Nearly all of the pieces were present, but the total picture was more than a little disconcerting for the Washington Bullets yesterday as they prepared at Fort Meade for tonight's opener against the Bulls in Chicago.
Anticipating the signing of free agent forward Greg Ballard to a new contract (which he agreed to terms on Wednesday), the team announced that Jeff Malone would be placed on the injured list. By the end of the day, however, Ballard had not signed, in essence placing Malone, a second-year guard, in limbo. Still one player over the league's 12-man roster limit, the Bullets asked waivers on forward Joe Kopicki.
"We've been working on the contract with Greg all day. The problem is there just wasn't enough time to get everyone together and get everything on paper," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "As for Joe, we liked him fine. He didn't do anything wrong. He just got caught in the numbers game."
The delay in signing Ballard was a factor in Kopicki's release in that Charles Davis and Guy Williams -- small forwards, as is Ballard -- became necessary guarantees in terms of depth.
The transactions cast a pall over the return to action of Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson. Williams, scrimmaging for the first time since spraining his left ankle in the first preseason game, showed no lingering effects. Robinson, while still trying to master the intricacies of the Bullets' offense, nevertheless exhibited a physical presence that bodes well.
On the whole, however, the nearly two-hour practice was sloppy and uninspired, the sort that usually comes in midwinter, not the night before a season-opener. At one point early in the scrimmage, Coach Gene Shue even halted play to chastise his squad for its indifferent play.
"It wasn't a good practice, we weren't good with the ball, but it was understandable," said Shue. "There were a lot of other things on my mind, too. I was pleased to see Gus back but I was scared to death that he would reinjure himself or that someone else would get hurt."
And, it was roster cutdown day.
"It's an awkward situation," said Dudley Bradley, who has had the unfortunate experience of being the man on the bubble. "You don't know what's going to happen and you don't really want to ask. But if it's going to be you, you almost want to know right away so that you can begin to make other arrangements."
Nor is it Kopicki's first experience with life on the NBA fringe. A third-round draft choice by Atlanta in 1982, Kopicki was waived by the Hawks in training camp, only to be picked up by the Indiana Pacers. In a cost-cutting move, the Pacers decided to keep only 11 players on the roster, making Kopicki expendable. He then played for the Wisconsin Flyers of the Continental Basketball Association until Washington picked him up in March 1983.
"Yeah, it's happened before, but it's nothing you ever get used to," Kopicki said at the start of yesterday's practice. "You come out and you're nervous but there's nothing you can do about it so you just try and relax. Then you just have to wait and see what happens."
The waiting process yesterday was an excruciatingly long one. Because the club was traveling to Chicago directly from practice, after the end of the workout there was nothing to do but sit around and wait for the decision to be made, and that didn't happen until a little more than an hour before the NBA's 6 p.m. deadline for freezing rosters. The delay was caused in part, said Ferry, because the team was trying to work out a trade with another club for Kopicki.
"We had something worked out with another club but they backed out because Joe's salary would have put them over the salary cap," Ferry said.
Malone is assured of being with the club, the only question is when. The moment Ballard does re-sign, Malone will go onto the injured list for five games to get treatment of a twisted right ankle. If that happens today, as Ferry expects, Malone would not be eligible to return to action until Nov. 3 against Atlanta.
Although he hadn't played since hurting the ankle Oct. 18 in an exhibition against the New York Knicks, Malone also was a participant in yesterday's scrimmage in the hopes of convincing Shue that he was fit enough to avoid the time on the injured list. After a few minutes of limping about the court, though, "It was obvious that he's not ready to play yet," said Shue.
"I was a little surprised they decided to put me on the injured list," said Malone. "I thought I'd be back strong on Saturday or Sunday at the latest but I guess it's better to rest and let it heal than play and maybe have it linger all season long. The good thing is the five games I'm sitting out are all bunched together. If they were spread out I'd go crazy."
Still, Malone made the trip to Chicago while Kopicki stayed behind in Washington wondering what his next step will be. Ferry doesn't think Joe will have to wait long to find out. "Joe will have a job if he wants one," said Ferry. "He still has lots of options left."