CHARLOTTE, N.C., FEB. 8 -- The Washington Bullets have waited for John Williams to heal, lose weight and play, and for Ledell Eackles to sign on the dotted line. They hoped for Harvey Grant and, to be honest, Bernard King. They didn't know what to make of Pervis Ellison and knew exactly what they would get from Darrell Walker and Charles Jones.
All of that has come together reasonably well for the Bullets in the first half of their NBA season. At the midseason break, they find themselves a game ahead in the chase for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference and a game out of the lottery in which they were sure they would be.
At 21-27, the Bullets have again made an art form of overachieving under Coach Wes Unseld. "I don't like that word," Unseld said. "I'd rather have good players."
But he has some, and he knows it.
King has been dazzling in a season that has re-established him among the league's elite powers. At 34, he is third in the league in scoring at 29.9 per game. More importantly, he has been the catalyst that has re-established interest in the franchise.
After 22 home dates Washington has drawn 254,974 persons to Capital Centre, an average of 11,590 per game. That's just 24th in the league, but it's the Bullets' best since 1986-87 and just the third time since the 1979-80 season that Washington is averaging more than 11,000.
The closest Washington has gotten to .500 was four games under, and that was before injuries stripped the Bullets of half their team. They've played the last four games without Walker (strained knee ligament) and will be without him for at least two more weeks. Backcourt partner Haywoode Workman also is out, with a strained groin.
"We're kind of beat up at the moment," King said. "Hopefully these guys will be able to heal. Darrell we know is going to be out longer than after the all-star break. What's really going to give this team a boost is that John Williams is going to be back. . . . Once we get Haywoode and Darrell back into the rotation, you'll be looking at a pretty good team."
At the least, the Bullets have been harder to beat at Capital Centre. They were 20-21 at home last season, their first losing mark in more than 20 years. This year they're 15-7 with notches over quality opponents (Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Golden State).
Still, there have been stretches of poor play from a team that is, after all, six games under .500 and fighting to hold the eighth playoff spot in a weakened conference.
The enigmatic Williams, almost certain to return on Washington's Texas trip next week, would solve a load of problems. He would give them a consistent third scorer, something desperately needed with Eackles' erratic play. He would help bring the ball up against pressure. He would give them a low-post defender and rebounder.
But "he's going to have to work his way in with us, not the other way around," Walker said. "I don't mean that to be bad. But Harvey's playing great, Bernard's playing great. I'm sure John's going to try to work his way in. He's not going to be able to play a lot at first either. He has to work his way into shape."
Eventually, it could also pose a problem, since Williams's natural position is power forward. That's where Grant has excelled this season, despite giving away pounds almost every night. In his third season, Grant has blossomed, averaging 19.4 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Williams could be moved to center, but Washington has a nice arrangement there now with Jones and Ellison, and rookie Greg Foster is already not getting the kind of time he needs. Between Jones and Ellison, the Bullets get 10.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks a night.
"We have guys who can step up," Jones said. "Hopefully, John will be back. . . . We'll still be pretty strong. We'll still have some other guys we can count on that will be able to step up and carry the ballclub."
First, the Bullets have to get healthy. When Workman and Walker get back Washington should be improved depth-wise. Rookie guard A. J. English has improved with his extended playing time, and the Bullets are hopeful Eackles can snap himself into shape.
"He's really been playing rocky since he's been back," King said. "He's been up and down. If we can get him playing consistently the second half we'll be a formidable team to play."