The Washington Bullets open their 1981-82 training camp Wednesday faced with more uncertainties than ever before in their National Basketball Association tenure.
Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Mitch Kupchak all are gone. Free agents Kevin Grevey and Bob Dandridge may not return this season. No. 1 draft choice Frank Johnson most likely will not be in camp because he is still in the process of negotiating his contract with the team.
Greg Ballard will be back, but in a new role. Coach Gene Shue will try a major position switch in camp, moving Ballard from small forward to power forward.
"This season is going to be an incredible challenge," Shue said. "I really look forward to working with all of the young players we have, but the problem is going to be with the competition. That always has me worried. It's important to bring young talent along, but you also have to win."
For the last nine seasons, Unseld and Hayes had been the foundation of the Bullets, carrying them to eight playoff appearances and a world championship. For the last five seasons, Kupchak was waiting in the wings eagerly.
That's all changed now.
Unseld retired as a player, Hayes was traded to Houston and Kupchak, a free agent, signed a contract with Los Angeles.
"We don't have a foundation anymore," Shue said. "Last year I was involved with a veteran team. A lot was established before I got here. This year we don't have that nucleus. It'll be strange."
Grevey, a four-year starter at the shooting guard position, signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers last week and the Bullets have until Sept. 28 to match the offer, let Grevey become a Pacer without compensation or work out a deal with the Pacers as an inducement not to match the offer.
There are indications the Bullets may match the offer (a four-year, $1.4 million contract) to keep Grevey.
"Our position isn't going to change," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "The only way we wouldn't match the offer is if we can get a helluva deal. I don't know what will happen. We like Kevin and so it will have to be some deal for us to move him."
Shue said, as of now, he is assuming the Bullets will keep Grevey. "Until he's gone, I'm assuming he's here," Shue said. "So as far as I'm concerned, we're set in the backcourt with him and Kevin Porter."
Johnson's attorney, William Pollak, said he is negotiating with the Bullets, but doesn't think they are very close to an agreement. He said the 6-foot-2 all-America guard from Wake Forest will not report without a contract.
"Yeah, we're having some trouble agreeing on a contract and I don't know if Frank will be in camp when it opens or not," Ferry said.
Johnson isn't the only unsigned high 1981 Bullet draft choice. Two of the team's three second-round picks -- Claude Gregory of Wisconsin, the 41st pick overall, and Steve Lingenfelter of South Dakota State, the 44th player, haven't signed. It doesn't appear they will.
"You've got to remember," Ferry said, "it's not hard to sign any player, as long as you give him everything he wants, but we aren't going to do that."
Ferry also said the Bullets are still contemplating whether they want to offer Dandridge a new contract.
On the court, Shue has decided to make a major move with Ballard, a four-year veteran deployed as a small forward virtually his entire NBA career.
"The plan now is to use Greg as a power forward," Shue said. "Going into camp, he'll be the starter. If I see after awhile it doesn't work, I'll change my plans. I think he'll be a good power forward, though. What we'll miss in rebounding we'll make up in shooting and quickness."
"We decided to make the switch because Greg creates more mismatches as a big forward than he does as a small forward and he rebounds better from the big forward position," Ferry added.
The biggest question marks are at center and small forward.
"Right now Rick (Mahorn) is the center," said Shue.
Ferry indicated the Bullets want to carry four center-power forward types -- Ballard, Mahorn, Jeff Ruland and Jim Chones, acquired in the Kupchak deal. "As a group, they're inexperienced," Ferry said, "but they have talent. And we have Joe Pace to look at, too. If he shows promise, we'll keep five big people."
There will be heavy competition for the small forward spot between Carlos Terry, who missed much of last season with torn knee ligaments, Don Collins and rookie Charles Davis.
"The key problem for the team will be rebounding," Shue said. "When we lost Wes, Elvin and Mitch we lost our three best rebounders and the only way we can make up for the loss is by everyone picking up the slack."
About 16 rookies and free agents are expected for the first week of camp, with the other 10 veterans reporting Oct. 2.
The first week's workouts will be at Bowie State and will be closed to the public. When the veterans report, the workouts will be moved to Fort Meade and will be open to the public.
"From all our standpoints, it's very exciting," Ferry said. "Most good coaches really find their worth in teaching and when you've got young players like we've got, it's great because they aren't so set in their ways and they'll listen and learn."