Bullets free-fall toward lottery Playoff chances slim for fast-fading team


Circle May 19 on your calendar. That is the date set for the National Basketball Association's annual lottery, and it is where the Washington Bullets are seemingly heading as sure as night follows day.

Having lost 16 of their past 18 games, the Bullets (22-39) have dropped seven games behind the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, who are tied for the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots. With 21 games remaining, catching either team seems an unrealistic goal.

Now, the jockeying involves lottery postions. In the past week, the Dallas Mavericks passed the Bullets and the Cleveland Cavaliers tied them. And the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers are closing fast. If the Bullets continue their tailspin, only the Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets may finish with worse records.

Since the lottery is weighted to assure that the team with the most losses will get no worse than the fourth pick, the Bullets' chances of getting a bona fide blue-chipper will be far better than their 1989 lottery experience, when they settled for the ninth pick and plucked now lightly used forward Tom Hammonds.

With each additional ball in the lottery hopper, names such as LSU center Shaquille O'Neal, Nevada-Las Vegas' forwards Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, Syracuse's forward Billy Owens, Georgetown's Dikembe Mutombo and Georgia Tech's playmaker Kenny Anderson become more of a possibility for the Bullets, who need all kinds of help. O'Neal, Owens and Anderson are underclassmen who are considering making themselves eligible for the draft.

The talent gap between the Bullets and the NBA's elite teams was made painfully obvious last week, when they entertained four title contenders from the Western Conference -- the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. They were blown away by the Spurs and Suns and wilted badly in the fourth quarter against the Jazz and Lakers.

It became even more of a mismatch when forward Harvey Grant, who was averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds, missed the last three games with a sore ankle.

Teams simply concentrated on stopping scoring leader Bernard King and dared the other Bullets to shoot. How well this strategy worked was underlined Saturday night, when the Lakers held the Bullets to 72 points and scoreless for the last 5 minutes, 40 seconds. After the dust settled, Bullets coach Wes Unseld said: "You can't take 18 points out of this lineup and expect to beat anybody. Even at full strength, we have trouble competing against the best teams. But when Grant comes back, we should be able to beat those teams in our own class."

But the Bullets still are missing the two key ingredients to a championship contender -- an inside force and a talented floor leader.

Landing O'Neal or Anderson, two underclassmen expected to opt for the NBA, would, at least, solve one of the major problems. Another alternative is signing a free agent. General manager John Nash has a $2.2 million surplus in his team salary cap and can use it to entice a quality veteran.

But there is a sparse list of attractive free agents available, particularly with center Benoit Benjamin having just signed a long-term agreement with the Seattle SuperSonics.

The most inviting name is that of Scott Skiles, the vastly improved Orlando point guard who is averaging 15.3 points and 7.8 assists. Skiles, who notched a record 30 assists against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 30, is seeking to raise his salary to "John Stockton's level," said a team source.

Utah's Stockton, the league's leading playmaker, is earning $2 million a year. Skiles rejected a three-year offer by the Magic worth $3.4 million. His agent, Keith Glass, said Skiles wants to be the team's highest-paid player. Forward Terry Catledge is earning $1.7 million a year.

If Orlando gets one of the first three lottery picks, it could choose Anderson, thus making re-signing Skiles less of a necessity.

Bullets tonight

&Opponent;: Charlotte Hornets

Site: Charlotte Coliseum, 7:30 p.m.

Radio: WTOP (1500 AM)

TV: Channel 20

Outlook: The Bullets will be looking to end a 9-game losing streak, 4 short of the franchise record set by the 1966-67 %J Baltimore Bullets. Pervis Ellison has been one of the few bright spots, averaging 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds over his past 5 games. F Mark Alarie remains on the injured list with a sore left knee. F Harvey Grant is sidelined with a sore right ankle. The Hornets have a revamped lineup, starting rookie Kendall Gill at point in place of Muggsy Bogues. F John Newman leads the team in scoring (17.7). C. Mike Gminski is the top rebounder (7.7). The Bullets and Hornets have split their first two meetings, each winning at home.

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