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Bruce Newman
February 04, 1980
Advancing age and injuries may prevent Washington from making the playoffs
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February 04, 1980

These Tough Old Bullets May Be Spent

Advancing age and injuries may prevent Washington from making the playoffs

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On Nov. 14, for instance, Dandridge played 33 minutes and scored 30 points against Chicago, apparently finishing the game uninjured. On Nov. 16, however, a stiff neck prevented him from making a trip to Piscataway, N.J. to play the Nets.

Dandridge started and played 33 minutes against Kansas City on Dec. 19. Then during Christmas week he missed five games with an assortment of back, knee, neck and foot ailments. Having returned to the lineup on Jan. 1, Dandridge scored 15 points in 26 minutes against Los Angeles on Jan. 9. But when the Bullets boarded their bus two days later for the three-hour drive to Philadelphia and a game with the 76ers, Dandridge excused himself from the trip and the game with a sore ankle. The Bullets were in the midst of a four-game winning streak, and a victory would have put them at .500 for the first time in six weeks. "I placed as much importance on winning this game as any we've played all year," said Motta after Washington lost 119-106.

During the off-season, the Bullets signed playmaking wizard Kevin Porter, the NBA leader in assists the past two seasons, to a contract worth a reported $200,000 a year. Having lost free-agent Guard Tom Henderson to Houston, the Bullets were in need of a ballhandler and figured that in Porter they perhaps had the NBA player best equipped to get the ball to Hayes and Dandridge. And as late as five weeks into the season, Porter was second only to Boston's Nate Archibald in the league assist race with 8.9 a game.

Terrific. Except for one thing: Porter was getting his assists at the wrong time. He generally spent so many seconds dribbling around that the shooters didn't get to handle the ball until half of the time had expired on the shot clock. "We are a power team," Motta says, "and if the forwards aren't getting the ball low, we're wasting a lot of expensive talent."

There followed what became known as "Kevin's adjustment period," during which Porter attempted to make his penetrating game fit the Bullets' patterned offense. Kevin's adjustment period had been going on for weeks without notable success when, on Dec. 4, Washington picked up Jim Cleamons, who had been wasting away at the end of the Knicks' bench. Cleamons barely had to make any adjustments—he was already a heady, conservative guard of the sort that fits perfectly into pattern play—and soon he became the Bullets' ballhandler and Porter was benched, but good. In 16 January Bullet games through last Sunday, he played a grand total of 74 minutes. "Dick had pointed the finger at Kevin," says Grevey, "and Kevin had accepted the blame."

Porter has become so unhappy that no one has seen his lips move in nearly a month. "There's nothing wrong with Kevin," Unseld says. "He could probably still lead the league in assists. The mistake was in bringing him to a team that couldn't use him."

Porter has not been the only disappointment in the backcourt. Grevey, who had averaged 15.5 points over the past two seasons, lost whatever confidence he had left last week by shooting 0 for 4 in a 114-91 loss in Cleveland. But Grevey was hardly the only culprit. Excluding Roger Phegley, the Bullet guards went two for 24. Phegley is a remarkable shooter at times—he made 10 of 17 against the Cavs—as is Larry Wright, but both have been erratic. "We've had problems at guard for 46 games now," said Motta. "We use a different combination every game. We've been so inconsistent it's starting to frustrate the players." Or as Cleamons put it, "We can't kill anything, and nothing's dying."

In 1968 the then Baltimore Bullets had the second pick in the draft and took Unseld from the University of Louisville. The first pick that year was Hayes of Houston, whom the Bullets acquired in a trade in 1972. The Bullets have not missed the playoffs since Unseld joined them, which means that for a decade and more they have not had especially advantageous positions in the draft.

"We've made the playoffs the last 11 years," Motta says, "and in that time Boston has fallen on hard times twice, Philadelphia has been up and down, and the Lakers the same. There is no other team that has maintained the level of excellence that the Bullets have. But because the whole system is set up to help the weaker teams, there will be a time when this one will have to rebuild." This makes a neat little theoretical package, but the facts only partially support it. True, Washington's pick in 1975 was 18th among 18 NBA teams—Grevey was the choice—but in each of the next three years the Bullets had two first-round selections. Only one of those picks was among the top twelve, but Washington nonetheless got Mitch Kupchak, Wright, Bo Ellis, Greg Ballard, Dave Corzine and Phegley with them. All but Ellis are still with the Bullets. Last year Washington traded its first-round pick to Phoenix for the rights to Steve Malovic, who was later traded to San Diego.

Kupchak, the best acquisition from the draft, began suffering muscle spasms in his back late last season and wound up missing all of the Bullets' 4-1 championship series loss to Seattle. In June he underwent surgery on a herniated disc and was not ready to begin practicing with the team until late November. Once among the best sixth men in basketball, Kupchak, who can play both forward positions and center, has been reduced to only 11.5 minutes a game and is making only a modest contribution at a time when the Bullets need him badly. No one expects him to be completely ready to play until next season.

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