Whatever happened to the Atlanta Hawks the first half of last season may remain forever a topic for conjecture—or at least until Pete Maravich writes his memoirs. The facts behind all that talk of petty jealousy, divisiveness and envy stirred up by the arrival of Maravich and his $2 million contract, followed by a 14-32 record before the All-Star Game, are now being neatly obscured by the Hawks.
Captain Bill Bridges, much in the midst of last year's unrest, sets a stony calm on his handsome face and says he does not want to talk about it. Coach Richie Guerin boldly claims, "Morale problems? We didn't have any morale problems." Atlanta President Bob Cousins merely smiles, remembering it. Only Maravich willingly acknowledges that his rookie year was less than pluperfect. "I want to forget it," he says. "I'll be regarded as a second-year man, but I feel like a 10-year man. It was incredible all the way."
This season could be incredible, too—in a decidedly different way. Last year, after the Hawks finally solved their problems, they won 13 of their closing 17 games with Maravich directing the offense and averaging 29 points. Pete will be more mature this season (despite the mononucleosis that will delay his debut) and should complete his drive to stardom that began in those final games. Guerin traded Walt Hazzard to Buffalo, thereby handing Maravich floor leadership of the Hawks and, more importantly, allowing consistent Lou Hudson to move back from forward to guard where he will join Maravich to form the NBA's highest-scoring backcourt. Don May, Bridges and Center Walt Bellamy create a solid front line, and they are backed up by unusual depth, including 6'8½" rookie George Trapp. Trapp should be a threat to take May's starting job, and his development could be the key to Atlanta's success. With Trapp coming off the bench, the Hawks should win their division: if he improves enough to start, they could take the Eastern half of the NBA.
Baltimore won that title last year, and the Bullets remain largely unchanged. Well, they did add a strong rookie forward, 6'9" Stan Love (Oregon), and Coach Gene Shue, long the last of the NBA flattops, now combs his hair in the style once called Ivy League. Otherwise, there is the same fine Baltimore personnel—and those same awful knees. The three best Bullets, Earl Monroe (right knee), Wes Unseld (left) and Gus Johnson (both), were ailing during the exhibition season. Their recuperations, and all the Bullets' willingness to continue playing the controlled, less individualistic offense they employed during the playoffs last year, will decide whether Baltimore can challenge Atlanta.
If the Bullet knees get too far out of joint and if Cincinnati solves a similar problem of its own, the Royals could press Baltimore for second place. Rookie Forward Ken Durrett (La Salle), considered by some scouts a better prospect than more widely publicized Sidney Wicks (UCLA), was slow recovering from a knee injury. Now that Durrett is finally ready to play. Bob Cousy's fast-break offense will be hard to shut down once it begins rolling. Getting it started is another matter; the Royals still lack a strong defensive rebounder at center. Gil McGregor, a 6'8", 240-pound sixth-round draftee from Wake Forest who may be the rookie sleeper of the year, could lessen that problem.
Elsewhere in the division, it seems a cinch that Cleveland will be the worst team in the NBA. "We've got a great bunch of backup players," says Coach Bill Fitch. "We'd make somebody a hell of a farm club." Only the starting Cavalier guards do not fit Fitch's description, but neither will be on hand to begin the season. Butch Beard remains in the Army until November, about the same time that the foot Notre Dame's Austin Carr broke in a preseason scrimmage is expected to heal. Cleveland flabbergasted the rest of the NBA by drafting Carr first last spring instead of a big man. That choice means the Cavs will be far less improved than their expansion brothers in Buffalo and Portland, and also that Fitch and Cleveland Owner Nick Mileti may have the last laugh. After all, they should pick first in the draft again this year.