The Washington Bullets have taken the plunge into full-force rebuilding. No one said it would be easy in any event, and certainly not with two key cogs absent as the 1990-91 squad prepares to open Friday night in Miami.
In a division with a clear division of haves (Philadelphia, Boston, New York) and have-nots, the Bullets could no longer stand pat. They already made two moves, trading high-scoring guard Jeff Malone to Utah in a three-team deal, bringing in inexperienced but high-potential center Pervis Ellison, who was the first pick in last year's draft, and then acquiring Byron Irvin from Sacramento Tuesday. And it seems there is more to come as the team has called a news conference for this morning to announce a further move. General Manager John Nash said he could not discuss it in advance.
Despite the activity, events outside the team's control have gotten most of the attention.
Forward John Williams has yet to return to Washington from Los Angeles, as he demands more than $276,000 withheld from him by the Bullets since mid-July. Ledell Eackles is a holdout, and though the sides are getting closer to an agreement, the delay has cost the third-year guard, and doubtless the team, any chance of a quick start.
Irvin, acquired in the trade for Steve Colter, will try to get a grip on Eackles' spot.
"We needed to improve that position to some extent," Nash said. "We wanted the type of player who would be able to compete for minutes with Ledell. We think Byron's a 24-minute type of player. If Ledell were on top of his game he could push Byron's minutes down."
Irvin arrived last night after an 8 a.m. flight from Sacramento. He said the Bullets' passing game is well-suited for him since he played a similar style for Missouri.
"It's a good situation," Irvin said. "I'm just hoping for everything to fall into place. This is a good opportunity for me. It's not every day a player can walk into a situation where there's no veteran players around. I've got a year in the league."
Those protracted and public arguments with Williams and Eackles have hovered over the Bullets all summer and fall.
"It's going to be tough," guard Darrell Walker said. "It looks like Ledell won't be here. We've got to just go with what we've got. We're not going to scare many teams, that's for sure. The Pistons walk out there and people turn their heads."
Eackles was supposed to replace Malone and his 24 points at off-guard. In Eackles's absence, free agent Larry Robinson, rookie A.J. English and Irvin have to take up the load.
"To get some quality, you have to give up some quality," Coach Wes Unseld said. "We took a risk, trading a known for an unknown, but risks have a way of going up or down. That's what makes it a risk. We think down the road this is going to be better for this team."
Half the 1989-90 roster is gone.
"You look at any successful organization and it has a pretty good mixture of youth and experience," forward Mark Alarie said. "The trades we've made have been experience for youth lately. I guess that's the strategy they're taking, and it is a long-term strategy."
"Even in the short run, things weren't going that hot," Unseld said. "What I'm saying is the jury's still out. I don't know whether it's going to cost us or not."
Newcomer Nash hasn't wasted time shuffling the deck. But the Bullets are going to tread very lightly in even talking about trading top draft picks in the future after finishing 31-51 last season and not having a No. 1 as a balm.
"The Cleveland franchise took forever to return from a number of desperate deals," Nash said. "You go forward with what you have. You can't cure the ills of the world in one day. It just doesn't seem to work.
"I know Phoenix seemed to turn its team around in a very short period. I admire them for it, I congratulate them, and I wish I knew how to do the same thing here. For every move that Phoenix made there was a disastrous move made by somebody else in that spot."
So Washington goes into the season not having won in seven exhibitions. Bernard King, ever crafty, will get his points, but scoring from other sources is necessary. Ellison can take some of the load, but his strengths right now are rebounding and shot blocking.
Walker's tendinitis has subsided for the moment, as the veteran point guard has been able to get treatments. But no one is certain how he'll hold up. Harvey Grant at forward will get an opportunity to show he deserves the minutes he wants and can be a full-time starter.
Tom Hammonds, the first-round pick of 1989, is just recovering from a strained ligament in his left foot. Much better is expected from him than in his in-and-out rookie season.
Alarie is steady off the bench and the team's most consistent outside shooter. Charles Jones brings his defense back, either as starter or reserve.
But the Bullets have five players who are for all intents and purposes rookies -- English, center Greg Foster, Robinson, guard Haywoode Workman (who spent last season in the CBA) and Irvin (who played sparingly for Portland).
"They've been in a learning stage," King said. "They've really started coming along. When you talk about a passing game there's a lot of picking involved, a lot of cutting involved. It's not as simple as just moving the ball. You have to read the situation and read people very quickly. There's an adjustment from the college game to the pro passing game and I think they're starting to pick a lot of that up."
Said Walker: "Some of the younger guys are going to have to step up. . . . People are going to have to grow up fast."