After four straight losses, including three on a just-completed West Coast trip, the Washington Bullets return home to play the New Jersey Nets tonight at Capital Centre looking for solutions to recent problems and with a new starter, Jeff Malone, at guard.
The Nets have been battered by injuries in recent weeks, on several occasions dressing as few as eight players and even having guard Micheal Ray Richardson start at forward. New Jersey's troubles, along with the return to Capital Centre, could help the Bullets get back on the right track.
Another factor could be putting Malone into the starting lineup at the second guard, replacing Dudley Bradley.
With Gus Williams slow in returning to form after his recent adductor tendon injury, the Bullets -- slow starters even in their 12-victories-in-14-games streak -- have been falling behind early in games because of a lack of outside scoring.
In 38 minutes as a substitute Saturday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, Malone led Washington with 30 points. In a starting role against the Lakers the following night, the second-year player scored 20, including nine in the first quarter, which ended with the Bullets trailing, 30-29.
Bradley, who had started the previous 24 games, is in danger of getting next to no playing time. Coach Gene Shue has said that he prefers to play a three-guard rotation, which would probably mean that Frank Johnson would become the first back-court substitute.
In Sunday's 109-101 loss to the Lakers, when the game got tight in the fourth quarter, the point guard was Darren Daye, the better to combat 6-foot-9 Magic Johnson.
As his production would attest, Malone, who started with Bradley when Williams was out of the lineup for four games, says he's comfortable in his new starting spot.
"I'm confident now, just knowing that I'll be out there, he said. "I think that's reflected by my performance. If you come off the bench and go oh for two and are sat down, you don't feel like you have the freedom to shoot when you get back out there."
Meanwhile, the Bullets also return home amid reports in Los Angeles that veteran Lakers forward Jamaal Wilkes has expressed an interest to be traded, with one of the possibilities being Washington.
"There are a number of teams I wouldn't mind going to, Houston . . . Washington would be a good team," Wilkes said, adding that he has made no overtures to the Bullets, nor they to him.
"I think Wilkes is a fabulous athlete," Shue said, "and I think he would be a big help to our team." He stopped short of saying the Bullets are trying to get Wilkes. General Manager Bob Ferry was not available to comment yesterday.
According to a West Coast source, a call by Lakers General Manager Jerry West to the Bullets was met with relative disinterest.
A starter on Lakers championship teams in 1980 and '82, Wilkes was felled by a gastro-intestinal virus in February. By the time he recovered, James Worthy had taken his job.
Wilkes, nevertheless, began this season in the starting lineup but played poorly as the Lakers started 2-5. Once again replaced by Worthy, Wilkes has played off and on. On the team's four-game trip east last week, he played six, seven, 16 and nine minutes. On Sunday, he was on the court 16 minutes, scoring nine points on three-for-six shooting from the field and three of three from the foul line.
"I'm beginning to think that he's (Los Angeles Coach Pat Riley) playing mind games with me," said Wilkes. "Perhaps he thinks it's some sort of psychological motivation, but it's not working."
Wilkes earns about $875,000 a year. With the Bullets at the salary cap limit, the only way for them to acquire a player is to trade for one.