In the clutch, Bullets have been prone to stall


A practice had just wrapped up for the Washington Bullets last week, but there was still activity on the court at their practice facility at Bowie State College.

The squeak of a pair of sneakers, and the swishing of the nets. Save for an occasional ball clanging off the rim, those were the only sounds that went with the impressive display of long-range shooting that came from all areas of the court. Squeak, swish. Squeak, swish. Squeak, swish.

Now imagine yourself as Bullets coach Wes Unseld, and you either 4l try to maintain a lead or get back into a game. You glance down your bench, trying to find the right combination, and you spot one of your best outside shooters. In street clothes. Assistant coach Robert Reid.

Twenty-eight games into the 1993-94 NBA season, the Bullets have the same record they had a year ago: 8-20. December proved to be one of the team's worst in recent memory, a 31-day period in which the Bullets lost in the same week to two of the elite teams in the NBA (Seattle SuperSonics and Phoenix Suns), and lost back-to-back games to two of the league's worst (Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings). They lost huge leads as the result of losing their composure. They lost some pretty embarrassing games at home and, thus, they probably have lost some fans.

In a season in which the level of play in the NBA has proven to be mediocre, the Bullets' recent play has been flat-out bad. Only the Dallas Mavericks have a worse record (three teams are tied with the Bullets at 8-20). In 31 days, the Bullets went from being an exciting team to one of the league's dullest.

No one expected a miracle this season, but people expected an improved product. The draft yielded Calbert Cheaney, college basketball's Player of the Year last season. And a trade brought in 7-foot center Kevin Duckworth, who was to provide a presence in the middle that the team has lacked since Moses Malone wore a Bullets uniform.

Cheaney's development has slowed since he lost his starting job to Don MacLean, who could be in line for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Duckworth's play has been disappointing, forcing his removal from the starting lineup -- Pervis Ellison has started the past three games -- in a move that that general manager John Nash said "isn't written in concrete."

But the Bullets' problems are numerous, starting with the fact that at crunch time no one has established himself as a go-to player. Nash agreed, saying that players such as Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal are able to strike a certain amount of fear into an opponent at the end of a tight game.

"We have yet to develop a fellow like that," Nash said.

And the Bullets have yet to develop a player who has the fiery, confident personality that other players feed off. Barkley will yell and demand the ball at the end of a tight game, willing to carry a team. Magic Johnson was able to direct his team orally during difficult times, being an on-the-floor coach. O'Neal might scream at an opponent after a thunderous dunk, adding an intimidation factor to his game.

The Bullets don't have a player who orally demands the ball. There's no noticeable chatter on the court by the players, no demonstration of on-the-floor leadership that's needed late in a game. No one talks trash.

And no one makes players pay for their many offensive journeys to the basket that have made Washington's defense next to last in the league in field-goal percentage allowed (.501).

Despite the December losses -- and their severity -- there were no on-court or locker-room explosions. Occasionally second-year forward Tom Gugliotta has hinted of his frustrations. Everyone else seems to keep his feelings well bottled up.

"I think we could use a vocal leader type," Nash said. "A player who is going to be that way has to have enough ability to back it up."

Perhaps there's still time to improve on last season's 22-60 record, but not the way the Bullets have played recently. A year ago the Bullets played in front of the six smallest crowds in the league -- all on their home floor. Nobody likes a loser. Maybe the Bullets would be better off if they demonstrated that they don't like it, either.

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