Bullets can finally talk playoffs


A year ago at this time, the Washington Bullets hadn't signed Juwan Howard, hadn't traded for Chris Webber, hadn't drafted Rasheed Wallace. Their big off-season acquisition was Scott Skiles, whom no one will ever confuse with Mark Price.

You want progress? That's progress. Maybe not enough to get the Bullets into the NBA playoffs for the first time in eight years. But certainly enough to make this team highly competitive, and a legitimate playoff contender.

Price and Calbert Cheaney in the backcourt, Howard, Webber and Wallace up front -- that's the eventual starting five. No longer can the Bullets curse their luck, not after rebuilding almost overnight, falling into Webber, Wallace and now Price.

They got Webber because he's buddies with Howard. They got Wallace with their first top-four pick since 1977. And they got Price after failing to sign two free-agent point guards, Dana Barros and Elliot Perry.

Barros is a one-season wonder. Perry is unproven as a starter. Price is a leader, a tremendous shooter, a natural point guard. And he has been through the wars with Cleveland, facing Chicago three times in the playoffs, including the 1992 Eastern Conference finals.

The only question is whether Price is healthy -- he missed 27 games last season with a broken bone in his right wrist, and seven more with minor injuries. He's 31 now, a veteran of nine NBA seasons. It's entirely possible he's in decline.

Still, Price was resilient enough to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee five years ago. True, he's older now, but a torn ACL is a potentially career-ending injury. And Price has played in three All-Star games since then.

Besides, what did the Bullets gamble? All they gave up was a first-round pick in 1996. General manager John Nash couldn't trade Don McLean and the same choice for Mookie Blaylock or Rod Strickland. Some would say he got more for less.

Yes, the Bullets have mortgaged the future -- they have no first-round picks in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Who cares? Wake Forest's Tim Duncan may be the only great player in the next draft. And, with the exception of Price, the Bullets' nucleus is young.

Bullets fans, always prepared for the sky to fall, may fear Price will turn out like Gus Williams, a point guard Washington acquired on the down side of his career in 1984. But if Price is sound, this trade looks like an absolute steal.

"Like any player who's been in this game a long time -- like a Charles Barkley or a Pat Ewing -- they're going to have a series of injuries," Nash said. "But he was playing pretty effectively at the end of last season."

In other words, he should be a huge improvement over Skiles, Doug Overton and Michael Adams, the Bullets' most recent point guards. Not bad, for a team that could have wound up with Sherman Douglas.

Say what you want about the Bullets -- they lack a true center, a true small forward, a quality bench. But at least they're interesting now, at least they're worth debating and following. Price will open up the offense. Price will take the big shots.

The playoffs? They still are not a lock for this team, even with Wallace and Price. Remember, the Bullets won only 21 games last season. Boston, the final Eastern Conference qualifier, won 35.

It's not unreasonable to expect 14 more wins out of this group, but would that be enough? Orlando, Chicago, New York, Charlotte and Indiana will make the playoffs. The Bullets figure to compete for one of the other three spots.

Detroit added Otis Thorpe. Philadelphia added Richard Dumas and Vernon Maxwell. And Miami added the biggest catch of all, Pat Riley. Then there's Milwaukee, a team on the rise. And Atlanta, a team that won twice as many games as the Bullets last season.

Ah, worry about all that later. Gheorghe Muresan figures to start the season at center, but Wallace has added 23 pounds since leaving North Carolina, and now weighs 248. He'll be strong enough to get playing time at center. As long as he keeps his head on straight, look out.

Webber and Howard will keep Wallace in line, and Price will be a steadying influence on all of them. MacLean will provide points off the bench if he re-signs as a restricted free agent. So will newly acquired Tim Legler, the NBA's second-biggest three-point shooter last season.

The next big task is to sign Webber long-term, and one of his desires was that the Bullets add a quality point guard. They got one yesterday without losing a player. You want progress? This is progress. Say hello to Mark Price.

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