Better only relative for Bullets


Every year it's the same thing with the Washington Bullets, who open their NBA season at the USAir Arena tomorrow night against Orlando.

"Are you going to be any better this year?" they're asked.

"Oh, sure, we'll be improved," has been the perennial answer, no matter whom you ask -- owner, coach, GM, player.

They pointed to draft picks such as Calbert Cheaney and Gheorghe Muresan last year and Tom Gugliotta two years ago and they said, "Of course, we'll be better."

But the Bullets don't get better.

They have now suffered through seven straight losing seasons. Last year, they were 24-58. Of the NBA's 27 teams, only four did worse.

When a Bullets entourage came to Little Italy this week to meet with the Baltimore media, the same old question was asked.

"Is the team going to be any better this year?" I asked Calbert Cheaney, the former Indiana star who's going into his second pro season.

"I think we'll be improved," Cheaney said matter of factly.

You know what? I believe him.

I look for a better year from the Bullets. I'm not saying it will be a playoff year. I said a better year.

Why? Cheaney has some of the answers.

"We're a young team," he said. "We only have three players who graduated from college in the '80s. The rest of us got out in the '90s. The added experience can only improve a young team like us."

It's hard to assess the 1994-95 Bullets at this point. They still haven't signed their No. 1 draft pick, Michigan's 6-9 Juwan Howard.

The Bullets have offered Howard $30.7 million over 10 years. He's asking for $24 million over six.

Jim Lynam, the Bullets' new coach, has been in the NBA as a coach and a general manager for more than a decade. He still hasn't gotten used to today's numbers.

"I'd like to hold up a sign," said the effusive Lynam, "that says, '$30 Million.' That's all. Just that number. And I'd say, 'Juwan -- that's $30 million in your pocket. There's kids working for $6 at McDonald's.' "

John Nash, the Bullets' general manager who is trying to sign Howard, is not as animated as Lynam when he discusses his recalcitrant No. 1 pick. Neither does Nash discuss Howard's holdout as if it's the end of the world.

"We continue to talk," Nash says. "Juwan is a player who is going to come in and make a contribution like Gheorghe Muresan and Don MacLean [voted the NBA's Most Improved Player last year] did."

I think Nash is right. Juwan Howard is a good player who will help this team. Whether he will make it a playoff team is doubtful.

Some personnel experts believe the NBA had a four-man draft this year. Juwan Howard was No. 5.

The Bullets will sign Howard. They have to. They just raised ticket prices and the team needs desperately to improve. Put another way, I don't think Bullets owner Abe Pollin can say to his ticket buyers: "I'm going to take more of your money, but I'm just going to put it in my own pocket."

One of the main reasons I believe the Bullets will do better this year is Jim Lynam.

As much as we all admire, respect and even love NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld -- and I'd vote for him for governor if he were running -- I think the Bullets are better off with Lynam.

Frankly, I don't think Wes ever wanted to be the coach of this team.

But when Pollin fired Kevin Loughery after 27 games of the 1987-88 season and asked Unseld to take over, Wes had no choice. Pollin and Unseld are more like father and son than employer and employee.

Wes would do whatever Abe asked of him. I don't think Unseld had any intention of staying in the job for six losing years.

Lynam is the other way. He loves to coach. He could have stayed as GM of the 76ers but he prefers coaching, especially under John Nash.

Even the hard-to-please Charles Barkley says of Lynam, for whom he played in Philly:

"Jimmy's a good coach because he lets you play and he stands up for you. He stands up for you with the management, the refs, the fans, the media, everybody."

Calbert Cheaney is impressed by his new coach.

"Jimmy is more defensive-minded," says Cheaney. The Bullets last year ranked next to last in the league defensively. "He works us harder on defense. He keeps us out there longer at practice. We do more running. You can't win in this league without defense."

Lynam takes that to another dimension.

"What you need," the coach says, "is team defense. When the Pistons won two titles in a row, they had great team defense.

"In the back they had Bill Laimbeer. Laimbeer probably hasn't blocked a shot in his life. I can outjump Laimbeer. But he understood team defense. That's one of the main reasons that team won."

The Bullets have shortcomings. They lack speed. They lack a superstar.

But they'll have a little more fire with Lynam and their defense will be better. So will their record.

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