After the Bullets' 120-105 rout of the 76ers at the Spectrum last Tuesday, Philadelphia guard Clint Richardson wasn't buying the notion that this is a different Washington team from years past. "All I know is that they're still big and strong," he said. "What else matters?"
The Bullets' have won eight of their last nine games and are 10-6 this season. Yet, despite the acquisition of guard Gus Williams, the perception of the team around the league has been based almost entirely on that former image, one of a plodding, half-court offense and basic beat-em-up defense.
"When teams start planning for us, they still worry about Jeff Ruland inside," said Coach Gene Shue. With the 6-foot-10 center firmly entrenched as the team's foundation (according to Shue), that isn't a bad approach, just a shortsighted one.
So far, opponents restricting themselves to the team's inside game have found themselves surprised by the one-man fast break forays of Williams as well as the collective speed of the Bullets' second unit.
With the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bullets have played everyone in the Eastern Conference. And while the perception of the team surely will change, questions are still being asked. Many of them have come from the team itself. "We're still struggling, looking to find our team's identity," said Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
"It's still so early, the team is so new I don't know what to expect," added Shue. "Things change quickly. Because we play so many games, positives have a way of becoming negatives.
"We have shown we can beat the good teams, but it's not as if we play them every day."
To the contrary. Of Washington's initial 16 games, only four were against teams that didn't make last season's playoffs.
Against New York and Boston, the teams that met for last season's conference championship, the Bullets are 3-1.
Celtics' Assistant Coach Jimmy Rodgers, a fan in the past, has become a strong supporter of the present Bullets' team.
"I think they're making a move to another level, trying to join us and Philadelphia and Los Angeles," said Rodgers. "Even last season, I think you could've taken that team and won a division, maybe even gotten to the finals in the West."
Boston Coach K.C. Jones said simply, "Gene Shue has outdone himself. Getting Gus and Cliff (Robinson) was a major coup."
There is no disputing the fact that Williams and Robinson (both aquired by Washington on the day of last June's draft) have totally changed the team.
Williams, the Bullets' leading scorer in 12 of the 16 games so far, is averaging 21.6 points and leading the NBA with nearly three steals per game.
Robinson has been sensational. Preceded by a reputation as a moody, selfish player, he has disproven that, both by willingly coming off the bench, then doing whatever Shue has asked.
Averaging 16.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, Robinson has often passed to the open man and has, in effect, carried the team in recent weeks.
Prior to this season, the Bullets had been thought of in NBA circles as a team capable of winning 40 to 45 games in the regular season. Because of their always physical nature, teams didn't want to play them in the playoffs but knew Washington could be beaten.
True to form, after giving out a few lumps, the Bullets would make an early exit from the playoffs.
"We used to go to Boston for the playoffs hoping we could win," said Shue. "We can compete now. By the end of the season, we should be able to go in there knowing we can win."
This team is capable of doing just that. After a 118-110 loss at the Boston Garden last Friday, Shue envisioned a "negative scenario," in which a "down" Bullets' team would lose to Detroit the following night, then to Philadelphia tonight (at Capital Centre at 7:30) and to Detroit again on the road Friday.
The end result would be four straight losses and the end of all those good feelings built up over the course of the team's recent seven-game winning streak.
That Washington was able to make a fourth-quarter comeback and beat the Pistons Saturday was a sign of the team's talent and potential.
But talent is never the only consideration in the NBA. With 12-man rosters and a season that stretches nearly nine months for the eventual champion, how teammates handle an almost suffocating daily proximity to each other is almost as important as the successful execution of a pick and roll.
"Unless a coach has a gift for blending talents and personalities, there's always the chance for problems when you make a lot of changes like the Bullets did, but Gene's done a fine job," said Atlanta Hawks General Manager Stan Kasten.
"I've heard some NBA people say that you can't incorporate the style of a Gus Williams into that of a Ruland or (Rick) Mahorn, that they can't mix," he said. "But Boston can outrun you or beat you up inside and that's what it looks like the Bullets are doing, too."
Despite their won-loss record, or the size of their championship rings, even the mighty Celtics aren't immune to daily strain and ego skirmishes. What keeps them in check, however, is winning. And so it goes with the Bullets, so far.
"I don't care how you feel, you can't say anything if the team is winning," said Bickerstaff. "That's what it's all about in the pros.
"There are always going to be unhappy people but if they are any kind of person they should be able to put it aside for the good of the team."
Whether the Bullets are capable of doing that will go a long way in determining the team's ultimate success or failure.
Ruland, for example, is averaging 19.7 points per game this season, almost three fewer than last year. Yet his shots per game are down only slightly and the fewer minutes he's played (37 as opposed to 41) should make him stronger in the long run.
"When a team is going well, no one pays attention to minor things; but if you lose five or six in a row, everything becomes major," said Pete Babcock, director of player personnel for the Denver Nuggets.
Another team that made a number of wholesale changes in the offseason, the 10-2 Nuggets have been the Western Conference version of Washington -- a surprise team with an unexpected record.
"Some of the players that have been here awhile, a Dan Issel for example, have had some degree of difficulty with the changes we've made, but he's willing," Babcock said. "And our coach, Doug Moe, handles potential problems by being open and honest.
"I think Gene does things the same way."
Before practices, Shue can be found talking with his players on a one-to-one basis. The discussions center around the coach's expectations and he explains his feelings on a player's performance. That is much appreciated, according to Greg Ballard.
"I don't think the players are as worried about their own stats, there's a healthier attitude now than there was last year when we weren't winning," said Ballard. "Some players are worrying about their roles or not getting as much time as they did last year, but if they can come to grips with it and sacrifice for what Gene is trying to do in terms of winning, then they should be satisfied with the end result."