It will be remembered as the year defense stood out in the NBA. A season that was capped by a seven-game final series in which neither team scored 100 points; a season that had 10 teams hold opponents to fewer than 100 points per game.
Yet through all the hand checks and traps, through all the concealed zone defenses and intimidating blocks, the art of defense somehow managed to bypass the Washington Bullets.
"As I watched some tape of games last season, the defensive play is what really stood out," said first-year Bullets coach Jim Lynam. "This team has the potential to be a decent team in this league, with a chance to win on a consistent basis. But we're not going to win if we can't change that number."
That number is .508. That's what opponents shot against the Washington last season, making the Bullets the only team in the NBA to allow an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent. And that's the number the Bullets will be working on tonight when they face the loaded Orlando Magic -- a team many feel is ready to reach the NBA Finals -- in the season opener at USAir Arena.
With Shaquille O'Neal virtually unstoppable in the middle, the Magic was the third-best shooting team in the league last season. So the Bullets can be encouraged if their new defensive philosophy is effective against the Magic. And they shouldn't be too discouraged if opening night proves to be a bust.
"I think that we're definitely better now defensively," said guard Rex Chapman. "And at the end of 82 games, we will have held our opponents to under 50 percent."
At least the Washington players realized there was a defensive problem. Lynam made sure they watched tapes from last season to see just how bad things were. After the opening tap, it seemed that opponents simply resumed their pre-game layup lines. The Bullets' 107.7 points allowed per game was second worst in the league (the Los Angeles Clippers allowed 108.7).
The Bullets are not quick, and that was exposed as they tried to defend opponents one-on-one. New Jersey Nets guard Kenny Anderson scored a career-high 42 points against them, and the Phoenix Suns had a season-high 142 points against them March 9, scoring 81 in the first half.
"I'd watch them, and they just weren't doing the conventional things defensively that other teams were doing," said Scott Skiles, who came to the Bullets in a trade with Orlando during the off-season. "Either they weren't doing it, or they weren't doing it well."
The difference this year will be a lot of defensive rotations, which will even have Kevin Duckworth and 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan stepping away from the basket to defend. There will be more doubling of the low post, designed to force teams to a perimeter game. And you'll see more gambling by the guards, who will be stepping into the passing lanes more and trying to create turnovers.
"It's good because you can jump out in the passing lanes knowing that someone will rotate into your spot," said Chapman, never known for his defense. "We've been working on the rotations so much that it is becoming second nature."
Duckworth said the change in philosophy reminds him of his days in Portland, where it was second nature on a team that possessed a lot more quickness than the Bullets.
"To a lot of the young guys on this team, it's totally new, but that's the way we played defense in Portland," Duckworth said. "Let's face it, there's no one guy who's going to guard one guy in this league, I don't care who you are."
What the Bullets will find as they iron out the kinks is the constant rotation will make them vulnerable to the outside shot. New York Knicks guard John Starks made 10 three-pointers on his way to 42 points in a preseason game a week ago. Lynam didn't mind -- the Bullets won.
"John Wooden used to come to coaching clinics and say he can count on his fingers the number of times he was beaten with perimeter shooting in his 30 years of coaching," Lynam said. "When you've been [beaten badly], it's because your team has been beaten down the floor, and opponents have gotten easy layups."
Offensively, the Bullets should have few problems. Duckworth had a strong preseason and looks ready to rebound from last season's disappointing 6.6-point average. Chapman (18.2 points last season) continues to shoot well. And Skiles' passing ability, outside shooting and leadership will be factors.
Calbert Cheaney, Tom Gugliotta and Don MacLean appeared to struggle at times with the team's new offense during the preseason, but it should be only a matter of time before they return to form.
"It's been tough for me to adjust because the offense we're running now is not my style of game," said MacLean, who was named the league's Most Improved Player last season. "My game has been to free- lance, use my guy to get open. Now I have to step out more, and read the defense. It's something I'll adjust to, it's just taking me a little time."
