Forward Jeff Ruland, who has missed 13 of the Bullets' last 14 games because of his strained right shoulder, said today he has been told he might not be able to play for another month.
He said the Indiana Pacers' team doctor, Robert F. Brucekmann, gave him that prognosis Saturday when Ruland was in Indianapolis for the NBA All-Star game. He had been selected to play for the East, but couldn't, so Detroit's Bill Laimbeer took his place.
Ruland is with the Bullets on the six-game, 12-day road trip that will start tonight in Seattle, but he told The Washington Post he does not expect to play in any of the games. The Bullets still are listing his status as "day to day," team spokesman Mark Pray said.
"He is supposed to be lifting light weights and he's not supposed to shoot," Pray said yesterday. "He told me he basically has to make the determination himself. It's just one of those things where, when it quits hurting, he plays."
The injury almost symbolizes the problems the team has had all season. Throughout the first 52 games, it often seemed that the team's major concern was learning to mesh as a unit -- both on and off the court. Now, as the team prepares for the rest of its schedule, the biggest concern is . . . learning to mesh.
It's not as if the 12 men General Manager Bob Ferry and Coach Gene Shue chose at the start of the season learn slowly. They have simply been terribly unlucky and brittle. When guard Frank Johnson cracked a bone in his left foot last Thursday night -- he's lost for approximately six weeks -- it only continued a season-long trend.
Of course, the biggest trend setters have been forward Cliff Robinson, who has missed the last 15 games with problems in his right leg, and Ruland. Robinson also is with the Bullets on this trip and expects to play in the second game, Friday night against Portland.
Injuries are one reason the Bullets are 28-24. And with Boston at 41-9 and Philadelphia 39-10, it might sound farfetched to say the Bullets have the personnel to make at run at those two teams. But that can happen only if they get healthy in time to prepare as a unit for the playoffs.
If things go on schedule, Johnson would return to action around the end of March. That would allow him seven games to work his way back into shape. Neither Ruland nor Robinson can afford to wait that long. Robinson is admittedly out of game condition and with any sort of prolonged absence, Ruland can't help but fall behind, too.
More importantly, the return and reintegration in the lineup of all three players is necessary to establish the Bullets' plans for the playoffs. Everyone, from Shue to seldom-used reserve Tom Sewell, is affected in that regard.
Sewell, who shows much promise in practice, must play some, even if the team chooses to replace Johnson with another player during his recuperation. If the Bullets do choose to go that route, they could do worse than look toward Franklin Edwards or Billy McKinney, free agent guards who resemble Johnson in style of play and personality.
Given the return of all his players, Shue needs time to improve his substitution rotation. He argues that he doesn't feel comfortable using more than eight players, but it's unlikely that he's had a better 12-man team to work with in recent years.
Tom McMillen, for one, has showed what he's capable of during the absence of Ruland and Robinson. Before the injuries, McMillen seldom played. Darren Daye has flourished with steady work. And now that Guy Williams been given a chance, he has shown why he was kept at the start of the season over Charles Davis.
Some Bullets are a tad confused about when or how much they'll play. Johnson's injury should now release Dudley Bradley from the bench. He played in the final moments of the 128-126 double overtime victory against Detroit Feb. 7, but it's hard to expect him to show his considerable defensive skills in the final seconds of play.
Although he's now needed oncourt regularly, the reasoning behind Bradley's benching was sound and -- perhaps paradoxically -- was the best move Shue has made this season. Bradley, the defensive genius, was replaced by Jeff Malone, a virtuoso on offense.
With Ruland out, Malone has been the Bullets' most reliable scorer. Although not as talented as Bradley, Malone has worked hard on defense as well.
Perhaps his greatest asset is the balance he gives to the back court, putting something of a rein on the offensive forays of running mate Gus Williams.
Besides Robinson, Williams has been the Bullets' most perplexing player. His penchant for one-on-four jumpers infuriates fans, coaches and teammates alike and -- earlier in the season particularly -- his frequent shots threatened to cause a rift on the squad. Even today, there's a wide margin between his shots and those of the next Washington player, Malone. Clearly, though, the Bullets are getting what they paid for.
Williams is the lightning in the Bullets' Thunder and Lightning slogan. Just when a fan is ready to stand up and throw a chair at him after a bad shot, Williams comes downcourt and succeeds on three consecutive three-point shots, as he did in that last game against the Pistons.
As one fan said during that game, "He makes the best percentage of bad-percentage shots in the league." So the reins can't be pulled too tightly. His flair and style make him revered by his teammates. He is the Wizard, on and off the court, besides being a very proud man. An extended sulk could be just as disastrous as another injury.
In a sense, Washington is almost lucky. The return of Robinson, then Ruland, then Johnson and perhaps the addition of another player will enable the team to avoid the complacency that accompanies a team when it's locked into a playoff position. Besides having the incentive to try to overtake Detroit or Milwaukee and gain a home court advantage for the opening round of the playoffs, the team will try to stay above the New Jersey Nets.
Ferry says most NBA teams fear what the Bullets will become when totally healthy. That applies to the Nets, who are three games behind Washington in the Atlantic Division standings, despite more player games missed than any other team in the league.
One thing in the Bullets' favor is the fact that, of their remaining 30 games, 19 will be against teams with records of .500 or less. Only 14 games remain at Capital Centre. But after this trip, the Bullets will have to play more than a single game on the road in a week's time only three more times this season.