Center Jeff Ruland says his shoulder still hurts and that he can't even guess when he'll be able to return to the Washington Bullets' lineup. When he does come back, Ruland will find Coach Gene Shue's confidence in the team's efforts from the pivot has been reduced to next to nothing.
Although the Bullets run one of the most complex and intricate offenses in the NBA, the simplest part of that attack -- clearing out a side of the floor and dumping the ball down outside the lane -- has been virtually erased from the team's plans with Ruland out, according to Shue.
"Basically, our inside game isn't there," Shue said after the Bullets lost to Seattle, 93-92, Saturday night. "Gus (Williams) drives to the basket, but at least tonight, the shots weren't falling. Everyone else is basically outside shooters, so those are the plays we've been running. But if you can play inside, you can take the ball down low and at least get some free throws."
Washington's 127-121 double-overtime victory over Portland Wednesday night came between two losses -- Saturday's game and a 104-99 defeat by the Chicago Bulls Tuesday. Those two games were marred, at least from the Bullets' standpoint, by long stretches of inactivity on the scoreboard.
Against Chicago, the Bullets' opponent tonight at Capital Centre, the team shot 65 percent from the field in controlling the first half, then scored 35 points the second half. Saturday night against the SuperSonics, things weren't much different. In the third quarter, Washington was five for 21 from the field and scored only 14 points.
According to Shue, the reason for those low figures is the team's lack of a consistent inside threat, something the Bullets have not had for the last two months -- the amount of time Ruland has been out with a strained right shoulder.
There are few alternatives. One idea would be for Cliff Robinson, a forward, to take on more of an inside role. Robinson says that although he feels capable of playing with his back to the basket, starting out on the wing as he usually does "gives me more space. I feel like there are more ways to go, either taking the jumper or faking and driving to the basket."
Another alternative is Rick Mahorn. Because of foul trouble, Mahorn has played more than 30 minutes in just three of Washington's last nine games. But even when he's not on the bench, the power forward/center has appeared to be the main victim of Shue's lost confidence in the pivot.
Another forward, Charles Jones, easily has been the Bullets' most aggressive shot blocker and quickest big man, but his offensive game isn't refined enough to function in Washington's scheme.
Other teams have similar problems but usually are able to overcome them. Without all-star forward Terry Cummings in the lineup, the Milwaukee Bucks still are capable of dominating inside by having their big players stand outside the three-point circle, drawing their defenders with them and leaving the post to guard Sidney Moncrief.
Washington doesn't have a Moncrief-type player at guard. Jeff Malone is not a post-up player and third guard Dudley Bradley, the best rebounder and the man who possesses the strongest inside game of the Bullets' back-court players, also gets his points from the outside.
Besides, it's too late in the season to institute sweeping changes in the squad's offense. One can only wonder how well Malone would be doing if Ruland were in the lineup, commanding double-teams, then throwing the ball back out to the guard.
"I've been shooting well, anyway, but it would be great to have Jeff back," Malone said. "I don't think teams respect our inside game right now and that means you have to work harder to get to spots. It would be great to have that inside threat."
For Williams, the return of Ruland would be just another step toward balancing the team. "Everyone should be able to play off of everyone else," he said. "You can't beat good teams night in and night out playing just one way, and that includes nights where you may shoot nothing but layups. What you want is a happy medium, a mixture of an inside and outside game and then go from there."
Until that happens, it would appear that the Bullets are on their way to nowhere.