Wherever he is, Abe Pollin must be haunted by his inability to select overseers for his hockey team. Every choice a dud. Zero for the franchise. And with the Bullets headed in a Caps-like direction, Pollin may be shaken enough to consider a change of command there. Others have suggested General Manager Bob Ferry has let the franchise go to seed and should be replaced.
They are wrong.
If Pollin is not asking harsh questions about Ferry, I will. This is one of those times a person can be prosecutor and defender on the same case, after a look at some realities.
One of the lures of sport is its finality, that there is a measurement for nearly every movement, a winner and a loser in almost every event. The abstract level of pro basketball, especially in times of crisis, gets very subjective, for the chemistry of success includes only a few essential, rare ingredients and is stumbled onto more often than not. And spectacular good fortune makes failure almost inevitable.
Sounds strange, right? With all the classy college players available each year, a general manager with a mind ought to be able to keep a team near the highest level of the NBA forever. The quality franchises should win and restock at the same time, as the Cowboys and Raiders have done in football and the Orioles and some others in baseball.
It doesn't work that way. There are more peaks and valleys in pro basketball than in any other sport. If it were not so, why have the Boston Celtics had as many losing seasons as the Bullets, three, since 1968? How can the Portland Trail Blazers go from a 37-45 record one season to the best team anybody ever watched the next?
If we're going to examine Ferry, why not against the best? Head to head in the draft against Red Auerbach, from Ferry's first year as the Bullets' general manager, 1973, to the present.
That year, the Bullets took the infamous Spoon, Nick Weatherspoon; the Celts took Steve Downing. In '74, Ferry drafted Len Elmore, who signed with the ABA, in the first round and Truck Robinson in the second; Auerbach drafted Glenn McDonald and Kevin Stacom. In '75, Ferry grabbed Kevin Grevey; Auerbach took Tom Boswell; In '76, it was Mitch Kupchak and Larry Wright for the Bullets in the first round and Norman Cook for the Celts.
So far, Ferry scores a knockout. If his teams had not won a half-trillion titles, you'd assume from the above that Auerbach couldn't recognize a jump shooter from a pool shooter. Clearly, he can. By the time he drafts most years, even in the first round, pool hustlers have as much impact on most NBA teams as the best available collegians. But Auerbach's position in the draft was not much lower than Ferry's.
In '77, Ferry drafted Greg Ballard, and Auerbach picked Cedric Maxwell. Then the Celts were terrible enough for Auerbach to have the sixth pick in the entire '78 draft. He gambled, took Larry Bird as a junior, later traded for Robert Parish, drafted Kevin McHale after outslickering the Pistons and won the entire NBA pot last season.
In the '78-'79 seasons, the Bullets were as sensational as the Celts were sour, NBA champs and 54-28 in successive seasons to 32-50 and 29-53. As a reward for being back-to-back awful, Boston got Bird; as a penalty for being splendid, Washington got Roger Phegley and Dave Corzine.
The point is that Ferry knows who can play as well as Auerbach.
But surely even somebody who can sift fool's gold from the real NBA ore should have done better than Phegley and Corzine with those two first-round draftees in '78. Well, Ferry could have chosen two very good forwards, Mike Mitchell and Terry Tyler, and lead guard Maurice Cheeks. But he already had one of the elite small forwards in the NBA, Bobby Dandridge, and a fine playmaker who couldn't shoot, Tom Henderson.
"I've always felt there were only three top players coming out each year," Auerbach said, "although sometimes you get lucky." Which means that a team can have 97 first-round draft choices and be doomed to mediocrity unless one of them was among the top three.
This becomes clear when you look back at the NBA champions from the '77 Trail Blazers to the '81 Celtics. There was a different champ each season but, except for Seattle, one common thread for them all: at least two players the entire basketball world knew would be dominant.
Portland had Bill Walton, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas; Washington had Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Dandridge; the Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes; Boston had Bird, Parish, Maxwell, Rick Robey and Kevin McHale. Other than Jack Sikma and John Johnson, Seattle had no major players chosen in the first round. Their brightest star, Dennis Johnson, was the 29th player taken in the '76 draft.
Of the 35 players on the seven all-rookie teams from '74, Ferry had a chance to draft only eight: Tyler, Larry Smith, Gus Williams, John Drew, Walter Davis, Bernard King, Sikma and Norm Nixon. Half of those, the final four listed, came in one draft, in '77 when Ferry made Ballard the fourth player chosen after a deal with Atlanta.
That move was questioned at the time, although not too severely because it was all but certain the Bullets would sign free agent Dandridge. They did, and he was the final necessary part for a championship. Ballard seemed a player who eventually would thrive under Dick Motta. He never got the chance, in fact said he learned nothing from Motta just before the coach was fired.
With the possible exception of Davis, Dan Roundfield, Williams and Johnson, Ferry had almost no chance for any player who made the last seven NBA all-star teams. Often, the player Ferry chose proved superior to ones taken far earlier in the draft.
In '75, he took Grevey as the 18th, and last, player on the first round. Of the 17 picked earlier, five are no longer active. And Grevey has had as much impact on his team as anyone other than David Thompson, Marvin Webster and Alvan Adams.
Still, shouldn't Ferry have broken up the Bullets before age did? Shouldn't he have traded Hayes, say, immediately after that championship season, when he still had value. Hayes could have been a cornerstone for one title and provided the foundation for another.
But because the Bullets had to surrender almost nothing to get Hayes, I doubt they ever would have gotten equal value for him.
"I wouldn't have traded him 'til I had to," Auerbach said. "Everybody says you should trade when you win a title, because the players are worth more in trades than they really are. But everytime I won I was careful to avoid trades, because I didn't want to break up that chemistry."
About trades: didn't Ferry give up too much for Kevin Porter? Next season's first-round choice, given the possibilities for futility this year, could be a franchise carrier. At the time, it was a fair swap, for Porter seemed exactly what the Bullets needed for one more championship thrust before Unseld limped into retirement.
Pollin and the Bullet faithful can be excused for being beside themselves with frustration. Unless the owner opens his wallet wider than he seems both willing and able to, there is no now and no short-term hope. Firing Ferry hardly is the solution, for he can provide a future as soon as that is possible.