The Bullets had the best regular-season record and the worst playoff record in the league last year, the latter distinction courtesy of the Knicks, who beat them four straight. It is not fair to say, though, that the Bullets, like some other Maryland treats—crabs and Colts—are good only in season. The Bullets staggered into the playoffs with scarcely a sound muscle. The Knicks suffered injuries, too, but the New York survivors turned out to be the best first unit in the league. Significantly, those five men were on the floor in Salem, Va. when the first ball of the 1969 NBA exhibition season went up. The Knick starters are all good shooters and all move well without the ball, so when Walt Frazier—the portrait of Oscar Robertson as a young man—gets double-teamed as he penetrates, he finds an open man who can hit. In the four games last spring he made nearly as many assists as the whole Baltimore team. Remembering how they had been picked clean by Frazier's passes the Bullets were less disposed in Salem to help out when he slipped through the perimeter, preferring to stay with their own men. So Frazier shot more himself, went 9 for 11 and broke open the game. Only the most sophisticated team defense can thwart New York. Unlike its opponents, Baltimore concentrates more on individual play when it has the ball. "We have a lot of plays, but they are geared to create one-on-one situations," says Coach Gene Shue, the last flattop on your block. Indeed, it is the Bullets' team joke that their defense is so tough because four guys out of the five are always able to rest on offense. It works out pretty well, however, because the man with the ball most of the time is Earl Monroe, who has made the Bullets an extension of his own flamboyant style. Nevertheless, it took the addition of Wes Unseld, rebounding and whipping the ball out on the break, to make Baltimore a winner. Unseld, a 6'7½" center, earned his MVP, beating out New York Center Willis Reed for the honor. Unseld gets more rebounds than the Knick captain, but then Reed has more dependable rebound help from Dave DeBusschere. Opponents may try sagging more on Unseld this year, testing his jumper, but no one can afford that luxury with Reed. The Knicks' biggest edge is on defense, though. They can press all over, and they are hard to attack at any one spot, because in Reed, DeBusschere and Frazier they have a superb defensive player at each position. Baltimore, on the other hand, has only one man who is in that class, the handsome and husky-throated Gus Johnson, and, not surprisingly, he is sometimes called on to defend against guards and centers as well as the strong forwards like DeBusschere. The Bullets need his speed and versatility to repeat, but he is a perennial Purple Heart; he went out after 49 games last year with a serious knee injury. The year's biggest comeback, of course, has been made by Knick Forward Dave Stallworth, who sat out the last two years after having a heart attack. He will make it tougher for Cazzie Russell and assorted other forwards to find playing time. "It's not my concern," says Red Holzman, the phlegmatic Knick coach. "They'll solve that for themselves." A trade for a guard would be another way.
The 76ers were the highest-scoring team in the league last year and the Royals were the best shooters, but both burned out early. Cincinnati lacked depth only less than discipline; often some players passed up team travel and flew about the country to games as it suited them. There was no trouble like that on the 76ers. Indeed, Jack Ramsay may be the most respected as well as the best coach in the sport today. Philadelphia failed to catch Baltimore and then lost to Boston in the playoffs because it was worn down, especially in the front court, where strong centers and offensive forwards beat the 76er big men. Now Luke Jackson is back at a slim 248, with a repaired Achilles' tendon, which should make the 76ers tougher in the pivot, and Ramsay thinks he has licked the other deficiencies by placing more emphasis on conditioning and by picking up Jim Washington from Chicago for Chet Walker. Washington has more stamina and mobility than Walker and better looks than anybody in the NBA, but for the 76ers to win on the deal he will have to attack the boards and do better against big forwards than he has in the past. With three top guards who, against some teams, are used together—Hal Greer moving up front—the 76ers will run more than ever. "About 15% of the time you get a natural break; maybe a quarter of the time you have no chance," Ramsay says. "It's that other 60% that we want to try to make the break as much as possible."
At the other extreme, the Royals set up patiently last year and on defense played what amounted to a passive, sloughing zone. A new, aggressive front office lured Bob Cousy in to coach and, in turn, he is making the team go hell-for-leather on the court, the way his Celtics did. Of course, the Celtics had a center to get them the ball. The Royals' center, Connie Dierking, improves with age, but he is better at the end of a break than starting it. Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas assured Cousy they would submerge their individual styles, and they have never worked better together at what O calls "fun basketball" than they did in preseason games. Oscar does not control play so much, and Lucas must set up on the weak side, away from the ball in Cousy's "single tandem" offense—Dierking and Forward Tom Van Arsdale (shifted from guard) placed side by side in a low post. The Royals and 76ers recently met across the river from Philly, in Camden. For Cousy, it was his first pro coaching test. For 76er All-League Forward Billy Cunningham, it was the first appearance before Philadelphia fans since he signed to play with the ABA in 1971. They cheered Billy lustily. Apparently fickle Philadelphians don't mind if you want to leave; they only get mad, as Joe Kuharich and Richie Allen know, if they decide before you do that they want you to leave. Cousy's Royals did not fare so well, as Philadelphia's guards forced mistakes. It was apparent why Cousy, at 41, wanted to come out of retirement: to rest Oscar a few minutes of each game, or even to give O occasional chances up front. (It would also have been a promotional coup, Cousy says candidly.) As rookie Guard Herm Gilliam was learning the ropes, Cousy could have kept the Royals moving, revving up the action that is mounting all over the NBA. "You don't see that boring one-on-one stuff much anymore, the big man just backing and muscling in," says Jack Ramsay. "It's a better game now than ever before."
