SEATTLE -- Nine days ago, the Washington Bullets were considered one of the surprise teams in the NBA, courtesy of back-to-back wins over Orlando and Charlotte. Through 12 games they were 6-6, a large feat for a franchise that has struggled for years.
But what a difference a week makes. On Saturday, one week after shutting down Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic, the Bullets were getting picked apart at home by the Portland Trail Blazers, 118-105. The loss, the team's third straight, dropped the Bullets to 6-9 going into a tough three-game trip.
Now the Bullets get a chance to regroup, with the addition of 6-foot-10 Pervis Ellison, who will be activated for tonight's game against the Seattle SuperSonics. It will not be easy for Ellison, who is coming back from off-season surgery on both knees, to return against a Seattle team that has the league's second-best record (13-1).
The team is hoping the addition of Ellison, who takes LaBradford Smith's roster spot, will help boost the mood -- and front-line play -- of a team that faces three road games in four nights against Seattle, the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns -- all strong teams. The Bullets could return home for Saturday's game in Baltimore six games under .500 -- and with their confidence shot.
"Potentially [the road trip losses] could hurt. But we can't let it hurt," said Rex Chapman, who scored 20 points against JTC Portland. "That's the hand we've been dealt. We have to suck it up and maybe get a quality win on the road."
It will be extremely difficult. The Bullets haven't won in Seattle in nearly 14 years (Jan. 2, 1980), and have lost nine straight overall to the Sonics. It has been been just as fruitless in Utah (last road win Feb. 29, 1987) and Phoenix (last road win Feb. 27, 1988).
"We're disappointed because we've put ourselves in a big hole," said Don MacLean, who scored 18 of his team-high 24 points Saturday in the fourth quarter. "We have to go out on a tough road trip. We have to put our heads up and battle. We need to win one of three, at least."
The Bullets had to be happy with the play Saturday of first-round pick Calbert Cheaney, who scored 17 points. Cheaney's 22 minutes was the most he has played since the third game of the season, and he responded by hitting six of nine shots while matched up against Clyde Drexler.
"When you get to the point where you have confidence out there, you get in a groove," Cheaney said. "It's great to go against great players. That's what playing in this league is all about."
And it's play like that that made Smith expendable. The 19th pick in the first round of the 1991 draft, Smith improved his scoring to 9.3 points last season, but never really showed the flair he demonstrated at Louisville. A separated shoulder during camp didn't help.
"This was a difficult decision because LaBradford is a quality player," Bullets general manager John Nash said. "But we felt, with the depth that we have for the first time in several years, this was the move to make."
In waiving Smith -- a former teammate of Ellison's at Louisville -- the Bullets got rid of a player who was making close to $1 million in the final year of a three-year deal.
With Washington owner Abe Pollin gaining a reputation over the years for being somewhat of a spendthrift, the team could have waived one of the lower-salaried players. But Kenny Walker and Mitchell Butler, who are both making the NBA minimum of $150,000, have helped the team off the bench so far. And the team is willing to wait on 7-7 center Gheorghe Muresan, who's also making the minimum.
"From a financial standpoint, this was not the most attractive thing to do," Nash said. "But we felt this was in the best interest of the team."