If the long-term spring in Bernard King's basketball step has not been ruined by that ugly knee injury two seasons ago, and if he blends nicely with the Malones, Moses and Jeff, the Bullets will be laughing deep into the NBA playoffs.
By signing free-agent King, the Bullets once more are taking the quick-fix option to glory. It's about the only choice teams in their middle-level range in the NBA have.
The Bullets these last eight years have been just good enough to spoil their chances to be great. Usually, there are no more than a half-dozen players in each college draft capable of making a fine team dominant, and the Bullets have not been in position to get them.
So General Manager Bob Ferry patches, frequently with once-excellent players who have misplaced what made them all-stars: Ricky Sobers, Gus Williams and Dan Roundfield. The serious fan must wonder now and then: how come the Bullets never get these guys in their prime?
With the grandest gamble, Moses Malone, the Bullets got two games over .500 in the regular season last year and were embarrassed by a Detroit Pistons team better than most thought in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bullets surely figured it this way: even basketball's ultimate workhorse must wear down sometime fairly soon, so why not shoot the works and grab the once-peerless King?
No need is greater for the Bullets than a player with the ego and ability to control games on offense in the final minutes; no player seems to fill that void better than a healthy King.
Last year, the Pistons knew Washington had only two scorers who should be trusted with the game on the line: Jeff and Moses Malone. The King of a couple of years ago tilts the end-of-game balance in Washington's favor.
If King doesn't take -- and make -- the important shots himself, he draws enough attention to make that possible for the Malones. Or Frankie Johnson, assuming the Bullets have the good sense to sign him and he also stays healthy.
This is the positive side, the posture the Bullets must hold. The negative attitude is stated by King's former employer, the Knicks, and not always silently.
Because they are in the same division, the Knicks are hoping Ferry is the kind of unluckly soul who would walk into his broker's office four days before the greatest stock-market plunge in history and say: "Gimme some of those speculative issues; I feel hot."
The Bullets reportedly signed King to an offer sheet that guarantees him $2 million over two years. For that price, Ferry ought to arrange for some lower-roster players to carry King on their shoulders off the court, so he can avoid banana peels and potholes.
New York thinkers decided a player not prominent with the Pistons, Sidney Green, would be adequate to replace what once amounted to their offense. Green was acquired for the obscure Ron Moore and a second-round draft choice.
A Knicks spokesman, John Cirillo, alluded to the magnitude of the stakes, for his team and the Bullets, with these words: "Bernard King has had some great moments as a New York Knick and we wish him well -- but he just doesn't fit into our plans."
With a new general manager and coach, the Knicks can be patient for a few years, or a few months, or a few games, or however long the whims of less than brilliant ownership last.
The Bullets, meanwhile, have tried about every alternative except biting the bullet, accepting horrible teams for the two years or so necessary to get the rights to extraordinary collegians.
That impatience is understandable. Why suffer dreadfully at the box office for a concept that might not work in reality? There is no certainty that some future Akeem Olajuwon will not be injured, same as King.
In the years since they followed winning the NBA title with the best regular-season record, 1978-79, the Bullets have been consistently average.
With the exception of 1983-84, they never have lost more than 43 games or won more than 43. That keeps you strapped in the middle, gambling even to maintain that position next season.
The addition of King does not necessarily mean the Bullets are set for the season. Ferry yet may swing a deal to fetch an all-around point guard. The team has decent enough passers and shooters and defenders, but no one other than injury-plagued Johnson who has all those virtues.
For the second year in a row, the Bullets at least have gotten Washington's preseason attention. King might be damaged, but he's legitimate. In 214 minutes after his recuperation last season, he performed at a 24.5 points-per-game pace.
Two suggestions to Ferry and owner Abe Pollin: unless you can assure a trip to the championship series, do not trade Muggsy Bogues and do give Manute Bol more playing time.
Please arrange for Bogues and Bol to be on the court together for several-minute stretches. Unless you can be quite a lot better than mediocre, at least be entertaining about it.