Though the Washington Bullets have won four of their first eight games and are showing signs of improvement, unanswered questions are shadowing the team’s unexpected bright spots.

The biggest question is overweight center Kevin Duckworth. Duckworth has played well in only three of Washington’s first eight games, and early talk around town is that Portland fleeced Washington by trading him for Harvey Grant. While Duckworth’s play has certainly been troubling, the exchange may still be a boon to the Bullets unless Duckworth disappears completely. Grant wanted out of Washington and played inconsistently here, and the Bullets probably would have gotten nothing down the road for him when he became a free agent again.

Instead of nothing, the Bullets have Duckworth, who is not as bad as he has appeared, though he’ll never be the player he was in Portland. Why? Look at highlights of Duckworth in his Portland heyday, when he was an all-star. He weighed 20 or 30 pounds less than he does now and was two to three steps faster. He won’t return to the all-star game, but he can still be an asset to the Bullets if Coach Wes Unseld, who’s already brought the best out of an anemic Pervis Ellison, can mold Duckworth’s game to Washington’s needs. Duckworth won’t average 22 points and 12 rebounds per game, or be the team’s “go-to guy.” He simply needs to keep the opposing center honest by scoring down low and aggressively pursuing rebounds, not playing the soft perimeter game he loves. The loss of more weight and the arrival of a healthy Ellison to relieve some of the rebounding load could make Duckworth a worthy addition.

With or without a potent Duckworth, Washington is noticeably weak in the paint. So far, teams with top-flight big men (New York and Charlotte) have dominated the Bullets underneath, while Washington has been relying too much on perimeter play. With Ellison out, Tom Gugliotta, who has looked alarmingly tired in many games, has had to shoulder too much of the inside burden. Kenny Walker and Don MacLean have been pleasant surprises on the boards, but bigger teams are still manhandling Washington inside.

Which brings us to MacLean, who certainly is a bright spot. It’s refreshing to see a modern-day athlete, reaping the benefits of a fat contract, actually improve himself by hitting the weights routinely. In MacLean’s case, he realized he might have been bound for the CBA if he hadn’t, but it’s heartening nevertheless.

Meanwhile, Calbert Cheaney has taken his removal from the starting lineup in mature stride. He’s shooting .455 from the field—respectable for any Bullet perimeter player, much less a rookie—but he realizes he has to learn more about the NBA game.

The Bullets bench has been playing surprisingly well, and the team will have to make some difficult cuts when Larry Stewart and Ellison return from injuries. Who stays? It appears that Walker and rookie swingman Mitchell Butler may have played their way onto the team with aggressiveness and hustle foreign to recent Bullet teams. Gheorghe Muresan, the7-foot-7 experiment, is so immobile that he makes Duckworth look like Elvin Hayes, but the Bullets must keep him on the roster in order to discover whether he could someday be an NBA player.

If the Bullets are determined to ride out the Muresan project, they will have to get rid of either Doug Overton or Brent Price. A successful team can’t afford to keep three guards like Overton, Price, and Michael Adams. They play too much alike, and they’re all too small. Who should go? That’s a tough call, especially because Unseld has kept Price on the bench for much of the early season. He played back-to-back games against Charlotte and Miami and shot a combined six for six, three of which were three-pointers. But Overton has also been a spark off the bench in most of his appearances. It’s close, but Overton should get the nod over Price, if only because Overton has played more minutes.

The team could also cut guard LaBradford Smith, who has shown little as a Bullet but might thrive on an up-tempo team. Or Washington could drop one of three other similar players: Walker, Butler, or Stewart, all scrappy forwards who are not prime scorers. If Stewart is healthy, he should stay, and Walker has proven too valuable to release. Butler has played well but he doesn’t quite fit because he’s between a shooting guard and a small forward. Still, the team needs his spunk.

The feeling here: Assuming Ellison and Stewart return healthy, the Bullets should unload Smith and Price and make a trade to bolster the back court.

After their 4-4 start, is it clear the Bullets are better? Yes, but not much. They’ve improved their bench play and weak perimeter game, but their outside shooting comes and goes. They still lack a strong inside attack and have displayed more of the mental weakness that has plagued them over the years. In their 117-104 win over pathetic Milwaukee, the Bullets went through a lethargic stretch in the second half during which a decent team would have zoomed past them. The Bullets have beaten teams that they should beat (Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Miami), but they’ll have to display a killer instinct in those easier games if they hope to reach the playoffs. Games against good teams like New York, Cleveland, and Charlotte, along with the early December swing through Seattle, Utah, and Phoenix, will serve as a barometer of Washington’s progress.

NBA Nuances Chicago is an intriguing team to watch this year, far less predictable than it was under the Jordan Rules. If Toni Kukoc learns the NBA ropes and improves his defense, he’ll be the Bulls’ best all-around player. Among big men, the 6-foot-11 Kukoc’s ability to shoot, pass, drive, and rebound is only surpassed by that of Seattle’s 6-foot-10 Detlef Schrempf. Chicago General Manager Jerry Krause was correct in steadfastly pursuing the Croatian.

This season will also be a good gauge of Phil Jackson’s coaching ability. Jackson, who learned from one of the best as a player for Knicks Coach Red Holzman, is more than just the coach who rode Jordan’s coattails. If Jackson takes this Chicago team, which has plenty of weaknesses, to the playoffs, he should be coach of the year.

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