Once again the Washington Bullets have demonstrated the essence of their patriarchy. Once again the father, Abe Pollin, has turned inward to the family for succor in time of great stress. Pollin has reached for his number one son, and Wes Unseld has dutifully answered the call. "I'm a Bullet," Unseld said when asked why he'd take such a precarious job as coach. It's simple. The son closes ranks behind the father, the family is loyal.

Hiring and firing former Bullets has become commonplace for Pollin lately. There was Gene Shue, then Kevin Loughery. Now there's Unseld, the greatest Bullet of them all, the rock upon which the franchise was built. The Bullets have tried to replicate the familial model of the Boston Celtics, whose coaches over the last 20 years have included Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, Dave Cowens and K.C. Jones.

The Bullets are not alone in this endeavor. George Steinbrenner has done a similar thing with the Yankees. Only in his twisted way, Steinbrenner hired Dick Howser, Gene Michael and Lou Piniella merely to keep the seat warm for the inevitable return of Billy Martin. If the Bullets really wanted to emulate the Celtics, they'd hire Boston Gahden's resident genius Red Auerbach. Since he already lives in Washington, they'd save a bundle on the moving van.

Which brings us to incumbent General Manager Bob Ferry, another loyal and trusted member of the family. By firing Loughery and saying, "I think the talent is there to be competitive . . . I don't know why the players didn't respond to Kevin, but they didn't," Pollin has given Ferry implicit approval -- since it's Ferry who put the team together. But ironically, by hiring Unseld, Pollin has sanctioned a referendum on Ferry.

Unseld is Pollin's favorite. He isn't going anywhere. If the need arises, circumstances will be created to give him a graceful exit from coaching. So if the Bullets don't respond to Unseld's coaching, Pollin will be compelled to see the team -- not the coach -- as the problem. Unseld is playing Ferry's cards. The next fingers pointed could be at Ferry.

Pollin's optimism notwithstanding, firing Loughery won't solve anything. It's emblematic of the quick-fix philosophy Pollin and Ferry have espoused for years. Ferry knows the Bullets have profound problems that are beyond simply changing jockeys. "It's not one thing," Ferry admitted. "The chemistry isn't there."

Loughery inadvertently set himself up by declaring last week's three home games crucial to the direction the team was headed. When the Bullets lost them all, Pollin couldn't help but compare Loughery's failure to Bryan Murray's success during a similar trial the previous week. Loughery wasn't an inspired choice to begin with; he came home to the family manor with a sickly 39.3 winning percentage as an NBA coach in parts of nine seasons. And his sideline manner was discomfiting. It often seemed he spent the entire game screaming at the referees. But the players liked him, and his 46.7 winning percentage here was better than he had anywhere else. How can anyone think this mess was exclusively Loughery's fault?

This is a misshapen team, a team in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The Bullets are designed for Ripley's, not the NBA. All these projects! Manute Bol, the tallest man; Muggsy Bogues, the shortest; Bernard King, the man trying to come back from the worst injury; Moses Malone, the man whose body has endured the most wear and tear; Frank Johnson and Charles Jones, men who seem to go out of their way not to score. There's no fit on this team. If they were knitwear, they'd be a sweater with three arms.

They have no great athletes. They can't shoot. They can't rebound. And they can't run. In today's NBA all the good teams are driving Ferraris. The Bullets are standing on the corner waiting for the bus.

Increasingly among fans the object of disaffection is Ferry. He has been the willing instrument of Pollin's architecture. The house rule was: Always be competitive. Pollin never wanted the Bullets to sink to Lottery Level. Ferry wheeled and dealed the best he could -- amazingly well, actually -- each year putting the Bullets in position to be one of the NBA's top-flight teams. Injuries to Jeff Ruland and Frank Johnson prevented the two Gus Williams teams from winning 50 games. An injury to Jay Vincent may have done the same last season to Moses Malone's first team. I vigorously applauded each trade Ferry made except Ruland for Moses, as it happens the savviest of all.

But the constant shuffling turned the franchise into a truck stop, a safe harbor for a brief stay. Players come and go on the road either to oblivion, or to productivity elsewhere. How sharp the blade, how deep the cut from Jay Vincent's 33 points and Michael Adams' 12 points and 10 assists last week when Denver came in.

These last five years Ferry has made Draft Day the most fun of the 365. But a reckoning is coming. Of necessity, Ferry traded for limited shelf lives in Gus Williams, Dan Roundfield and Tom McMillen. Meanwhile, Randy Wittman is starting for Atlanta, Rick Mahorn is productive for Detroit, and Cliff Robinson is very productive for Philadelphia.

More damaging, though, were some of the drafts: Shue and Ferry were convinced Kenny Green was the creative player the Bullets needed. Passed over was Karl Malone, now averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds at Utah. Loughery and Ferry chose local Anthony Jones over just as local David Wingate (averaging 12 points a game with 76ers), and point guard Mark Price (slow as he is, 15 points, six assists a game with Cleveland). Ferry is sold on Muggsy Bogues, and may well be vindicated. But Mark Jackson, who was there for the taking, is averaging 11 points, nine assists with the Knicks.

The worst news of all is that because the Bullets and 76ers swapped draft positions in a deal that originally allowed the Bullets to draft Tom Sewell, if the Bullets make The Lottery and get the No. 1 pick overall, they owe it to Philly. You remember Sewell, don't you? He averaged one -- yes, one -- point per game in 21 games three seasons ago. Don't ask.

Shue lost his job because of injuries. Loughery lost his job because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unseld will have his job for as long as he wants it. The man on the bubble now isn't the number one son, Unseld, but Ferry. The patriarch has the rest of the season to decide if Ferry is still the member of the family who should set the table for the draft.