While other NBA teams are dealing with the mundane task of trimming their rosters, the Washington Bullets are dealing with unhappiness among players uncertain of their status in the face of trade reports, coaches unsure when and if the trades will come off and front office personnel unhappy with the team's 0-4 record less than two weeks before the start of the regular season.
"It's hard to be a good team when four or five of your players are unhappy," said one player before Saturday's 120-108 loss to the New York Knicks in Richmond.
Yesterday, the Bullets went through their driest practice of the year and Coach Kevin Loughery said, "I don't think we'll have a lot of emotional fire on this team. It's not in the makeup of our people."
That makeup is supposed to be changing, as the team endeavors to trade for guard Lafayette Lever of the Denver Nuggets and awaits the fruits of having signed forward Bernard King of the New York Knicks to an offer sheet. But the trade has not come off and sources say Loughery is upset at the lack of movement in regard to King, the former league scoring champion who signed more than a week ago.
Sources say Loughery is worried that the King deal may not come off, as the Knicks' ownership has failed to respond to the Bullets.
Loughery had hoped to have King in uniform and in camp by now. Instead, with the deadline for the Knicks to respond to the offer sheet coming Saturday, it would appear the Knicks, lacking the small-forward scoring King could provide, are having second thoughts.
As the Bullets pursue Lever and King, the efforts are affecting the team's dealings with their own unsigned veteran free agents, Charles Jones, Frank Johnson and Darwin Cook.
Further, reports that King would be paid $2 million for two years have some Bullets unhappy with what they see as inequity in the club's pay structure, although none wished to be quoted by name.
"It's a horrible situation for a team to be in, but that's what we have now," said a team official who asked for anonymity.
Guard Jeff Malone staged a brief walkout during last year's preseason because he was the lowest-paid guard on the team. Despite his switch from Los Angeles agent Fred Slaughter to Washington-based ProServ, his contract still has not been renegotiated or extended. And sources say he's now making less than first-round draft pick Tyrone Bogues, also a ProServ client. Reportedly Malone is at about $250,000 per year, to about $300,000 for Bogues.
Bogues doesn't come close to center Moses Malone's annual $2.1 million, but Malone is in the last year of his contract and, sources said, his representatives lobbied all summer to no avail for an extension. Sources close to the negotiations said the same is true of forward Terry Catledge, the team's best performer in last seasons' playoffs.
Both Malones, Eastern Conference all-stars last season, and Catledge have been placed on the back burner by the offer sheet to King and it is said they are not happy about it.
Another player whose contract has been stalled by the King issue is Jones, a forward whose agent Bill McCandless said he and his client have "put their pride aside" in their quest for a guaranteed contract. McCandless said Jones is now willing to re-sign without a guarantee.
Under the rules of the NBA salary cap, a squad may go over its limit to re-sign its own free agents but not to acquire others, like King. If the Bullets were to re-sign Jones, Johnson and Cook, they likely wouldn't have enough left to pay King, should he be available.
The players aren't the only ones in the Bullets hierarchy facing pressures and feeling displeased. After Saturday's game, General Manager Bob Ferry was seen having a heated exchange with executive vice president Garnett Slatton, who coordinates the Bullets' ticket sales and promotions. Sources said Slatton is upset that his job has been made difficult by the team's slow start.
The promotions staff was left frustrated by the recent Capital Centre visit of the champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Bullets expected a sellout 19,000 but announced a crowd of about 14,000. They paid the Lakers a $75,000 guarantee to travel for the game but sold less than $10,000 worth of tickets the night of the game.
Slatton and Ferry declined to comment.