Neither the Pistons nor the Bulls made the playoffs last year, and changes were inevitable. Detroit went for a new coach, hiring Butch van Breda Kolff perhaps on the assumption that after the Lakers he would feel at home with the usual clutch of Piston eccentrics. Chicago made two big trades and threw out the management whose mismanagement had attracted crowds as low as 348 and had failed to sign its first two draft choices. Detroit lost its top three draft picks, and it also lost Dave Bing to the ABA, effective 1971. Then Bing missed the exhibitions because of a minor knee operation. This gave Jimmy Walker a chance at the spotlight, and Walker, 20 pounds lighter, looked, at last, like the player he was supposed to be when the Pistons made him the league's first draft pick two years ago. Since he and Bing are almost carbon copies in style, however, the problem of playing them together will soon have to be faced again. Detroit is a most unbalanced team. It has an excess of guards and no big, tough forwards. At center, Walt Bellamy, still wearing his Knick socks, plays ahead of Otto Moore, a promising young man who was too thin and weak last year. When Detroit met Chicago recently in Coldwater, Mich., Bellamy showed his customary bad hands and the inconsistency he has long displayed when facing the weaker teams. Unfortunately, because it does not have the strong forward, Detroit cannot afford to give up Bellamy's strength in the middle in favor of giving Moore experience.
Chicago won the game without much help from a very thin bench. The Bulls need a playmaker also, but at least they have acquired speed up front so that now they can run on occasion—or, more important, contend with teams that fast-broke them to death last year. The key man is Bob Kauffman, traded by Seattle because he did not provide enough offense. The other new forward, Chet Walker, is supposed to supply the scoring. A veritable pensioner on this team at 29, Walker is the first genuine one-on-one cornerman the Bulls have ever had. He must be rested to be effective, and the same is true of Center Tom Boer-winkle, who will get little help from Walt Wesley. The starting backcourt, consisting of Jerry Sloan and Clem Haskins, is more durable. Both can shoot, and Sloan, the original Charlie Hustle of basketball, is an All-Star defensive player. Challenging a shibboleth, Coach Dick Motta does not always use Sloan against the opponent's best offensive guard, but instead sics him on the second guard, figuring that Sloan will cause an even more significant lag in the rival offense if employed that way. The team will be helped considerably by the fact that its schedule has been cut to 82 games this year, as opposed to 164 last season when the players had to battle the front office every day before they came out onto the court.
Facing each other on a Southern tour, the Hawks and Celtics were a good match because each had lost its big man. Bill Russell had retired to legend, and Zelmo Beaty was holding out, palavering with the ABA (he later signed with the L.A. Stars). Rated "the best shooter I ever played against" by Wilt Chamberlain, Beaty will be missed, but Boston's loss is even more consequential. "We are undergoing a heart transplant," says Tommy Heinsohn, the new Celtic coach. Forced to adjust, both clubs have the distinct advantages of possessing depth and having played together longer than most teams. In Richie Guerin the Hawks also have one of the very best coaches—as long as the players continue to accept and improve under his fabled tongue-lashings. Guerin spent the summer talking and watching game films with his floor leader, Walt Hazzard, and each now knows exactly what the other is thinking. For his part, Heinsohn inherits the smartest team in sports, so the Celtics will make accommodations for playing without Russell—especially on defense—faster than might be expected. Atlanta has a pretty fair replacement for Beaty in Jim Davis, a late-bloomer, and Bill Bridges can shift from the corner to spell him. The Hawks lost a lot of offensive rebounding when Paul Silas was traded to Phoenix, but Gary Gregor, who moves up, can shoot better. Guerin has also switched Joe Caldwell to forward, putting Lou Hudson, a better shooter from outside, at guard. With less strength up front, Atlanta will look to the backcourt for additional scoring this year. The team will run more, and its defenses will be closer to man-for-man than what everybody except the NBA calls a zone. Heinsohn is trying to reinstate the oldtime Celtic running game which, under Coach Russell, had become somewhat disorganized. John Havlicek will swing more as a guard this year to help with the break and take up the shooting slack left by Sam Jones' departure. But all the guards can run a break; the problem is getting the ball out to the guards fast enough. "Two counts slow nearly every time," Heinsohn moaned at halftime as the Celtics broke only sporadically on their way to losing to the Hawks 113-109 in Jackson, Miss. Russell's replacement is Henry Finkel, obtained from San Diego. Though he is slow and his lack of agility often leads to excessive fouling, Finkel is a good shot from a distance, where he will also fit in well setting picks for the motion-conscious Boston offense. If he learns to block out rather than trying to outjump opponents, he could also become a more formidable rebounder, but the dexterity required to whip the ball out for a break may be beyond his capacity. The defeat in Jackson notwithstanding. Red Auerbach is drafting wisely again. Jo Jo White is still in the Marines, but Don Chaney, starting his first full season, can do everything but shoot, and fourth-round-pick Steve Kuberski is tough and nimble. Like Chaney, the Hawks' first choice, Butch Beard, is stylish but a weak shooter. But the real rookie hero is a Hawk who may destroy the reputations of all the scouts of the 13 other NBA clubs. Grady O'Malley, a cherub-faced strong boy from Manhattan College, who was the 214th player drafted (out of 218), can play better right now than some first-round picks.
