The San Diego International Sports Arena, where the Rockets play their home games, could just as easily be called The Center for Personality Studies, Professor Alex Hannum presiding. Hannum's coaching and the team's depth—in that order—are the reasons why San Diego should beat out the other also-rans for the second playoff spot behind L.A. But while he coaches, Alex must keep an eye on much more than the normal run of people problems.
At his best, Elvin Hayes is one of the top players in the game. This year, relieved of his real or imagined difficulties with Don Kojis (traded to Seattle) and Coach Jack McMahon (now with the ABA's Condors), he should be able to erase the pout and stop interpreting routine intrasquad wrangling as being directed against him personally. Playing a high post, Hayes will continue to be the man who takes the most shots, particularly now that Larry Siegfried is there to get the ball to him. Siegfried was acquired from Portland in exchange for Jim Barnett—probably the alltime All-Flake trade in NBA history. In his brief career, Barnett has already become captain of the All-Flakers, and Siegfried's record of eccentricity goes back to his Ohio State days. But Larry is also a player of quality and one of the best brains in the business. He should run Hannum's set offense with a sure hand.
Those brittle Los Angeles heroes—34-year-old Wilt Chamberlain, 32-year-old Jerry West and 36-year-old Elgin Baylor—missed 96 games among them a year ago. These days Wilt and West seem in good shape, but Baylor has a sore right heel. He also tends to relax when the other team has the ball. The Lakers remain a group of individuals—able and willing, but individuals nevertheless—rather than a team. Because of Joe Mullaney they will play some defense, but the offense continues to be one-on-one and catch-as-catch-can. There is so much scoring ability, however, from Wilt down to Gail Goodrich, that the Lakers are the class of the division.
Before making an unfavorable trade with Milwaukee, Seattle rated a fair chance of beating out San Diego for second place. The team had won 21 of its last 36 games, and then had acquired Don Kojis. But then came that trade. The Sonics gave up Lucius Allen, an ideal backcourt partner for Len Wilkens, and Bob Boozer, who will score regardless of what uniform he wears. In return all they received was Don Smith, who might solve their rebounding problem if he gets over his unhappiness at losing the playoff shares he would have drawn in Milwaukee. Seattle also lost its No. 1 draft choice, Jim Ard, to the ABA Nets. Aid might have taken over at center and allowed Bob Rule to play the corner, a position he prefers.
With all these troubles, Seattle is still far better off than San Francisco and Portland. The Warriors have rights of one kind or another to a front line of Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond and Zelmo Beaty, but only Nate will be around this season, and it remains to be seen how much his problems affect his play. So far this year he has had a second operation on his right knee, announced his retirement and engaged in a summer-long battle with Owner Franklin Mieuli. Undeniably, he is injury-prone, and it is possible that worry about injury is hampering him as much as his knees. Sadly, too, nearly all the other Warrior starters seem to be hurt more of the time than healthy.
It is most difficult of all to find anything cheerful about the scene in Portland, except the possibility that the city's reaction to its first major league team of any kind will be encouraging. But inexperience is the hallmark of coach and front office, and the only player worth even a tentative superlative is a rookie. Princeton's Geoff Petrie can run and shoot. His teammates are all rejects from one club or another—in some cases, several—and they constitute a perfect example of how greed and ineptitude among the owners cripple the chances for success of expansion teams and embarrass the whole sport.