BOWIE -- The news came as a shattering blow to Washington Bullets point guard Brent Price, who basically was told in December that his performance wasn't up to standards. Coach Jim Lynam yanked Price out of the rotation, a move that left the fourth-year player pained yet settled.
"I remember calling my wife and my dad and telling them," Price said. "It was a frustrating time, but I also felt that that was the turning point. Everything was taken out of my hands. I said, 'I'll just wait, relax and wait for the opportunity to come.' "
Price didn't wait long. His next game he scored 15 points, including three three-pointers, in a win over the Boston Celtics. The sharpshooting guard since has recorded a career high in scoring (30 points) and established an NBA record by connecting on 13 straight three-pointers in a three-game stretch in January.
Yet, as well as Price has demonstrated his ability to play effectively in the NBA, averaging 8.8 points and 4.2 assists this season, the Bullets are 8-14 with him as a starter, dropping from .500 to 24-30.
Now the Bullets face a five-game Western trip that begins tonight in Denver, and much of the team's fate over the pivotal seven days will be determined by the play of Price.
"Over our recent stretch, our defense has been solid," Lynam said of the Bullets, who have won just two of their past 11 games. "To not be able to complement that with offense, mainly in the second half, that's frustrating."
And Price is the director of the offense, taking over after Robert Pack suffered nerve damage to his right leg during a practice Jan. 7.
When Price has been good, he has been very good: His 30 points and 13 assists almost led to an upset of the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 15. And he led the Bullets with 25 points and eight assists when they destroyed the defending champion Houston Rockets, 120-85, on Jan. 25.
But he also has had problems. Price committed a key turnover at the end of regulation in what seemed like a certain win over the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 4, leading to an overtime loss that ended a three-game winning streak.
And he committed eight turnovers in eight minutes in an 18-point loss at home to the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 19.
"At times, the increased minutes can be a factor," said Price, who is averaging more than 34 minutes as a starter. "But you have to find a way to work through that. You can't use that as an excuse."
And still Price, since being a second-round pick by the Bullets in the 1992 draft out of Oklahoma, where he once scored 56 points in a game, has never experienced regular minutes in the NBA.
In 68 games as a rookie, he averaged 12.6 minutes. His time increased to 15.9 minutes in 65 games in the 1993-94 season, but Price and Doug Overton were often flip-flopped as the backup point guard, a decision by then-coach Wes Unseld that Price said didn't help either player.
"It was the most difficult time I've ever been through because I felt like there should have been a decision made, one way or another," Price said. "It's always better to know exactly where you stand.
"To go with me for five games, and then go with someone else for five games, it was very tough. There's not a whole lot you can accomplish when you're playing sporadic minutes. It was hard to keep my confidence up."
When the Bullets replaced Unseld with Lynam after the 1993-94 season, Price was eager to impress the new coaching staff, even volunteering to play in the New York summer league that usually showcases rookies and free agents.
But Price suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which cost him the entire 1994-95 season. He was waived just before the end of the season, and his future was uncertain.
But on the same day the Bullets traded their 1996 first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Mark Price, Brent's older brother, they announced the signing of Brent.
Mark eventually had foot surgery that put him on the injured list at the start of the season. And Brent didn't play well in camp, which led the Bullets to trade for Pack a week before the season.
Pack's impressive play early didn't leave Price much of an opportunity to work out the kinks from being away for a full season. And when he did play, he was less than impressive, which led to his brief December demotion.
"Obviously, you feel pride, and I felt like I belonged here all along, and I had things to show," Price said. "I felt very disappointed early on. That was my first time to go full speed, and people came down on me so hard so early."
Lynam didn't keep Price down long, inserting him to spark the team just one game after his demotion. Since then, the coach has been mostly impressed.
"He's gotten much, much better," Lynam said. "He's never been a full-time point guard, where he walks out, looks the starting point guard in the eye and knows he has to guard him between 34 and 38 minutes. You have to experience that. He's learning on the job, and he's learning at a rapid pace."
Opponent: Denver Nuggets
Site: McNichols Sports Arena, Denver
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (530 AM)
Outlook: This is the start of a five-game, seven-day trip for the Bullets, who have lost 11 of their past 12 on the road. The Nuggets have made the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West for two straight years, but have been a disappointment this season (22-31) despite G Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (19.5 ppg) and All-Star C Dikembe Mutombo (11.6 rpg, 4.5 bpg). Washington has lost three straight to Denver.