It will take a little time for the Bullets to play solid defense as well.
"Hopefully we're not as good defensively [tonight] as we will be on, say, Feb. 10," Skiles said. "But I've seen vast improvements ++ from Day 1. It's something we need to keep working on. But pretty soon we'll be a good team."
NOTES: A blister on the bottom of MacLean's left foot kept him out of practice for the fourth straight day, and he's questionable for tonight's game. . . The Bullets were able to get to the 12-man roster limit by placing Kenny Walker (sore knee), Brent Price (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Jim McIlvaine (sprained right ankle) on the injured list. . . . Rumors in Miami had the Heat, in need of a center after Wednesday's trade of Rony Seikaly, trying to swing a deal for Juwan Howard, the Bullets' top draft pick, who is unsigned. "We are not going to trade Juwan Howard," said Bullets general manager John Nash.
No. Player .. .. .. .. Position ... ... Hgt. ... ... Wgt. ... Yrs.
32 Mitchell Butler ... Guard/Forward .. 6-5 .. .. .. 215 ... 1
3 Rex Chapman .. .. .. Guard .. .. . .. 6-4 .. .. .. 195 ... 6
40 Calbert Cheaney ... Forward/Guard .. 6-7 .. .. .. 220 ... 1
00 Kevin Duckworth ... Center .. .. ... 7-0 .. .. .. 285 ... 8
24 Tom Gugliotta .. .. Forward .. .. .. 6-10 ... ... 245 ... 2
34 Don MacLean ... ... Forward .. .. .. 6-10 ... ... 235 ... 2
77 Gheorghe Muresan .. Center .. .. ... 7-7 .. .. .. 303 ... 1
2 Brian Oliver ... ... Guard ... .. ... 6-4 .. .. .. 210 ... 2
14 Doug Overton .. ... Guard .. ... ... 6-3 .. .. .. 190 ... 2
4 Scott Skiles ... ... Guard .. ... ... 6-1 .. .. .. 185 ... 8
33 Larry Stewart .. .. Forward .. .. .. 6-8 .. .. .. 230 ... 3
21 Anthony Tucker .. .. Forward .. .. .. 6-8 ... ... 220 ... R
On injured list: Jim McIlvaine, Brent Price, Kenny Walker
WHERE'S THE D?
The Bullets have spent the preseason trying to improve a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in a variety of categories last season.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Points .. .. .. .. .. Rank
First quarter ... .. .. 27.6 .. .. .. .. ... 27th
Second quarter .. .. .. 26.5 .. .. .. .. ... 23rd
Third quarter .. .. ... 27.5 .. .. .. .. ... 27th
Fourth quarter .. .. .. 26.0 .. .. .. .. ... 21st
Overtime .. .. .. .. .. 16.0 .. .. .. .. ... 26th
Total .. .. .. .. .. .. 107.7 .. .. .. .. ... 26th
* Opponents made 3,569 field goals, the most allowed in the league.
* Opponents shot .508 from the field, .17 higher than anyone else allowed.
* The Bullets held an opponent under 20 points for a quarter only 26 times, worst in the league.
* Eleven times last season the Bullets failed to win a quarter in a game, most in the league.
Opponent: Orlando Magic
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
Radio: WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: "Are you ready for this?" That's the theme adopted this season by the Orlando Magic, who feel they have one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The acquisition of Horace Grant has created so much hype that Sports Illustrated has picked the Magic to reach the NBA Finals, despite the fact the team has never won a playoff game. C Shaquille O'Neal averaged 25.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in five games against Washington last season. G Anfernee Hardaway averaged 17.6 points and 5.4 assists against Washington, as Orlando won the season series, 4-1. Bullets F Tom Gugliotta was the top performer last season against Orlando, averaging 22.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. G Scott Skiles will be playing his first game against his former teammates.