Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin vowed this week to conduct a vigorous offseason effort to improve the team not only in the won-lost columns but in the attendance standings that find it 20th of the 23 National Basketball Association teams.
"I'm disappointed that we haven't done better," said Pollin of the last two seasons, when trades for Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson and then Dan Roundfield were offset by injuries both years to Jeff Ruland and Frank Johnson. "When you're playing with two of your top players out, it's difficult to achieve what goals you set ."
Pollin promised a sweeping "review" of the Bullets -- who have been stuck among Atlantic Division also-rans for seven straight seasons -- in an effort to get them back to the heights they achieved in the 1970s, which they capped by winning the NBA title in 1978 and finishing runner-up in 1979. In addition, Pollin expressed disappointment in attendance that has slipped to an average of 8,572 going into today's regular season finale and promised a new "marketing" push to reach or surpass the team-record 12,789 average of 1978-79.
Clearly, Pollin's desire to improve the Bullets' lot is whetted by the excitement created by his other Capital Centre team, the Washington Capitals. Starting as an expansion team that won only eight games in 1974-75, the Capitals have become one of the top teams in the National Hockey League, and with their success has come rising attendance that this regular season hit a club-high 599,894 (12 of the 40 games sold out) for an average of 14,997.
"First of all," said Pollin, "we hope to get Jeff and Frank back, and then review the team and see what it is that we can do, either in drafting or trades or free agents.
'I Want a Winner'
"We're going to review everything, our own players and what, if any, free agents are out there that can help the team; trades to make, or how we're going to draft. We're going to review the whole thing at great depth because I want a winner . . . and we'll stop at nothing and keep on trying."
In addition, Pollin has hired Garnett Slatton as a new team vice president to head up Bullets marketing. Slatton was formerly in marketing with the Utah Jazz. Of Bullets attendance this season, which has been similar to attendance every season back to 1980-81, Pollin said: "It's been disappointing. Disappointing. We're not blaming anybody but ourselves. We think there are things we can and should be doing and will be doing.
"We have a wonderful cadre of season ticketholders that we are going to really cater to because they are our basis and we are going to make then feel good, even more important than they feel now. And we're going to try to expand that number . . . I think the city has changed in the last three years. I think there's a lot of young professionals who have come to this area and I think haven't been exposed to professional basketball. And I think we're going to expose them to it. And I think there are a lot of new businesses which have come . . .
'Easier for Families'
"It's just an affluent area. And I think it's become more so in the last two or three years. And I just don't think we've done as good a job as we should or could or will do in marketing ourselves."
Of the Bullets' urban fans, Pollin said, "We're going to make it much more affordable for people to come . . . We're reviewing the whole program now . . . and it won't be too long from now we'll let you kow what it is. But we're going to make it easier for families . . . "
Despite its low attendance compared with other teams, the Bullets franchise is not considered a "problem" by NBA Commissioner David Stern.
"Washington," Stern said, "is not a conventional market in any sense. I think it just has to be unlocked . . . and I know Abe is going all out to making sure that it's done.
"Washington is not a problem, but an issue: How can we all work together to make it better? What's the key to the Greater Washington market?"
As for the Bullets' consistent middle-of-the-division finishes, Stern said, "I know that Abe is both concerned and determined to do something about it."
The question is, How?
Middle of the Pack
To climb from the middle of an NBA division, according to Boston Celtics president and architect Red Auerbach, "is the toughest thing you can possibly do."
"It's a very hard thing to improve your ball club in that position," he said. "As a coach or general manager, you try to win every game and let the chips fall where they might. But the teams that lose, like the Houstons, can climb up."
By hitting the bottom of the Western Conference in both 1983 and 1984, the Rockets -- perhaps the league's prime example of improving almost exclusively through the college player draft -- won coin flips that brought them first picks in the drafts, dominant big men Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon. Now the Rockets are at the top of their division.
In contrast, the Bullets' middle-of-the-pack finishes in the Atlantic Division in recent years have resulted in middle-of-the-pack draft choices, too late to get the coveted player or players who can "turn around" a franchise. In the last five seasons, the Bullets' first pick in the draft has been the 11th, 25th, 10th, 6th and 12th choice overall. With these choices, the Bullets were able to get, in order, Johnson, seldom-used and since-departed Bryan Warrick, Jeff Malone, Melvin Turpin, who was sent to Cleveland in the Robinson trade, and Kenny Green, traded to Philadelphia for Leon Wood.
Still, the Bullets' philosophy -- which is to say, Pollin's philosophy -- has always been not to tear the team apart and start over, but to build on what it has.
"About two years ago," said General Manager Bob Ferry, "we had a meeting with Mr. Pollin and he said to do everything to maintain winning but try and be exciting at the same time."
Pollin has never wanted to sacrifice a season or more by trading marketable players in exchange for high future draft choices. "I just don't like to lose," he said. "We always attempt to do the best we can. The end result has been that we've been somewhere in the middle. If we had a Patrick Ewing or a Sampson, they certainly would be a major asset to this team."
