"We've got a few scores to settle" was the Washington Bullets' battle cry this season, with the menacing looks of head coach Wes Unseld and forwards Bernard King and Tom Hammonds on the media guide promising sweet revenge.
But the lottery-bound Bullets got few things settled this season, finishing 30-52, their worst record in 14 seasons, and missing the National Basketball Association playoffs for a third straight season.
Surprisingly, both Unseld and general manager John Nash remain optimistic about the team's future. They share the opinion that a solid nucleus exists, thanks to the rapid development of center-power forward Pervis Ellison, and only injuries robbed the Bullets of their true potential.
Ellison, Bernard King, Harvey Grant, John Williams, Darrell Walker and Ledell Eackles are recognized as the team's six key players. Together, they managed to play in only six games this season.
"I hate making excuses," said Unseld, all but certain to remain as coach. "But when I looked at our injury situation realistically and tried to explain, it came out sounding like excuses.
"Still, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have made the playoffs if we'd had Williams and Eackles at the start of the season. Even if King had been healthy the last 20 games, we'd have probably finished with 40 wins and had a shot at the playoffs."
In a year of overwhelming negatives, there were some positive developments, principally in the performance of frontcourt players King, Ellison and Grant.
King climaxed his comeback from major knee surgery six years ago by averaging more than 30 points for half a season and re-establishing himself as an All-Star forward. He was challenging Michael Jordan for the league scoring title when he suffered a back injury in March.
"The big thing was not getting Pervis, but getting Pervis to play the way he's capable," said Unseld. "But Pervis still has to show me he has a willingness in the off-season to strengthen his body and play a more physical game."
Grant, the Bullets' top draft pick in 1988, made a strong bid for most improved player by averaging 18.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, significant gains over last season.
The season's biggest running story -- in size and scope -- was tracking the progress of John Williams.
Over the final month of the season, Williams, who missed more than a year rehabilitating his right knee and reported in November weighing more than 300 pounds, began resembling the all-purpose forward Unseld views as his most valuable player. In the last 14 games, Williams averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5 assists while still trying to lose weight and regain his mobility.
Getting both Williams and Eackles in off-season conditioning programs remains a major concern. But Unseld said he will not urge them to remain in the Washington area this summer under team supervision.
"Even when John was here last summer, it didn't help," Unseld said. "John and Ledell have to make up their owns minds whether they want to raise their games to the next level. If they don't, it might be time for us to cut our losses."
Eackles earned the wrath of both Unseld and Nash for reporting to work out of shape after missing all of training camp in a contract dispute. He had been projected as the starting shooting guard after the preseason trade of Malone.
"Ledell had a wasted year as far as I'm concerned," Unseld said.
Eackles showed flashes of his potential in averaging 17.8 points over the last 20 games, but as Unseld said, "It's easy to play when there is no pressure on you."
Unseld and Nash also appear in agreement that the Bullets' prime need is a point guard who can penetrate the defense and create easy shots in a half-court game, one of the Bullets' principal weaknesses this season.
Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, who quit school after his sophomore season, and UNLV's Greg Anthony are the two most coveted guards in the June draft.
The Bullets are guaranteed no worse that the eighth pick in the draft, and Anthony still could be available even if they don't draw one of the first three sections.
If they get lucky, Nash and Unseld will then have to decide whether to take the best player available or to fill their backcourt void.
Nash's philosophy is to take the best player, regardless of position. He would lean to choosing a forward -- UNLV's Larry Johnson or Syracuse junior Billy Owens, if he opts for the draft. A third choice might be defensive-minded Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo, who would enable Ellison to move to power forward.
"You've got to take the best player," said Nash. "I think the classic lesson was learned in 1984 when Portland passed on Michael Jordan and took Sam Bowie because they felt it needed a center more than a shooting guard with Clyde Drexler already on the team."
To get a desired point guard, Nash said it is possible that he might use one of the team's surplus forwards as a bargaining chip to gain a higher position in the draft. Tom Hammonds and/or Mark Alarie could be used as bait.
Unseld met privately with each of his players yesterday, suggesting what areas of the game he felt they needed to improve.
In addition to Williams and Eackles, Unseld also pointed to Hammonds, Alarie and rookie center Greg Foster as needing to get their minds focused on basketball.
Hammonds, the No. 1 pick in 1989, showed signs of improvement when getting significant minutes the last month. But Unseld said: "Tommy has to decide whether basketball is important to him as fishing and hunting. He's got to like the game well enough to play it when he's feeling a bit uncomfortable."
The Washington Bullets suffered an inordinate number of injuries this past season. Here is a list of the players who were sidelined, and the main reason for missing games:
.. .. .. .. .. Games
Player .. .. .. .. lost .. .. .. Reason
John Williams . .. 50 . .. .. .. rehabilitating knee
Mark Alarie. .. .. 40 . .. .. .. tendinitis in knee
Charles Jones . .. 20 . .. .. .. groin-muscle pull
Bernard King .. .. 18 . .. .. .. strained lower back
Ledell Eackles. .. 16 . .. .. .. contract holdout
Darrell Walker. .. 12 . .. .. .. strained knee
Haywoode Workman.. 10 . .. .. .. groin-muscle pull