John Nash's first task as general manager of the Washington Bullets was to swap his most tradable commodity, all-star Jeff Malone, for a big man who'd open the door to the future. Nash surveyed the NBA horizon and chose Pervis Ellison. Good things were expected quickly with very good things soon to follow. So far, nobody's saying, "Nice deal, John."
"Don't think I haven't felt like my neck's been in a noose," says Nash, who also gave up a No. 2 draft choice in the three-team trade. "I'm surprised people have been so patient. I'm impatient."
Malone, who can help a bad team be respectable or a good one contend for a title, averaged 24.3 points last year. Now he lights it up for Utah; he had 43 in a game last week. Ellison, a 6-foot-10 shot blocker who was the NBA's No. 1 pick a year ago, now averages five points and five rebounds in 18 minutes a game. He shoots 52 percent -- on free throws. From the field, 38 percent.
Ellison has been so discombobulated recently, committing offensive fouls, failing at low-post defense, shooting scared and getting shoved around in general, that the Bullets can't afford to leave the slim, injury-prone kid on court for long. The team disintegrates.
"Pervis has a very high skill level," said Coach Wes Unseld. "He can play. But he doesn't know how to play. . . . Some guys come into this league and make no adjustments. Then they call you 'Magic' or 'Bird.' The rest of us adjust. . . . Half of Pervis's problem is what I'm doing to him. I'm confusing him. . . . I'm going crazy because we don't have the luxury of giving him the playing time to learn.
"He's going against bigger, quicker, stronger men than he faced in college. Right now, he's not strong enough to hold his spots at either end of the floor. It's throwing his shot off just enough to miss and he's not ready yet to defend the post at the other end.
"Pervis needs time," Unseld said. "He's going to have to dedicate some summers to his profession, the way Harvey Grant did."
With two years of fanatical hard work and 15 or 20 pounds of muscle added to his physique, Ellison should be a fine NBA forward. With anything less, he'll be washout No. 10,001. Some do it. Some don't. Grant did. He's a pro now -- 17 points and seven rebounds a night and getting better. So far, the equally promising Tom Hammonds hasn't shown the same summer commitment and winter progress. Nice kid. Shrinking future.
The NBA is a ferociously hard and winnowing league. Maybe that's what's best about it. The Malone trade shows many of the familiar ramifications of this annual drama in which men of almost indistinguishable differences in ability compete for enormous stakes with the winners reaping 10 times the rewards of the losers.
With Malone gone, Ledell Eackles got his chance of a lifetime. His first couple of years, he'd surpassed many hopes, playing like a mini-Microwave, scoring 12.5 points in 20 flashy minutes a game. Now, instead of seeing himself as a chunky, unorthodox talent with a sudden chance at hand-delivered stardom ("Please, let us set picks for you"), Eackles acted as if he already were a star.
Eackles held out at a career juncture when he probably should have showed up early. But not only did he come late, he came fat. Last week he missed a practice, got fined, and took another small step back toward the station in NBA life from which he'd recently escaped.
"Above anyone, he needs practice," said Nash. "His conditioning has affected his performance.
"After the Malone trade, a lot of people said things to Ledell that were either flattery or optimism. He hasn't seized the opportunity at hand. . . . You get precious few chances to become a starting player in this league.
"Ledell says his agent prevented him from working out while negotiations were going on," added Nash. "Nevertheless, very few exercise bikes have collisions. That is not an acceptable excuse."
This entire Bullets team is a constant commentary on opportunity -- those who use it and those who don't. Bernard King has turned the Bullets' hard times into a stage for one of the game's great comebacks. A less needy team would never have showcased him so much. Grant seems to be locking into a long, rich career.
Almost as inspirational as King is Darrell Walker, the 6-foot-4 guard who's led the Bullets in rebounding the last two years. Relatively unappreciated with the Knicks and Nuggets, he's now an NBA cult player -- a mandatory choice on every All-Underrated team.
"Darrell wants to play," said Unseld, wolfishly. "He doesn't want to do a lot of other things. But he wants to play. He's got a competitive mean streak."
By contrast, this is the same team whose best player is known as Shamu. When last seen (pedaling), John Williams appeared to be on 270 (pounds), headed south.
Some players, such as King, have a fear of failure that drives them. Others (no names please) have a fear of success. If they show all their gifts, they'll be held to that standard every night for the rest of their careers. Pretty scary.
At the moment, the Bullets are the most wonderful team in the world that has a 7-15 record. Without the hearts of King, Walker, Unseld and starting center Charles "Good For 3.3 Points Every Night" Jones, they could have started this season like the inverse of Portland -- 1-19. In fact, if King gets hurt, they might not win seven more.
Yet the Bullets are now doing for bad what they did for mediocre in '88-89 -- they've given it dignity. A.J. English and Greg Foster are the latest to pick up tinges of the right stuff from their elders. Last week, Foster, an unknown rookie from Texas-El Paso, moved ahead of Ellison in the temporary scheme of things. He faced Akeem Olajuwon. The Bullets won. "The Dream" had nightmares.
Afterward Unseld noted that Foster's rep for toughness might be improved if he'd chosen a better name to tattoo on his biceps than Sam Bowie. "Bowie?" said Unseld in disbelief. "No knock on Sam, but why not 'Kareem' or 'Wilt'? The kid didn't think ahead. If he'd gone with 'Wes,' his minutes might be better."
That's the Bullets, laughing as they tiptoe through the graveyard. In a year or two, maybe Williams and Eackles will be as fit as Tom Lasorda. Maybe Hammonds will become Grant. Maybe Ellison will become Otis Thorpe. As Nash says, "You can't judge trades after a quarter of a season or even a whole year. We knew the immediate beneficiary would be Utah."
If as much goes right as has gone wrong since Malone was traded, the Bullets could be a playoff team again. But they might not be as interesting as they are at this moment. Right now, the chubby guys, the weak guys and the faint hearts are in Sir Wes's pouch palace. Unseld would rather send out an old King, a mean Walker, an unknown Jones, a general Grant and whatever honest Workman comes to hand. They're pretty awful. But they've won seven games. Ledell Eackles and John Williams ought to watch how they do it.