The Washington Bullets, quickly fading from the NBA playoff picture, are hoping to make up for lost ground following the All-Star break.
But their timing couldn't be worse. The Bullets (18-30) begin a four-game western swing tonight against the Golden State Warriors, and then face the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns before returning home Feb. 17 to play the Atlanta Hawks at the Baltimore Arena.
The Warriors, Lakers and Suns are all playing better than .600 and are challenging the Portland Trail Blazers for the Pacific Division title. Even the last-place Kings have shown signs of life, winning six of their past 10 games.
Golden State briefly led the division before losing its last two road games to the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets.
But the Warriors, boasting the most explosive offense in the league, pose some of the most difficult matchups with their undersized lineup featuring All-Stars Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway, and fast-improving Sarunas Marciulionis. The Lithuanian native is averaging 18.5 points filling the off-guard vacancy left by Mitch Richmond, who was traded to Sacramento for the draft rights to rookie forward Billy Owens.
There was some criticism of Warriors coach Don Nelson when he traded Richmond, a proven scorer, for Owens. But the fast development of the former Syracuse All-American, who skipped his senior year, has ended the flak.
Owens, capable of playing all three frontcourt positions and even shooting forward, is averaging 13.1 points and 7.4 rebounds.
"We haven't done a lot with Billy so far, just kind of letting him grow," said Nelson. "We've tried not to overburden him, but now we're going to start force-feeding him a bit.
"Instead of just letting him play and understand the NBA, we're going to put him in more situations that place a demand on him to run the team, to understand passing angles and the smaller things that come into play."