The West Coast teams in the NBA played a more civilized exhibition schedule than did the East, with doubleheaders in large arenas, and the Seattle SuperSonics were at home in one nightcap against their 1967 expansion brethren, the San Diego Rockets. Eight of the 14 Sonics wear beards or mustaches, the most hirsute squad since the House of David or F. Castro's diamond All-Stars. The Sonics are also easily distinguishable for their style of play; in a league where virtually every team wants to run more Seattle plans mostly on a set game, with Lennie Wilkens, the new coach and the playmaker, helping his plodding frontline get baskets—the same way he did for the slow but steady old St. Louis Hawks. The Sonics have outstanding speed in the backcourt, however, and sometimes—as they did against the Rockets—they will run despite themselves. The hero of the game, as he had been the night before against L.A., turned out to be Lucius Allen, much the best new guard in the league. Wilkens took himself out and watched Allen score eight of the Sonics' last 13 points, make steals, play defense and run the team like, well, not unlike Lennie Wilkens. Seattle won 128-126. The third player selected in last May's draft—after Alcindor and Neal Walk—Allen shows no effect from having missed his senior season at UCLA. He plays with the assurance of a three-year veteran, and surely would start if it were not for Wilkens and second-year-man Art Harris, who is almost as quick as, and a bit taller than, Lucius and a better shooter from far outside. Allen's optimum range is from 12 to 18 feet, and his touch is as good as it was in college. Even if Rod Thorn must be rested a lot because of his leg injury, Seattle's backcourt will be top drawer, but the ultimate edge in the sport is in rebounding, and here San Diego is clearly superior. Elvin Hayes, Don Kojis and John Block lead a frontline that works the boards well at both ends. Most of the Rockets can hit also, and one opposing scout thinks they got the two best shooters—Bobby Smith and Bernie Williams—in the draft. The Rockets work hard to set up the right one-on-one situations for their drivers and shooters, and since playmaker Rick Adelman, a seventh-round draft choice in 1968, has shown enough improvement to be entrusted with guiding the team, the Rockets should move up exactly as fast as the Big E matures. Though he led the league in scoring last year, Hayes seldom gave up the ball and had a tendency to personalize team problems. He pouted childishly when Wes Unseld beat him out for Rookie of the Year. He returned home in a huff this summer from a Hawaiian NBA All-Star tour when a P.A. announcer inadvertently failed to introduce him. Against Seattle, however, Hayes twice passed off to undefended teammates as he maneuvered into shooting position himself. Last year he would have taken the shots. Hayes also battled to a rebounding standoff with Bob Rule, the Sonics' hard-working lefty center, and when Forward John Tresvant kept scoring, Hayes asked for and got permission from Coach Jack McMahon to play him for a while. He cooled Tresvant off, too. Tresvant is one of three frontline Sonics still unsigned, a fact that could make Wilkens' rookie coaching season even more difficult. Seattle got Bob Boozer from Chicago because it lacked a good shooting cornerman, and if Boozer can resist a tendency to inch in and clog the middle, opponents will not be able to slough off him and collapse on Rule underneath. More than they need shooting or even rebounding, however, the Sonics require a sharper defense—the kind of defense Wilkens alone plays. "Coaching hasn't affected Lennie's hands," observed McMahon, after Wilkens made another steal.
