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Overmatched Bullets looking for a break Growing pains leave team gasping


SALT LAKE CITY -- The Washington Bullets' 15-34 record at the NBA All-Star break is in no way misleading. They earned it through their inconsistent offense, passive defense and, recently, uninspired effort.

More sobering is the reality that this franchise that has failed to make the playoffs since 1988 may not improve noticeably any time soon. Even getting lucky in the June lottery and plucking a Chris Webber or Anfernee Hardaway will still leave Washington a few players away from turning it around.

All the Bullets' shortcomings were underlined Thursday night in Los Angeles when they completed an exhausting seven-game western swing with a 108-95 drubbing by the Clippers for their fifth straight loss.

They were overpowered inside by Stanley Roberts, Loy Vaught and Elmore Spencer, and consistently beaten off the dribble by Mark Jackson and Ron Harper.

"I think the players need a few days break from me, and me from them," said coach Wes Unseld.

The reasons why his team owns the NBA's third worst record are not lost on Unseld.

"To win in this league, you have to be able to do two things consistently -- stop teams from making offensive runs and, when the game is on the line, have a 'go-to' guy you can call on to make the critical shot. Right now, we're not equipped to do either."

Of the team's continued decline, general manager John Nash said: "It's been terribly discouraging. I get sick to my stomach watching us struggle.

"At the start of the season, our young players -- Tom Gugliotta and Doug Overton -- played extremely well, but our veterans -- Michael Adams, Harvey Grant and Pervis Ellison -- were struggling," he said. "Then, when our veterans started contributing, the younger guys hit slumps. We just never got everyone working together.

"But I haven't given up on this team's ability to improve over the remainder of the season. A lot of it will hinge on whether Rex Chapman can get his game together and the return of Overton [still recovering from thumb surgery]. But it's obvious that we're not a physical team. We need an inside enforcer, and our guards don't stop anyone defensively."

Some of the Bullets' problems can be attributed to growing pains. The team is one of the league's youngest in terms of experience. The roster has four rookies -- Gugliotta, Overton, Don MacLean and Brent Price -- and two second-year men, Larry Stewart and LaBradford Smith.

How would the team trade for more talent and experience? Ellison, Grant and Gugliotta are highly marketable, with the injury-prone Grant viewed as the most expendable.

But Grant, who has a six-year, $17.1 million contract thanks to an offer sheet from the New York Knicks last summer, can veto any trade this year, and will become a free agent next season. He certainly would reject any overtures from the Dallas Mavericks, who are trying to peddle unsigned lottery pick Jim Jackson.

Unseld views Stewart as a valuable frontcourt reserve. The other bench occupants are considered one-dimensional, or they are playing out of position.

Adams is a shooting guard forced to play the point. He has not displayed the consistency of his all-star efforts last season, but at least two teams -- the Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers -- have expressed interest in a trade.

The enigma is Chapman, obtained from Charlotte last winter in a trade for forward Tom Hammonds. It has proven unprofitable for both teams. Hammonds was waived by the Hornets last month and was claimed by the Denver Nuggets.

Chapman, who has never found an offensive groove and is a liability on defense, worked his way from a starter to a seldom-used backcourt reserve before spraining his ankle last week.

Because he earns $2 million, Chapman also is difficult to trade because of salary cap restrictions. And so he has become a bone of contention between Nash, who wants to see Chapman get more playing time, and Unseld, who believes he has done little to earn it.

"I know Rex is weak defensively," said Nash, "but we haven't won any more with him sitting, and none of our guards really stops anybody."

Nash also would favor MacLean and Smith getting extended playing time over the remaining 33 games. But he has not pressured Unseld.

"There's a delicate line here," Nash said. "Wes' job is to win games. And he doesn't want to send a bad message to his veteran players that he has lost faith in them."

But Unseld and Nash agree about the team's top priorities -- a gifted floor leader and an intimidating presence on the front line.

"We need a top guard, be it a point or a shooter," said Nash, "and we need a strong, young player like a Webber or Rodney Rodgers."

In the meantime, Unseld's main concern is keeping his young players from developing a losing complex.

"What scares me now is either the guys don't understand what we're trying to do offensively or they're not trying hard enough to get it done," Unseld said. "I'm not sure which it is."

Said Ellison: "It would be easy to point fingers and begin doubting some guys. But we just have to play through these hard times and try to make it better. We've just got to compete a lot harder."

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