Even if the Washington Bullets don't make the playoffs this season, General Manager Bob Ferry says they are better than they were a year ago, and he is pleased with the development, performance and direction of the franchise.
In assessing the team's personnel and plans, Ferry also makes it clear he is satisfied with Coach Gene Shue and feels that the Bullets have a solid foundation in Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn. The only major thing the team lacks, Ferry says, is a bona fide superstar.
The Bullets were one of the surprise teams in the National Basketball Association last season when they went 43-39 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. But going into tonight's game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Capital Centre, they are 34-36 and trail the Atlanta Hawks by two games in the quest for the last of the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
"Our season this year is very similar to the one we had last year," says Ferry, "except this time we had all those injuries and that nine-game losing streak. But I still think this is a better team than last year's. No question. And I certainly think this was a successful season, even if we don't make the playoffs.
"Last year, everything worked and we were virtually injury free. It was just one of those seasons. This has been one of those seasons that went the other way. We had no reason to suspect Spencer (Haywood) would have so much trouble and retire in the middle of the season or that Don Collins would break his foot or Frank Johnson dislocate his elbow.
"Last year everything was just right and this year didn't work out that way, but they were for reasons we couldn't control."
The keys to the Bullets' future are Ruland and Mahorn. Ruland has developed into one of the league's best low-post players and Mahorn is becoming a top defensive player. Both are big, strong, rough and tough.
"I think the way Rick and Jeff have blossomed has been beautiful," said Ferry. "They complement each other well and they've become very effective together.
"Right now they're the foundation of our future."
Ruland is the Bullets' leading scorer (19.1) and rebounder (11) and is shooting 56 percent from the field. Together, Ruland and Mahorn are the third-best rebunding duo in the league, behind Moses Malone and Julius Erving of Philadelphia and Robert Parish and Larry Bird of Boston.
"We're like a lot of teams in the league," added Ferry. "We just need a couple of players better than the ones we have. There's a chance for a bright future here if we can get a couple of other pieces.
"We still need that all-around scorer who can get his own shot. So much of our offense is built around getting the ball inside to our big men. We need someone who can score from anywhere."
They may find him in the draft. The Bullets have two first-round picks this year, their own and one obtained from Los Angeles in the Mitch Kupchak transaction. They also have two second-round picks.
"A lot will happen beween now and the draft," Ferry cautioned, "but right now we plan on keeping all of those picks.
"This is a typical draft. Not even considering who will come out early, we should get a good player."
Ferry says the top seniors are centers Ralph Sampson of Virginia, Steve Stipanovich of Missouri and Randy Breuer of Minnesota, and forwards Dale Ellis of Tennessee, Sidney Green of Nevada-Las Vegas and Antoine Carr of Wichita State.
"That's pretty much it for the top seniors," says Ferry, "but there are other good players out there."
Through much of this season Shue had difficulty finding a guard combination he liked. Kevin Porter, Don Collins, Kevin Grevey, Bryan Warrick, Billy Ray Bates and Charles Davis were all starting guards at one time this season before the Bullets acquired Ricky Sobers Jan. 24 and teamed him with Frank Johnson.
Shue prefers a three-guard rotation with Sobers, Johnson and Collins, which has left little playing time for rookie Warrick and Grevey.
Grevey, a starting guard on the Bullets' 1978 NBA championship team, apparently isn't in the Bullets' plans anymore.
With their strong, yet relatively slow front line, Shue wants speed and quickness in the back court. Collins, Sobers and Johnson provide it. Grevey's strength is his outside shot and when it isn't falling, his value is minimal.
Grevey began the season on the injured list because of an abdominal muscle problem and has never gotten into a groove.
He has played in only eight of the last 25 games and is averaging 7.3 points a game and shooting 39 percent. He went into the season as a 44 percent career shooter with a 12.6 average.
The Bullets tried right up to the Feb. 15 deadline to trade him. In spite of his guaranteed $350,000 annual salary, it is likely he won't be with the team next season.
Acquiring Sobers was perhaps the most significant move the Bullets have made in two seasons.
The Bullets, uncharacteristically, signed him as a midseason free agent to a multiyear, $300,000-a-season contract. They feel he has been worth the price.
In 29 games as a Bullet, he is averaging 16.2 points and 5.4 assists.
"He's been a good addition and a fine all-around player," said Ferry, "and it shows how easy it is to build a team if you want to do it through the free-agent market."
Youth is in the Bullets' favor, too. Sobers is 30, Grevey 29, Greg Ballard 28 and the other players the team depends on most--Ruland, Mahorn, Davis, Collins and Johnson--are all 24.
"When you have young players like we have and are going through a rebuilding like we are, you just want to see improvement," added Ferry, "and I've seen it."
Ruland was named NBA player of the week last week after he led the Bullets to a 4-0 record averaging 24.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.25 steals; he shot 59 percent . . . Sidney Moncrief, who has missed the last six games wih a sore right thigh, may be able to play tonight. He is Milwaukee's leading scorer (22.9) . . . The Hawks are at home against Cleveland tonight and play at Philadelphia Wednesday. The Bullets will play at New Jersey on Wednesday.