Why waste words? Lew Alcindor can take Milwaukee from the cellar to the championship of the world; Connie Hawkins can lead Phoenix, a .195 team last year, to the Western Division title. Whatever happens, these two players will transform the balance of power in the NBA as nothing has since Bill Russell came back from the Melbourne Olympics and with his defensive genius forced a change in the style of every team in the league. Alcindor's value to Milwaukee is almost beyond reckoning. As he did at UCLA, he makes every man on his team a more effective player, not only through inspiration, but because his presence preoccupies rivals. He is—in no particular order—quick, agile, huge, smart, a good shooter, a team player, a winner. No, he is not as strong as Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond and some other centers—and he also cannot carry a tune as well as Mahalia Jackson or ride a horse like Braulio Baeza. But he comes as close as one man can to dominating a game played by 10 men.
Hawkins' talent, though not so overwhelming, is often more enjoyable to watch and, since he has played in exile for so long, he has the same effect upon the observer that a lost Rembrandt discovered in an attic has upon an art hunter. His trademark—like a Baylor corkscrew drive or a Russell block—is his "hesitation hook," delivered with an elegance that no man his size (6'8", 219 pounds) should possess. Hawkins sweeps toward the basket with long strides, veers to the right, leaps high, holds the ball outstretched away from the basket, hangs suspended for two heartbeats and at last flips the ball through the rim.
When Phoenix played Milwaukee, Coach John Kerr kept his center—Jim Fox or Neal Walk—on a high post to give Connie room to start something in the corner. Both centers are good outside shooters and, in Paul Silas, the Suns have a superb rebounder opposite Hawkins. Gail Goodrich's slick style has not been disturbed by Hawkins' presence, as some surmised it would be, and he will start in the backcourt with Dick Van Arsdale, Kerr's "wild card," who gives the team defense wherever he plays.
Milwaukee was weak defensively last year, but with Alcindor they can gamble and overplay. Similarly, the forwards—notably Don Smith—are now better rebounders, as the opposition worries about where Lew is. Smith was a steal in a trade with Cincy, and Bobby Dandridge, the baby-faced shooting forward, was a good fourth-round draft pick. In the backcourt little Flynn Robinson, though undisciplined and poor on defense, has become a better driver. Both he and Jon McGlocklin can hit from far out, and when the Bucks need a ball handler there is Guy Rodgers. Early in his pro career Guy was setting up Wilt, but he won't go out doing that for Lew, because Coach Larry Costello seeks a balanced attack.
As the Lakers evened their preseason record with a 117-100 victory over a characteristically depleted Warrior team, it was apparent again what a startling effect the new L.A. coach, Joe Mullaney, has had on his charges. Low key, inconspicuous and uncommonly bright, Mullaney enjoys playing at self-deprecation. "Is Elgin still the captain?" the referee asked him before the game. "I believe so," Mullaney said, grinning. "They haven't told me otherwise." The new coach's personality and insight have been perfect for what was the NBA's most talented, and most divided, team. Mullaney professed no preconceived notions about how the Lakers should play, and he has worked hard to keep an open mind. Though his theories are not that dissimilar to those of the departed Butch van Breda Kolff, Mullaney has not asked Wilt Chamberlain to make major revisions in his traditional style of play the way V.B.K. did. Mullaney, for instance, has put Wilt back in the low post, but he has also informed him that he doesn't want him holding up the show there—waving the ball around and faking hand-offs. Instead, Mullaney wants quick shots right off Wilt's picks, and he has worked at making Elgin Baylor come hard out of the corner—which he didn't do last year—using Wilt's bulk to get open for mid range pops, the way Luke Jackson and Chet Walker used to work it in Philadelphia. Known at Providence College for his original thinking on defense, Mullaney is introducing four new defenses of varying pressures that he expects the Lakers to use as the occasion requires. In the main he wants to utilize Wilt's strength and reach. With Wilt behind them, Mullaney is asking the others to overplay more, forcing rivals outside or to the baseline. With faster, younger players—notably Bill Hewitt, in his second year, and rookie Dick Garrett—Mullaney also hopes to get the Lakers running again, the way they did before Wilt arrived. L.A. got a lot of good fast breaks in their exhibition against the Warriors, filling the lanes well, and with Jerry West leading the way and avoiding injury for a record fourth straight game, the Lakers overwhelmed a San Francisco team that is going nowhere except to court or the hospital. The Warrior injuries started on schedule this year when Clyde Lee tore ligaments in an ankle 35 minutes after training camp started. Then Al Attles pulled a hamstring, and Nate Thurmond injured a thigh muscle. Rudy LaRusso retired, John Law said Rick Barry was still in the ABA and the best thing the Warriors got in the draft was named Denise Long and is only permitted to play in the preliminary girls' games. The Warriors have little frontline depth, and the forwards still display inability to penetrate, shooting from far out. The guards, headed by Jeff Mullins, can hit, but, except for Attles, they are weak in ball handling and on defense. The whole team is snakebit, anyway. An earthquake will never hit California when the Warriors are on the road. By contrast, the Lakers are far ahead of last year's pace, since all players actually talk to each other and the coach.