullets, he does with the constant counsel of Pollin, the owner. They share the blame and credit for the rise and fall of the Bullets. Yet this week's work must be Ferry's, for the kindly Pollin long has been reluctant to unload Hayes, who helped win the Bullets' only championship, and the owner doesn't have the basketball foresight to draft a small guard now.
At first thought, the Bullets need everything except a small guard. Hayes is gone, Bobby Dandridge is going soon (bet on it) and Wes Unseld is Mr. Vice President. Gone is the front line that won the 1978 NBA championship and may have been the best ever. With Kupchak a free agent shopping around for the best offer on his hustle and shooting, the Bullets' only proven big man is Greg Ballard. Ricky Mahorn proved little as a rookie, and Jeff Ruland will be a rookie.
Why, then, draft a small guard, even a wonderful small guard such as Frank Johnson?
Because Ferry is thinking past next season.
At least, it seems obvious that Ferry drafted Johnson more as future insurance than for immediate help.
Johnson's strength for Wake Forest was his work with the ball. The Bullets already have a man who takes the ball into the shower with him. Kevin Porter is worthless to a pro team without the ball, and Ferry says Porter is the most valuable Bullet, the master link that holds together a fragile chain.
That leaves Johnson as a second guard expected to shoot the play defense. He does both well. Over the years, however, Johnson's value will be as a ball-handling guard. When Porter loses a step or is injured, Johnson must run the Bullets.
By drafting Johnson, Ferry has ensured that the Bullets always will have a man in charge.
He did that rather than take a gamble with an inside man.
The Bullets could have taken Kelly Tripucka, Herb Williams or Ray Tolbert.
Johnson is the best pick. Tripucka is a tough kid with a nice shooting touch, but he is a half-step behind his 6-foot-6 peers. Williams is a stumbler with a hammer-handed touch. As menacing as Tolbert looks, remember this: Scott May and Kent Benson, Bob Knight's best players, never became NBA stars.
It is better, in the long view, to be certain of a game-controlling guard than to gamble with a Williams or Tripucka. If they bomb out, the Bullets are left with two spots to fill -- still the guard's job, and a big man's.
This way, the Bullets can wait until next year and draft the essential big man.
If not front-runners, the Bullets at least will be among the contenders for the bottom rungs and rights to Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie.
"We're in a critical situation," Ferry said of the team that dropped from the NBA championship to out of the playoffs in three seasons. "And if anything happens to Kevin Porter, we would be very, very critical. Now we're going to have to do it with hard work and hustle. We'll have to complement each other. And Kevin is great at that. He makes everybody better.
"So if anything happened to him, it's important that we have someone like Frank Johnson to take over. Frank can play the shooting guard, too, and he has great leadership qualities as well as great defensive ability."
Ferry didn't want to say the Bullets are rebuilding. He preferred to say they are in a transition stage. "It's obvious you can't lose players like Hayes and Unseld, who are Hall of Fame players, and not go through a transition stage. The problem is that everybody else in our conference is at their peak while we're in transition."
Hayes was dealt to Houston because he wanted to go there, Ferry said. I wasn't concerned about getting anything for him. Before it was over, if Houston had insisted, Elvin would have been there for nothing. It was not a hard deal to make at all. We're in a reconstruction period, and Elvin wanted to be somewhere else."
With Hayes and Unseld gone, the Bullets have a bunch of money in salaries freed up. Some of that money likely will be spent to keep Kupchak with the Bullets, which is another reason Ferry could draft a small guard.
"Add Dandridge's salary to that money, too," Ferry said, meaning Bobby D likely won't be asked back.
Yes, gone is the pound-it-up-the-gut front line of Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge. Here comes the Kevin Porter flying circus, with Frank Johnson understudying.