With two games remaining on their regular season schedule -- at Detroit tonight, then home against Philadelphia on Saturday -- the Washington Bullets have won 39 and lost 41. By finishing with a flourish, they can even their record. But given the quality of the opposition, the Bullets are more likely to stick on 39, just four victories more than last season. Because the NBA would rather make dollars than sense, from there the Bullets will advance into the playoffs, probably to be fed to Philadelphia. Unless the injection that Jeff Ruland was given Monday enables him to make a flamboyant recovery, it will be so long, it's been good to know you. Over and out.
Thunder and Lightning?
Try Drizzle and Fizzle.
You look at their record and it's hard to make the case that this year's Bullets are more than marginally better than last year's Bullets, a team that was so slow, dull and predictable that had it been a breakfast, it would have been cold oatmeal and dry, white toast. But when they are healthy, these Bullets are much better. The problem is, being healthy. Their best player, Ruland, has missed 43 games; without him, the value of every other player on this team is diminished. Their first guard off the bench, Frank Johnson, has missed 34. Earlier in the season, their sleek forward, Cliff Robinson, missed 22. The hard core of this team -- Ruland, Robinson and Gus Williams -- has played together in only 20 games.
Like the Knicks and the Nets, teams that have been similarly disrupted and equally devastated by a pox of injuries, these Bullets could have, should have, and -- considering what a prime player Jeff Malone has become -- probably would have been very good had they been very well. On paper, the Atlantic Division figured to have five of the NBA's best 10 teams. But as Norton often remarked to Kramden, "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'it might have been.' " And ain't that right, Ralphie boy?
"Without injuries," Gene Shue was saying the other night, "by now we would have had a meaningful playoff position solidified. With Ruland and Frank Johnson healthy, I firmly believe that at this time of the year we could go into a playoff series with Boston or Philly -- even though they might have won 10, 15 games more than us -- feeling that we had a real chance. Boston people will tell you that we've played them well in the past. And we have. But we couldn't ever beat them. We'd play well, and lose by five or seven points. Realistically, we never had a chance to accomplish anything in the playoffs. This year, I think, we would have."
This year, with Robinson and Williams, Shue finally had a team that wasn't best suited to pulling a plow. "When we got those players, I figured we'd be a better fast-break team, a team with the ability to win a lot more games," he said. "Gus' greatest value to a team is that he's absolutely great in the open court, just running up and down. He and Cliff would make us so much more exciting and more appealing to the fans." Shue smiled at the trades that brought them. "With those two players, everything would be better."
The fact that it hasn't been has more to do with the absence of Ruland than anything. The construct of the team was to be like that of Boston and Los Angeles: speed complementing strength. "Run when you have it; go down low when you don't; play good defense," Ruland said. "The way basketball is supposed to be played." But when Ruland went down, he took the entire inside game with him. Not only did the Bullets lose his 20 points and 12 rebounds per game, but they lost the only aggressive post-up player they had. Robinson's game isn't pound, but quickness and finesse; ditto for Darren Daye; Greg Ballard and Tom McMillen are essentially jump shooters; most noticeably, Rick Mahorn hasn't given the Bullets much of anything this season. As an illustration of how badly Ruland is missed inside, in the 37 games Ruland played, the Bullets took 34 more free throws than their opponents; in the 43 games Ruland missed, the Bullets took 214 fewer.
The wake of Ruland's absence has caused all kinds of negative ripples. Robinson can't run because he has to stay inside and rebound; Ballard can't easily get free for jump shots because opponents don't have to double anyone low; Williams can't run because there's no one to get him the ball. "We had to change the team when Jeff went out," Shue explained. "For part of the season, we just walked the ball up court, because without Jeff this team can't run and win. So Gus can't get into the open-court game, and it's had a real effect on him." Never a great shooter in a half-court game, Williams is hitting only 41.1 percent in the games Ruland has missed.
Having made all the right moves to become a running team, the irony is that the Bullets -- against their will and all odds -- are once again a walk-up team. It is as if they are the victims of some genetic conspiracy.
They are not disappointed as much as they are frustrated.
"It hasn't been the team we thought it would be," said Robinson.
"I just wish we were able to play the game we'd planned," said Williams.
One sigh. One shrug.
A season in capsule.
"You know," Shue said between small spurts of bitter laughter, "before we made those deals, if you'd told me that Ruland and Frank Johnson would be out for about half the season, and you'd asked me where we'd be, I'd have said we'd be the worst team in the league. Without picking up Cliff and Gus, we'd have sunk right to the bottom."
(Eligible for the Ewing Lottery.)