The Washington Bullets, who reach the season's halfway mark tonight against the visiting Boston Celtics, are saddled with a 14-26 record and appear headed for another NBA lottery. The team faces tough decisions on how to approach the second half of the schedule.
Management must choose between continuing to develop young players or making a trade before the Feb. 20 deadline in an effort to gain the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"I'm not prepared to give up on the rest of the season," team owner Abe Pollin said. "To think only in terms of the lottery is a negative attitude, and I've never approached anything in life that way.
"[General manager] John Nash is constantly exploring trades to improve the team, and we're not foreclosing any possible deals. I still believe we have the nucleus to become a contender. Hopefully, it won't take us too much longer."
In recent weeks, several trade reports have materialized involving Bullets starting forward Harvey Grant, who has been seeking to renegotiate a contract that expires this summer.
Nash has a history of making numerous deals and, since joining the Bullets in June 1990, engineered the major trades that brought center Pervis Ellison and point guard Michael Adams, the team's two best players, to Washington.
But Nash seems more inclined to holding his cards and gambling on getting lucky in the lottery.
"To be honest, we need help everywhere," Nash said before leaving on a college scouting trip to North Carolina. "Our biggest needs are a strong rebounding forward and a solid backup for Adams. And Ellison would be more comfortable playing power for ward. But the idea of making a trade on the off chance that we win four or six more games the rest of this season does not appeal to me.
"I'm more concerned with the long-range goals in building a bona fide title contender.
"I still believe that building a team through the draft is the best way to go about it, like Miami has done with its expansion team. If I'm going to make a trade, I would prefer getting a player 30 or under. I don't want to risk swapping one of our young, developing players for a proven veteran nearing the end of his career."
The rapidly improving Ellison might be the only "untouchable" on coach Wes Unseld's roster. Aside from Adams and Grant, the Bullets do not have any players to lure an impact player in return.
Unseld had hoped to mount a playoff push after reassembling all the players he had available in training camp, plus rookie guard ++ LaBradford Smith, who missed the preseason with an ankle injury.
But just the opposite has occurred. Since forward Tom Hammonds and Smith were activated, the Bullets have headed in reverse, losing their past five games -- four at home.
Unseld started the season under a huge handicap. He lost his top scorer, Bernard King, to knee surgery, and his most versatile forward, John Williams, was suspended for being grossly overweight. Reserve forward Mark Alarie also has been sidelined by knee surgery, and is expected to miss at least six more weeks.
"Sure, it [the losing] gets frustrating," Unseld said. "Recently, I've had a hard time getting any sleep. But the reality is that we're like an expansion team.
"Basically, I've been left with a bunch of young players, most of them in the developmental stage. You take the two best players off any team -- even Chicago and Cleveland -- and they'd probably be in the same or worse position than we are today."
Left with few options and further depleted by injuries, Unseld was forced to make an instant starter of rookie forward Larry Stewart, signed as a free agent. Stewart, averaging
12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, has been one of the season's big surprises, but has shown visible signs of wear and tear in recent weeks.
"He's hit a wall," said Unseld. "It's like he's already played almost two full college seasons, and it's taken its toll on his body."
With a front line of Stewart, Ellison and Grant, the Bullets have been conceding height and substantial bulk to rival teams, who, with few exceptions, have dominated the boards.
Combine this with the absence of a slashing go-to player like King in crunch time, and it is easy to understand why the Bullets lose so many close games in the fourth quarter. Ten of their 25 losses have been by seven points or fewer.
"It's obvious that we need a horse on the boards," said Unseld, eyeing someone in his own image. "But those kind of people aren't that easy to obtain in a trade. You have to keep hoping that you'll find someone like that in the draft."
Because of the team's decade-long flirtation with mediocrity, it is hard envisioning how Washington area sports fans would respond to a winning pro basketball franchise.
Poor relations to the Super Bowl champion Redskins and the highly respected Capitals, the Bullets rank last in league home attendance, averaging 11,356.
Strong marketing has produced six sellouts, including two in the smaller Baltimore Arena, and team president Susan O'Malley predicts at least eight more this season. But it is difficult to maintain fan support if the team is not showing signs of progress.
"I can't be influenced by the size of our crowds in considering trades," Nash said. "Selling tickets is Susan O'Malley's department. I can only look to improve the team by every means possible, and hope that the crowds will follow."
NOTES: All fans who had tickets for last Saturday night's game with Phoenix will be given exchange seats for the Feb. 2 Sunday afternoon game with Orlando. . . . The Bullets, who have experienced problems with the scoreboard at the Baltimore Arena, will have computer experts from Chicago stage a mock game at the Arena Wednesday in an effort to correct the glitches.