Let's make sure we're together on this particular point: If Jeff Ruland is healthy, Gene Shue is still coaching the Washington Bullets. Ruland gives them 20 points and 10 rebounds they don't have now. He starts the fast break, which does not now exist, giving Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson a chance to do what they were brought here to do. Most importantly, he chops Manute Bol's minutes. You can't win with Bol playing 30 minutes a game. He blocks shots. That's all. In time, Bol may be revolutionary, but now he's still a project. The best that the Bullets could have hoped for this season was to experiment playing Bol with Ruland 10 minutes per game. With Ruland, the Bullets are, at least, a good team. Without him, they are fish on dry land.
Shue is a good coach. Around the league, people say that his preparation is more thorough, his offense more complicated and his strategies sounder than most of his peers. You say he has lost more games than any coach in NBA history; I say you have to be good to be employed enough years to lose so many. For most of the last two seasons, the car they've given him has three wheels. Shaky as it was, what more could Shue do than keep it on the road?
But there was a profound inertia to this team. The Bullets were motionless lately -- losing four in a row, the last two by a total of 57 points. Shue had run out of levers to pull. His diffidence was obvious. It appeared he neither liked nor had confidence in the team he sent onto the floor. In the absence of Ruland and Frank Johnson, he distributed the minutes haphazardly: Gus went 41, 33, 22 in straight games in February; Dan Roundfield went 37, 25, 41 in straight games in January; Darren Daye went DNP, 18, 31, 6. For long stretches, Shue completely forgot Dudley Bradley and Tom McMillen, only to briefly resurrect, then shelve them again. Kevin McKenna's minutes were as chaotic as Daye's; Leon Wood's all but disappeared.
It was as if Shue were painting a mural and was unsure of the colors to use. "The feeling I had," Abe Pollin said yesterday, "was that Gene Shue had sort of run his course."
Sometimes this happens, so you make a change for change's sake. The Bullets grew stale under Shue. They made all the right moves: getting Gus, Robinson and Roundfield to go with Ruland, Jeff Malone and Johnson. Charles Jones, Daye, Bol and the others are valuable role players. Bob Ferry said yesterday, "Everything we did was right." Except it didn't work. This team reached its expiration date without escaping the vast wasteland of the middle of the NBA. Look on the floor and you see aging men and 10-day wonders.
Why now? Pollin never fired a basketball coach before. Shue left in 1973. K.C. Jones' contract wasn't renewed. Dick Motta left. Pollin said he'd been contemplating the change for at least two weeks. "I felt the team needed a new direction. The last four games helped me decide that the time to do it was now." He never considered an interim coach. "I wanted to give the new coach the opportunity to evaluate his material over the last 13 games and the playoffs."
The only name on Pollin's list was Kevin Loughery, a former Bullets player, a member of the family. "Nobody else was contacted." Pollin said he never even thought of John Thompson. If you have a coaching vacancy in this city, you have to think of John Thompson.
"I think Kevin will bring to this franchise what it needs," Pollin said.
"You'll see in the performance."
Loughery is an upbeat, garrulous man, whose coaching style will surely be more animated and more motivational than Shue's. He won two ABA championships in three years with the New York Nets. But he has won just 39.3 percent of his NBA games.
"He's always been popular with Mr. Pollin," Ferry said. "Kevin's name was always there, as soon as he became available." He became available last year when he was fired by the Chicago Bulls. He was available, and he is family. If you can't beat the Celtics, imitate them: hire from within.
If Shue is right, that he coached to the level of the talent, what about the talent? What part of the blame is Ferry's? Ferry has made some sensational picks in the second and third rounds: Ruland, Bol, Daye, Rick Mahorn. But he has spent the 1980s using his first picks mainly to draft and trade for guards, including Wes Matthews, Kevin Porter, John Lucas, Bryan Warrick and Tom Sewell. Jeff Malone was a great draft. Gus was the right trade, but his time is nearly gone. Frank Johnson has been a human band-aid for two seasons. Last year, Ferry picked Kenny Green No. 1, and midway through this season unloaded him for yet another guard, Leon Wood. After the Bullets took Green, Utah chose Karl Malone, who probably will be named rookie of the year.
The good news is, Ferry and Shue always kept the Bullets respectable. So's the bad news. As a result, the Bullets never sank low enough in the pack to get the singular pick to build around. They had to settle for short-term patchwork. They were trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity, eroded further by injuries. Shue went. Ferry stayed. Why blame just one? Why not radical surgery? "I didn't think about that at all," Pollin said. "Bob Ferry is one of the finest GMs in the league."
There were good reasons to dismiss Gene Shue, but not compelling enough to do it now. "The timing is totally strange," Ferry agreed. Why not wait through the last, doomed gasps of the season? Kevin Loughery is not going to turn this team around in 13 games unless he goes to med school. Give yourself time. Look for a new coach. See everyone who's available, pro and college. After that, if Loughery's still your man, hire him.