For the first time in years Seattle Player-Coach Lenny Wilkens played basketball during the off season. This suddenly renewed interest in midsummer scrimmaging at 33 can only be attributed to the presence of a frisky new playmate who would make any coach on the far side of the Generation Gap feel young again. He is Spencer Haywood, the 6'8" forward who would have been picked first in the draft last spring had he not chosen to reach the NBA via the ABA Denver Rockets and the federal courts. But now, after a summer of becoming accustomed to the fluid Wilkens style, he is ready to make the five-year-old Sonics boom for the first time.
Haywood leads a deep, talented forward corps that should bring the Sonics an easy victory in the Pacific Division. Second-year man Garfield Heard, a strong, fast, determined player, lines up opposite Haywood, and Wilkens can replace them with a benchful of sound subs. For outside shooting, there is Barry Clemens; for experience and aggressiveness, Don Kojis; and for pure muscle, 6'9½" Don Smith. In the backcourt, Dick Snyder, one of the league's sharpest long-range shooters, starts alongside Wilkens.
The only Seattle shortcoming is at center—a position Smith also can play if needed. Bob Rule was second in scoring last year when he tore an Achilles' tendon. He is better, but the team may open the year with Pete Cross, an exceptional rebounder who can do little else, in the post. Further, neither Rule nor Cross plays strong defense, a problem for the Sonics last year. But, with Wilkens piloting the fast-break offense, Seattle will rarely be outscored.
The Lakers have suddenly become a running team, too—at least in practice. With strict disciplinarian Bill Sharman now coaching, Los Angeles ran drills on drills during training camp, and even Wilt Chamberlain loped into shape.
It was another Laker superstar who presented a problem: Elgin Baylor simply should not be playing anymore. Lest this sound shockingly heretical, one cannot but note that, at 37, Baylor's scarred legs no longer provide the thrust needed to shoot his jumper or the agility that playing defense requires. But if Elgin holds to his promise to wait until next season to retire, Sharman will be forced to start him. The Lakers are deep at guard behind Jerry West and Gail Goodrich but thin at forward. Baylor's presence will take important playing and learning time away from Jim McMillian, who must contribute significantly if Los Angeles hopes to put up a strong defense of its Pacific title.
Like Chamberlain, Warrior Center Nate Thurmond is in top condition. That is good news for the Warriors, who can use it. Owner Franklin Mieuli, after attempting for years to make his club part of San Francisco's social scene, has finally given up and moved across the bay to Oakland where his team will be called the Golden State Warriors. Just how golden the Warriors will be depends on how much of a lift Cazzie Russell, acquired from New York for Jerry Lucas, gives the league's 15th worst offense.
The Rockets could not work out their dispute over arena rent in San Diego and blasted off to Houston, where Elvin Hayes, once all the rage when he played for the University of Houston, may save the franchise at the gate. But he remains, despite his extraordinary talents, a frequent liability on the floor. Rookie Coach Tex Winter has tried to persuade the Big E to play the all-round game of which he is capable and stop worrying about shooting (he fired off 40 field-goal attempts per game three times last year). Until Big E agrees, the Rockets may find they are lonely losers who have crash-landed in a strange town.
Portland, the most successful of last season's expansion teams, could be less impressive the second time around. The first prize in the NBA draft, Sidney Wicks, should enhance the Blazers' persistent fast break, but he will not replace the man who made it go last season, co-rookie of the year Geoff Petrie. Petrie will miss at least two months of the season due to knee surgery. To make matters worse, Portland traded starting Center Leroy Ellis to the Lakers and is left only with second-stringer Dale Schlueter and 7-foot rookie Bill Smith, who was famous for his on-court pugilism at Syracuse University. He may become better known in the pros for his lack of punch.