DENVER, DEC. 12 -- A quarter into their season, the 6-14 Washington Bullets are on a pace to win 24 games. That's good for the future, because it means the Bullets would be in the NBA lottery next May and assured of a high draft pick in an apparently deep draft.
But for the present group, which is not supposed to think about those things, after all, and which just concluded a 1-4 western road trip, it's dreadful. Losing is a grind, and the Bullets got plenty of it stuffed down their gullets in the last 10 days. The last came in Tuesday's 128-125 loss in Denver, an eminently winnable basketball game.
"Individually, guys are improving," said Bernard King, who had an excellent trip. "But if we're going to win, we've got to have 10 guys every single night that can play well every night.
"It's preparation. There's no reason for that. For the most part guys know what their roles are and they have to be prepared to fill their role and be happy with that. I don't think we as a team are prepared to do that on a nightly basis. Sometimes we do it but on a nightly basis we're just not consistent. That's the key to playing this game. Anybody can go out and get 20 points one night and four points the next. That's not what we need."
Washington was competitive in three of the five games, winning at Golden State, playing the Lakers well into the fourth quarter and losing to Denver only in the last two minutes.
The discouraging part was that this was, for the most part, the Western Conference's B List. The Bullets didn't have to play Portland or Phoenix or any of the Texas teams, with whom they traditionally have all kinds of problems.
"We played in spurts," forward Harvey Grant said of the 10-day excursion. "Some nights we really get after people; some nights it seemed like we're just going through the motions. The effort was there but sometimes we'd get lackadaisical with the ball and they'd come up with key steals. We're not good enough to be careless with the ball."
Washington had two key turnovers in the final minute and a half Tuesday, losing a one-point lead. To their credit, the Bullets didn't slow down the game at all against Denver's frenetic style. But the pace showed in the fourth quarter, when Washington made just six of 19 shots.
There were bright spots. King continued to score in bunches, averaging 30.8 points on the trip on 46-percent shooting (62 of 125). He scored 34 points Tuesday, but was zero for six in the fourth quarter.
"I think Bernard just got tired," said Denver forward Walter Davis, who had the defensive assignment on King in the fourth. "Walt didn't have anything to do with it. I'm being honest, not modest."
Grant continued his solid play, shooting 49 percent (38 of 77) in the five games, averaging 17.4 points, to go with 8.4 rebounds.
And rookie guard A. J. English came on, raising his scoring average from 7.2 points before the trip to 9.5. That included a career-high 30 points Tuesday in an explosive offensive performance.
English shot 50 percent (28 of 56) in the five games, averaging 12 points. With Ledell Eackles still nowhere close to form, Coach Wes Unseld went to English more and more as the sixth man during the trip, tagging Eackles with a couple of DNPs, as in did not play.
"He's playing aggressively offensively, looking for his shot," guard Darrell Walker said of English. "He's been shooting it well lately. I think he's very comfortable out there, too. That comes with playing time and confidence."
"I just have to stay ready whenever I'm called on," English said. "I'm still a rookie and I've got a lot of learning to do. Coach knows what to do. It's still early in the season."
English was truly the only good sign from the bench, which struggled mightily to contribute any offensive production. Pervis Ellison played all of 72 minutes on the trip, an average of just more than 14 a night. He scored only 20 points. "Pervis has been less than spectacular," General Manager John Nash said. "He's going to have to get better for us to improve."
"I've got to get something out of the other people," Unseld lamented after a five-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter against the Nuggets became a four-point deficit in three minutes.
Tom Hammonds made four of 14 shots on the trip, with 10 rebounds in limited action. And rookie Greg Foster's time was microscopic after playing against Utah in the first game. Mark Alarie also didn't see much action.
Playing time is always a tender subject, but it's become even more so now. The reserves want to play, but as a unit, they never played well. The starters want to play, but they can't play 42 minutes every night and remain effective.
"Wes is looking for a rotation and we're still undergoing an evaluation period," said Nash, who added that injured John Williams is still "a couple of weeks away" from being able to practice and isn't expected to be activated until next month, at the earliest. Nash said Williams's knee continues to improve, but the Bullets are still concerned about his weight and physical condition.
Young players like Ellison, Foster and Hammonds need the playing time to develop, as Grant did at the end of last season when he started the last 20 games. But while they make their mistakes, chances are the Bullets don't win. It's a vicious cycle.
"When I get in there, I've got to make the best of it, whether it be 6 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever," Hammonds said. "I've got to go in there and get a rebound, score some points or make some type of contribution."
But that's the reality of being the fourth-youngest team in the league this season. And the Bullets so far have played fewer home games (seven) than anyone else. They do get five of their remaining eight games this month at home. "This is when we need to get going," said Nash.