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Commentary : Capitals and Bullets Both Arrive at the Same Address: Mediocre Blvd.

May 10, 1987|TONY KORNHEISER | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Although the Washington Capitals and the Washington Bullets have taken far different roads over the last few years, regrettably they have both arrived at the same address: Mediocre Blvd., miles and miles from Easy Street.

Having stymied their fans yet again with a rapid exit from the playoffs--the Capitals choking, the Bullets lurching around like hooked trout--both teams face fundamental, substantive choices.

Should the Capitals replace Bryan Murray?

Should the Bullets replace Kevin Loughery?

Murray has proven he cannot win with this team in the playoffs. He deserves applause for lifting the Capitals up from the bogs of the league and for making them a purposeful and consistent team in the regular season. But the last three playoffs his teams have failed to justify their seeding. They've been beaten by inferior teams, and beaten when they had the series well in hand.

Everybody in hockey, from the general manager down to the fourth-line wing, agrees that the playoffs are the only season that matters. When it matters most, the Capitals fail. Their record demonstrates if they're beaten even one time in a series, they will lose that series. Stay close to them, and they will let you pass. They cannot close you out. They cannot shut you down. They are flush with bravado, but they lack the ability and genuine confidence to win big games. And what's worse, they know it. Surely someone must be accountable.

Loughery was a predictable, clubby choice to take over for Gene Shue with a handful of games left in the 1985-86 season. His coaching portfolio was suspect then, having won just 39.3% of his NBA games, and it's suspect still after unwrapping the prodigious Moses Malone at center and finishing only two games over .500 this season.

The playoffs are no less important in the NBA than the NHL, and the Bullets were disgraced by the Detroit Pistons, a team they'd beaten three of six times during the regular season. Loughery's 4-15 career playoff record (21.1 winning percentage) is the worst of any current NBA coach with more than three playoff games experience. Being swept from the playoffs is bad enough, but being swept the way the Bullets were, like crumbs of breadcrust from a fine tablecloth, is a humiliation that pleads to be avenged with someone's scalp.

But maybe it's neither Murray nor Loughery who requires changing, but the guiding philosophy behind both the hockey and basketball teams. Look at their recent histories. In Murray's five seasons, other than shuffling some goalies around, the Capitals have depended essentially on the same nucleus of players. Since the Rod Langway trade, Murray and David Poile, the general manager, have tinkered with the team, but not radically redesigned it. (The Bobby Carpenter contretemps were so prolonged that his trade was ultimately a sigh of relief, hardly a bombshell.) The Capitals have patiently stayed with the same formula, and should now admit that it isn't working. Their 21-point dropoff this regular season indicates this team is on the slippery slope, and this is that rare case where the coach should stay and the players should go.

The Capitals need major surgery. Their current crop of players talk a good game even after the playoffs when they tell you they don't understand how they lost to--pick one: Islanders-Rangers--and they've got no doubt they're still the better team. Next morning they're packing their golf clubs in the car and heading north for the summer.

Stop taking out ads celebrating what heroes the Capitals are because they went four courageous overtimes and lost in their own building. They had a 3-1 lead in games. It should never have gotten to the seventh game. This is three years in a row. They choke. They say so themselves. It's endemic. Raze them, and start fresh.

The Bullets, on the other hand, re-invent themselves each year, and it never seems to have much effect. Loughery's 42-40 is the same as the 42-40 Shue had two seasons ago or the 42-40 Shue had four seasons ago. In between there was a 39-43 and a 35-47. Neither coach got out of the first round of the playoffs in the last four seasons. Bob Ferry, the general manager, blows up the Bullets and starts over again every draft day. Players come: Moses Malone, Terry Catledge, Jay Vincent. Players go: Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn, Greg Ballard. Players come and go: Cliff Robinson, Gus Williams, Dan Roundfield. Two things stay the same: The Bullets finish near .500, and Ferry calls for a new deck. Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye.

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