By the one measure that matters, wins and losses, the Washington Bullets suffered through yet another mediocre season.
The team's 40-42 regular season was par for the course for the last five years. Over that span the Bullets' average record has been 39-43. The playoffs? Last week's 3-1 elimination by the Philadelphia 76ers gave the team a 5-10 postseason W-L in the five-year period.
General Manager Bob Ferry is quick to point out one of the reasons for the second-season inadequacy.
"The last four times we've been in the playoffs we've been eliminated by Boston or Philadelphia," he said. "Those teams have gone on to play for the championship, so you could say that our series have been like being in the (league) semifinals."
However, until NBA Commissioner David Stern changes the playoff structure to accommodate Ferry's thinking, the Bullets will have to reach such lofty status the old-fashioned way. The question is, will the team do the things necessary to earn it?
The Bullets' 1984-85 season was a roller-coaster ride not totally attributable to the injuries that depleted the club from the middle of the season until the start of the playoffs. When Frank Johnson joined Jeff Ruland for Game 3 of the playoff series against Philadelphia on Wednesday, it marked the first time since Jan. 13 the team could call upon its full 12-man roster.
All season long, the players and Coach Gene Shue were dancing to the tune of "Getting to Know You." If one word could characterize the Bullets, it would be adjustment.
The addition of Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson and the emergence of Jeff Malone and Charles Jones mixing in with holdovers Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn and Greg Ballard placed the team in a constant state of flux, beginning with the preseason.
When all cylinders were clicking, as in the 118-100 victory in the third playoff game, the Bullets played as if they deserved a place among the league's elite. Far too often, though, the pattern was a Washington player moving into position for a shot, with one teammate or another raising his hands, waiting for a pass that never came.
"Our ball movement just wasn't what it should have been," says one Bullet, voicing the thought of several teammates. "There were times when plays weren't run through or if we called a play for someone, he'd take the shot no matter what, even if the defense had things stopped."
Although by no means the only guilty party, the most blatant offender had to be Williams.
Because of his myriad offensive gifts, Williams had to be granted a considerable amount of freedom. But Shue was quick to point out there was just as much responsibility on Williams' part not to abuse that freedom. According to one player, that delineation of duty "was never spelled out in the locker room."
Still, after the playoff defeat, Shue said that on balance, he had no complaints with Williams. "I think Gus did exactly what we wanted," he said. "When you're an open-court player like he is, every shot isn't going to be perfect, but Gus got us a lot of good shots."
Ferry also disputed the lack-of-ball-movement theory. "That's an easy criticism to make," he said. "I don't like to alibi but if you don't have your top seven players intact for more than 20 games you can't expect to be smooth. Teams aren't going to do the finer things unless they play together. It took Philadelphia six seasons to get to where they are today."
Washington's period of adjustment didn't end with the final game against the 76ers. The offseason will most likely see the departure of any number of familiar faces as the Bullets move toward a team of all-around athletes as opposed to role players.
"If you looked at us for most of the season, you would probably think that we lacked intensity," said Shue. "That wasn't the case; what was missing was quickness. It just makes such a noticeable difference, there's no substitute for it."
That doesn't bode well for players like Mahorn and Ballard, perhaps the two men who had to do more adjusting than any of the other Bullets. Two seasons ago, Ballard averaged 18 points per game, last year 14.5 in 33 minutes per game. This season, the eight-year veteran averaged 13 over 32 minutes but, in the playoffs, he got in just half that time.
Mahorn was even more of a nonfactor. Once again he displayed a penchant for fouling, and there was a lack of confidence on Shue's part in the center/forward's offense. His numbers decreased in the playoffs after Ruland returned; Mahorn averaged 10 minutes and three points against the Sixers.
It's not inconceivable that one of the two will remain in a Washington uniform next season, depending on the staff's preference for an outside scorer (Ballard) or inside muscle (Mahorn). If the Beef Brothers aren't halved, Julius Erving of the 76ers says that "Mahorn can't be a forgotten man. He'd be a great backup power forward, but at center this season, he just picked up weight and slowed down."
Whoever make up the Bullets' 12-man roster next season, Shue will have to find a way to adjust to more talent than he's had since his run-and-gun Philadelphia team of 1976. Throughout the '84-85 season, the coach maintained a steadfast rotation of eight players, claiming that was the number that would play any important minutes.
Too often, though, the players were left unsure as to their roles, or when they might be called upon. At one point early in the year, Frank Johnson and Dudley Bradley rotated at the third guard spot with the other getting next to no time. Both men deserved better.
A similar case could be made for Darren Daye, a player with enormous potential, and Ballard.
Until the team reaches the point where the opposition is forced to consistently make adjustments to Washington's personnel, not vice versa, things will likely remain the same for the Bullets.