For those of you who have been waiting patiently for a sign, Moses has now been heard from. He's upset. And he wants the ball.
"Give me the ball, and let me go to work," he said.
(And at $2.2 million a year, unlike the now-defunct E.F. Hutton, when Moses talks, people listen.)
When you're 4-10 everybody's a critic, everybody's got a solution. So does Moses: "Laying back and trying to be Magic Johnson ain't gonna work. I've got to take control of the game and become more involved. Once I get more involved I think things will turn around."
Attention Washington Bullets: Moses Malone, your proud warrior, your fierce competitor, your grizzled veteran of 14 rump-bumping, elbow-catching, knee-pounding professional seasons, is wondering if you've forgotten about him.
His minutes are down. His shots are down. His points are down.
Moses is forlorn.
He still wants to be the beast of burden.
"This is the least I've been in an offense since I've been in the NBA," he said, after the Bullets' lost to Atlanta Thursday. "I'm getting one shot every six, seven, eight minutes. In Philadelphia, even if I was zero for 10 in a game, they'd still come to me."
Is anybody listening?
Bob Ferry is listening. "Whenever you don't win, frustration sets in," said Ferry, who by now is so frustrated that if his teeth were in backwards he would chew himself to death. "Players really want to win. They have to go to gas stations and supermarkets and answer the same questions as management." Ferry understands Moses' discomfort. "Happiness, true happiness," Ferry solemnly says, "only comes from winning."
Frank Johnson is listening. "We have three big scorers," he said, referring to Moses, Jeff Malone and Bernard King. "You try to distribute the ball to them as much as possible. But sometimes maybe only two of the three are getting the ball, and the other feels left out. It's a delicate situation. Moses has been used to getting the ball and doing his thing. Naturally, when you hear him say something like this, you try and give him the ball more."
But we may have reached the point where simply getting Moses the ball isn't the crushing sledgehammer it once was in Houston and Philadelphia.
That was then. This is now.
In 1981, virtually by himself, Moses took a homely Houston team all the way to the NBA finals. He shot 52.2 percent from the field. The next year he scored 31.1 points per game. In Houston, Moses was the NBA's most precious resource.
From Houston he moved to Philly and got the 76ers out of hock to their fans for so many years of saying, "We owe you one." But what a supporting cast Moses had there: Dr. J., Mo Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones. Moses was the dominant force in the middle, but he was often the second and third option on plays. His strength was the offensive rebound. He covered the others' misses.
The game has moved in the last five years. The days of the post-up player are waning. Now the offense functions from the outside-in. Players like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson acquire the ball 15 and 20 feet from the basket and create their own shots. Sophisticated defenses that envelop the area near the basket make it difficult for a center to have his way anymore. Moses and Artis Gilmore are the last dinosaurs. (Kareem really became a big forward years ago.)
When Moses gets the ball low and turns to muscle a path toward the hole, he invariably sees two and three men blocking his way. These days the game-breaker is the explosive player who can score from 15 feet and in, the very player King was with the Knicks -- but hasn't been so far in Washington. Moses' superstar game is from three feet and in. He's there to grapple, not glide.
The Bullets are desperately seeking someone to rise from the pack and take over the game in those final crucial minutes. Like Jordan, like Dominique, like Bird, like Magic. Moses has volunteered himself. But state-of-the-art defenses and his own graphs work against him. In each of the last six seasons his shooting percentage has declined, from 52.2 to 45.4. It's down again this season, 41.6 so far. That's a steady and an alarming drop. (Worse for the Bullets, their whole team is shooting horrifically.)
It's true that Moses' shots are down. Over his career he has averaged 16.8 per game. Over the Bullets last eight games Moses has averaged 12.6, four fewer shots per game. The shots he takes aren't falling. More and more we are growing accustomed to seeing Moses looking for the foul rather than the bucket. He can make a living from the line. But if he isn't getting the calls, he often winds up looking awkward.
It's also true he hasn't been as involved. Over those last eight games he's averaging only 30 minutes, eight under his career average. But the Bullets have been compelled to go to the defensively aggressive second unit early and often, since the starters routinely fall far behind. The Bullets have lost with Moses and without him. He's their most important player, but he's not Joan of Arc.
The early impression about the Bullets is that they are a team whose whole is less than the sum of its parts. They are out of step with the direction the league has gone, a blue-collar team in a high-tech world. Moses wants to rekindle an old flame. But is it fated to be a brief candle in the wind?