In not rebuilding from the bottom, the Bullets have remained a playoff-caliber team. This marks the third straight season they have made the playoffs, and the fourth time in the past five seasons.
Most basketball people agree with the Bullets' approach and say Ferry has done a good job in his 12 years as general manager.
"Regardless of what he's had happen, Ferry has a great deal of respect," said Gary St. Jean, an assistant coach and chief scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. "They got a great player in Jeff Malone the No. 10 choice in 1983 . He's like a top five pick in my mind."
"I think Bob's opinions are very similar to mine," said Don Nelson, the Bucks' coach and player personnel director. "We were going to take Malone before they drafted him. We were in love with Kenny Green. Frank Johnson has become a heckuva player. He's taken people who have made an impact in the league."
'Start All Over'
But Elvin Hayes, the top scorer in Bullets history, believes the Bullets have to "start all over, about like an expansion team. I would say, go through a youth movement . . . Position yourself for the draft. Start over. Make the decision to become an expansion team."
Near the end of his career with the Bullets, Hayes said the team told him it was rebuilding, "but they really haven't rebuilt. What they have now is not what you look for when you think of the Washington Bullets."
The Bullets of his day, he said, had a "tradition -- a character, pride, dedication. You have to get back to that tradition."
Hayes was not impressed with recent Bullets trades, citing injuries the past couple of years to Roundfield; Williams "kind of in his waning years of his career," and Tom McMillen "looking to be in Washington to run for Congress."
Hayes said the Bullets of the '70s "complemented" one another. "I complemented Wes Unseld and Wes complemented me . . . " Among current teams, Hayes cited Houston and Denver as having players who "complement" one another, whereas he said Philadelphia has some players who don't "complement" one another.
"If Dick Motta or K.C. Jones were still there as Bullets coaches , you would still have to go through the process of rebuilding," said Hayes. "It's a frightening decision to make -- we're going to be an expansion team again. But it happens to every team."
Unlike Hayes, other former Bullets from the team's 1970s heyday believe the team should continue building on what it has rather than dismantle itself in exchange for future choices.
"I don't think you can make a judgment until everybody's healthy," said Mike Riordan. "Ruland's absence has a lot to do with all the integral parts. It seems like when he's out you have to juggle a lot of combinations. With Ruland, you have more scoring and you can put different combinations in there. He's a key piece.
"If you were to say Jeff Ruland would never play another game, they would have to start over."
But Riordan believes in waiting on Ruland at least one more season, as opposed to trading him, to see if he can stay healthy.
"You have to hang tough and get everybody together and then see what you have. Then you could add somebody. If they have Ruland back, they will be strong up front. Then you could make a trade for a guard or a different type of forward . . . You try for that one player, like a Bobby Dandridge," acquired as a free agent before the Bullets' 1977-78 championship season.
"First, you have to get to the level I could foresee with Ruland -- 10 games over .500. I think Ruland means 10 games. Then you ask, Where do we go from there? Then you try for that one player, like a Dandridge. Get the free agent who's unhappy somewhere, maybe trade a No. 1 pick to get the kind of player you want."
A healthy Ruland and a Dandridge-type player, Riordan said, would put the Bullets at the level of Houston or Denver. "You'd like to be in their category," he said, "because Denver and Houston are right there, within striking distance."
Similarly, former Riordan teammate Kevin Porter prefers the patient approach, although Porter sees Ruland as a "power forward" and Manute Bol, even in seasons to come, only as a "role player, not the player you can build a franchise around."
"The right player has got to come along and you've got to go get him," Porter said.
It could take two or three years to get that player, Porter said.
Clearly, both Pollin and Ferry realize the importance of early draft picks. Boston, Philadelphia and New York -- all teams in the Bullets' division -- are among the seven teams in the upcoming lottery for the best college players.
"That's why we traded Gerald Henderson to Seattle ," Auerbach said. "Sometimes you've got to make the move to get that choice."
Auerbach believes that any of the top seven players coming out of college are extremely valuable. In fact, he believes a team has a good chance of hitting it big with any of the top 12 picks. "But after that, you drop off," he said. "You've got to be lucky."
Besides saying he is interested in exploring ways to obtain a lottery pick, one that could possibly land Maryland's Len Bias, Pollin said he would be willing to make a major trade for Sampson or a player of his ability if one should become available. "If Sampson is available, we certainly would inquire about it. Very much so."
With Kevin Loughery as coach, recently replacing Gene Shue, Pollin said, "I see a little more exciting game . I think that, particularly with some of the players we have, Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson, who enjoy running and are good at it, I think they're a little happier and I think it shows . . . I've known Kevin Loughery as a player -- he played for me -- and I observed him as a coach. I never had a player on this team that's worked harder on the court."
Pollin said that he made the coaching change late this season because he wanted the new man to be able to observe the team in the last few weeks of the season and during the playoffs so that he could offer input into the formation of next season's club.
Pollin said, "We're going to consider everything to find some way to get us out of the middle."