Webber is no guarantee Bullets will quit old ways

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANDOVER -- It would appear that last month's big trade between the Bullets and Warriors is that rare transaction that has managed to ruin both teams. But that's not the case.

The teams have combined to win only four of 24 games since Chris Webber and Tom Gugliotta traded uniforms, but there is a fundamental difference between them.

Gugliotta is cratering in California, averaging under 10 points and shooting so poorly that he might lose his starting job. "I don't know what my role is," he said recently after another wandering game. His performance is a major contributor to the Warriors' slump. (Along with the players' unspoken but obvious depression stemming from management's decision to unload a franchise player such as Webber.)

The Bullets, meanwhile, have continued to resemble their old, miserable selves since Webber arrived, getting killed on the road and wasting opportunities at home. Last night's particularly ugly loss to the Utah Jazz dropped their record with Webber to 2-9. But Webber is anything but the problem. He is averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks, doing nothing to dispel the notion that he is among the league's best young players. Imagine what he'll do once he gets comfortable in the offense.

Not that Webber is as perfect as his very large hype suggests, mind you. His low post moves are surprisingly undeveloped. His shot-blocking is highlight fodder, but his basic defense is average. He tends to release his defensive rebounding position too soon, looking to get up court and into the fast break. His free-throw shooting needs work.

But let's not forget that he is just 21 years old, that he would be a senior at Michigan right now had he not chosen to turn pro. As VTC much of a force as he already is, and as much as he hustles and works hard, he has a chance to get much, much better. He easily could average 30 if he learns to score in the low post.

No, the reason that the Bullets have continued to stumble with Webber is that, well, they're still the Bullets, a team of limited players that was as desultory as any before Webber arrived.

Just go down the roster; you'll see the problem. Rex Chapman and Don MacLean can score, but can't stop anyone. Scott Skiles is competent, but slow. Kevin Duckworth could be arrested for stealing for the way he looks and what he contributes. And that's the starting lineup other than Webber, so you can see there are basic structural problems, particularly on defense.

Webber, Juwan Howard, maybe Calbert Cheaney and maybe Georghe Muresan, believe it or not -- that's the core of the team's future. (Muresan just might be for real. He changes the entire flow of the game. He obviously has worked hard to improve. The issue with him may be whether his fragile body can hold up playing more than 15 minutes a game.) Mitchell Butler, an active sub who actually plays some defense, also might stick around.

That's not to say that the Bullets can't still come together this season and make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Forget the post-trade slump. It's almost understandable considering the tough schedule (all but two games against teams with winning records), the injuries that have kept Chapman and MacLean on the bench and the fact that the team basically had to go back to training camp once the trade was made.

This is a team that, however limited, has the potential to compete with the Celtics, Sixers, Nets, Hawks and Pistons for the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots. Let's see what happens when Chapman and MacLean are back and healthy, and the schedule gives them a few breaks. (Unlike the upcoming four-game West Coast trip.)

"It feels like we've been standing in the rain under a tree with no leaves for a month," Webber said last night, "but once we get it going, look out."

Even if the Bullets don't make the playoffs, though, the trade wasn't a mistake. Anything but. This was a team that had done nothing for a decade, a team going nowhere. Webber not only injected some excitement into the franchise, he gave the team a foundation to build on, a chance to accomplish something worthy of a real headline in the coming years.

Now the franchise needs to ask some hard questions. Is John Nash a clever enough general manager to build a team around Webber? Is Jimmy Lynam (.470 career winning percentage) the right coach? How long should they stick with Chapman? MacLean? Skiles? (Duckworth is gone after this season.)

But the one question no one needs to ask is whether the Webber trade was a good idea. On the day the trade was made, Nash said, "It's time to win!" OK, maybe it wasn't quite time. But there is a much, much better chance of that time coming with Chris Webber in your starting lineup.

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