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Coaches of winning teams hate to face up to the inevitability of change, of filling the spot vacated by a retired star, of altering a proven style to accommodate the talents of new players, of revamping a starting lineup to replace injured regulars. Yet when wholesale change was recently forced upon the Baltimore Bullets, winners of sorts in the NBA for four seasons, Coach Gene Shue approached the situation with uncoachly relish. He made umpteen trades, force-fed good rookies into his lineup and, finally, made a deal few NBA coaches would even have considered.
As Shue had planned all along, it was change for the better. Last week, when the roster of the new Bullets was finally completed by the return of holdout Guard Archie Clark, it only made a hot team hotter. The old Bullets were good enough to win games, lots of them, but the new ones are better. They are capable of winning championships.
These are considerably toned-down Bullets compared to the ones who lost the championship round of the 1971 playoffs to Milwaukee in four straight games. Earl Monroe now struts his stuff for the Knicks. Gone too is weary-kneed Gus Johnson, who is best remembered in Baltimore floating on high, his gold-starred incisor twinkling amid a shower of purportedly shatterproof glass as he razed yet another see-through backboard. Only Center Wes Unseld and Forward John Tresvant remain from that squad. Today the Bullets go with the likes of smooth Guard Phil Chenier, spunky Forward Mike Riordan, solid Unseld, silken Elvin Hayes, speedy rookie Kevin Porter and the shifty Clark.
Although Baltimore has won three division championships and a conference title in the past four seasons, Shue has generally been overlooked when the NBA's best coaches are mentioned. But in recent weeks he has become the object of considerable admiration, not so much for his team's 18-5 record since Dec. 1 and a 4�-game lead in the Central Division as for the alacrity with which he disbanded one team, put together another and molded it into a cohesive unit. The old Bullets were a helter-skelter fast-break outfit, which even in their best season allowed 112 points a game and whose set offense consisted of four men going one-on-one while Unseld looked on. This year Baltimore is among the league's best defensive clubs, permitting fewer than 100 points in 23 of its games, and it runs a pattern offense as smoothly as it does the break. Even Bullet practices, once among the rowdiest in the league, have turned serious—except when Stan ( California Dreamer) Love, a 6'9" reserve, decides to spit in his shirt. "It's better than spitting on the floor," he explains.
Events beyond Shue's control forced the transformation of his team and he pulled it off because he was willing to gamble. At the start of last season Johnson showed up with two inflexible knees while Monroe barely bothered to appear, preferring to hold out until the Bullets traded him to a city more commensurate with his life-style. The Pearl went to the Big Apple and Baltimore got the 6'4" Riordan, a former guard who is now the NBA's shortest starting forward and most improved jump-shooter, as part of the deal. Putting Riordan alongside Unseld and Hayes in the forecourt has turned out to be one of Shue's best moves, although it means playing a lineup composed of two centers, three guards and no forwards.
To replace Monroe the Bullets shipped two players to Philadelphia for Clark, a tough defender who had played in the shadows of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor at Los Angeles and Billy Cunningham on the 76ers. Until he averaged 25 points for Baltimore last season, Clark was best known as one of the fellows for whom Wilt Chamberlain was traded. Clark, however, proved himself Monroe's equal at one-on-one play, although where the Pearl is smooth and slithery Archie is herky and jerky. When he has the ball Clark will bow his head, dip a shoulder, lean over from the waist and appear about to fall on his beard. There is method in this ungainliness, however; as soon as Clark seems sure to nosedive in one direction he squirts off in another, leaving defenders dumfounded while he fires one of his splay-legged, fall-back, semi-jump shots.
Clark's play last season, when he earned $135,000, convinced many folks, not the least of them Archie, that he belonged in the superstar class. This fall he reportedly asked for a $375,000 salary; the Bullets offered $175,000, and an impasse was reached. Through negotiations, court hearings, forced arbitration and the first 43 games of the season, Clark worked out on his own while the Bullets played—and improved—without him. Two weeks ago the dispute was settled and Clark became the highest-paid Bullet, earning slightly more than either Unseld or Hayes, who make about $200,000 apiece.
Still, the bulk of the Bullets' title hopes rest upon Unseld and the man who came to Baltimore as a result of Shue's most daring move—last summer's trade of Jack Marin to Houston for Hayes. The Big E was recognized as a multitalented center who could score (27.4 average), rebound (17 per game) and block shots. The only criticism of his play was that he had trouble catching and throwing passes. "Elvin has hands by Georgia-Pacific," says one NBA coach.
Most coaches admitted they would rather take arsenic than Elvin Hayes. His reputation was that of a man with a fragile ego who alternately stormed and sulked at criticism, who was sometimes sullen with his teammates and coaches, who could cause dissension in the Partridge family. At the press conference announcing the deal, Shue was asked if it was strictly one-for-one. "No," he replied, "we get Elvin's psychiatrist, too."
A man of considerable self-confidence, Shue believed he could alleviate most of the pressure that had so obviously troubled Hayes on the Rockets, a poor team for which Elvin felt he had to win games singlehandedly. Shue has done it by dividing the center's offensive duties between sure-handed Unseld, who does most of the passing and picking, and Hayes, who takes—and makes—most of the shots. As a result the Bullets now have the best one-two rebounding punch in the league. Hayes has shot less and averaged fewer points (21) than ever while shoring up the defense with his shot blocking, and he has been so cooperative and friendly that the once-apprehensive Baltimore management and press are now wondering if any of those old Big E stories were true.