It was an enormously satisfying season for the Washington Bullets, one that far exceeded even the most optimistic hopes. Yet less than 12 hours after an emotion-draining double-overtime defeat in Boston, General Manager Bob Ferry and Coach Gene Shue were talking about next season.
"You really have to wait for the enthusiasm and excitement to die down before you can make a thorough evaluation of the team," Ferry said yesterday. "But Gene and I spent the flight from Boston talking about prospects for next season."
The most gratifying accomplishment of a 43-39 season that preceded a 2-0 sweep of New Jersey and a 4-1 loss to Boston in the National Basketball Association playoffs was that the Bullets found an identity.
"Last year at this time I didn't have any idea what kind of team we would have," Ferry said. "Now we have established what type of team we are. We're aggressive and we never give up. We're physically strong and we enjoy being physical. Our offense works from the inside out, like the Celtics. Everything we do revolves around our big men. We've established a character, a style, and any changes will be made with that in mind."
Shue agreed, but also offered a word of caution to Bullets' fans (about 300 greeted the team yesterday when it arrived at National Airport).
"If this was a rebuilding year, I'd like to have one every year," he said. "It was just an incredible season, the players responded brilliantly, but what the players and fans cannot do now is be deceived.
"I'm not, I am a very realistic person. Things like this happen in sports. You can look back and remember miracle seasons. Many positive things happened, and the best thing is that we now have a nucleus of players who know what it takes to win. What we have to do is build from this, this great thing that happened. We have to be sure to add the right type of player to add to our nucleus."
Shue and Ferry now can shop with specifics in mind. Both agree the No. 1 priority is a big, shooting guard. The next is rebounders.
The college draft June 29 isn't expected to provide as much help as might be expected because the Bullets traded their No. 1 choice to Detroit two years ago for Kevin Porter. They have three second-round selections, including San Diego's, the 24th overall. Ferry also said owner Abe Pollin is willing to listen to any free-agent deals.
"We're more apt to be more interested than last year, when we had a first-round choice," Ferry said. "Last year we weren't even sure what we needed. Now I can visualize certain needs, picture certain players fitting in."
Moses Malone is a free agent, but Pollin has said he is out of the Bullets' price range. One free agent who may fit into their budget is John Long of Detroit. The 6-foot-5, 25-year-old guard is an excellent long-range shooter. He shot 49 percent and averaged 22 points a game.
"Long would really help us offensively," Ferry said of the four-year veteran, who reportedly is asking at least $400,000 a year. "But you have to weigh his whole game. I've heard the Pistons weren't happy with their defense in the back court.
"To get Long, we'd have to make some sort of arrangement with the Pistons. They're not going to let him go for nothing. My gut feeling right now is that we won't make a deal before the draft."
Asked whether any of his players were on the market, Ferry said: "Right now I have no reason to believe that everyone won't be back next season."
Carlos Terry, who never fully recovered from his knee operation, is the team's only free agent, but several other players, including Jim Chones, Garry Witts, Spencer Haywood and Porter, do not have guaranteed contracts.
"The prognosis is good on Porter (who tore his Achilles' tendon in training camp)," Ferry said.
Shue said he expects Frank Johnson to be the point guard again next season and said he really didn't know about John Lucas' chances of returning for the last guaranteed year of his $300,000-a-year contract.
"Luke is going to get together with our team doctor and the Life Extension Institute to work out a program that would cure his problem (with drugs)," Ferry said. "We can't do anything, the doctors can't do anything unless Luke wants to do it. His life is in his own hands. He has to have a total commitment."
Ferry admitted that there won't be room on next year's squad for three playmakers. He said Porter and Lucas will be competing for a spot behind Johnson.
"Frank will have to improve himself in several areas," Shue said. "I think with the experience and confidence he gained this season, he'll be a better player next year. He'll learn when to take the shot and when not to."
The big change in next year's team will be more playing time for Jeff Ruland, who ended an outstanding rookie season with 33 points and 13 rebounds in Wednesday night's 131-126 loss at Boston.
Shue said he likes the forward combination of Haywood and Greg Ballard because both can shoot from outside, which means that if Ruland starts, Rick Mahorn might wind up on the bench.
"Based on our nucleus, we'll play the same way next season," Shue said. "We've got to control the pace of the game and emphasize defense. We can't be a running team because we don't have the rebounding.
"I don't see a situation where we would change the makeup of the team," he said. "We've started in one direction and we should try to continue that way."