The only Buck regular to attend Milwaukee's early September training camp for rookies was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hardly needs to impress Coach Larry Costello. As younger Bucks scrimmaged on one court, Abdul-Jabbar ran laps for an hour on another, loping through some while dribbling around his back and between his legs. When asked how Milwaukee would do this season, he said, "We've got to be better. We can't be any worse than we were last year."
That is an unexpected assessment of the only NBA team ever to win 60 games three straight times. But for the second straight season Milwaukee also blew the playoffs, losing 4-2 to Golden State in the first round. Abdul-Jabbar is not the only Buck who seems determined to prevent a rerun. Oscar Robertson has trimmed himself down to nearly 210 pounds, his lightest since college, and Costello is modifying a defense that set a record by holding opponents under 100 points in 28 games. This year the Bucks will apply more pressure away from the basket in the hope that steals will compensate for a lack of rebounding.
Even that deficiency, largely caused by the absence of a quality power forward to team with high-scoring but frail Bob Dandridge, may be reduced. Muscular Curtis Perry cut down his fouling in 1972-73, spent the off-season dominating the backboards in the fast Southern California Summer League and pulled in 19 rebounds against the Suns in the Bucks' first exhibition.
Surprisingly, forward could also be the problem position for the Chicago Bulls, whose Bob Love and Chet Walker have been the highest-scoring corner combination in the NBA the past three seasons. Walker's moves remain silky but Love's mood has turned sulky; he is holding out for a reported $100,000 raise. Coach Dick Motta, who is now also director of player personnel, claims his Bulls will get along un-Loved if they must.
Motta will have difficulty replacing Love's solid guarding and 23-point-per-game scoring with either defense-oriented John Hummer (obtained from Buffalo) or good-shooting Howard Porter. Still, the Bulls could be as strong as they were last season when they came within three points of making the Western finals. Centers Tom Boerwinkle and Clifford Ray are healthy after missing most of 1972-73 with assorted leg injuries. And the Heart and Soul of the team, Guards Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, are as nasty as ever. They are not the NBA's most talented pair, but they routinely make the courageous plays. Taking the offensive charge is one of their favorites, and they indulge in this singularly unpleasant pastime as often in one game as some guards do in an entire season.
Even if the Bucks and Bulls retain their usual berths, Detroit could reach the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. With the Western Conference's other division (Pacific) including a declining superteam and three unproven young clubs that will belabor each other, the Pistons could do it by compiling more wins than all but one of the Westerners. And perhaps they will, because last January traditionally disorganized Detroit at last got in gear.
"We're an intelligent team that gets along now," says Guard Dave Bing. "We don't care anymore who shoots or who scores. And you better believe that wasn't the case around here before." Bing himself has brought his full-speed forays to the basket under tighter control, and Bob Lanier, second in scoring only to Abdul-Jabbar among pro centers, has improved his shot selection and added defense to his repertoire. Although the Pistons remain undistinguished at forward—with the exception of improved Curtis Rowe—they have finally found a compatible backcourt mate for Bing in 6'5" Chris Ford, last season's rookie from Villanova. "He's what you'd call heady. He's got a good Philadelphia concept of the game," says Philly-born Ray Scott, who hardly gave coaching a thought until he took over the Pistons early last season and guided them to 20 wins in their final 31 games.
The Piston string knocked Kansas City-Omaha into the cellar, where the Kings are almost certain to remain. With defenses concentrating on him more intensely than ever, Tiny Archibald cannot be expected to duplicate last season, when he outscored, outpassed and outendured any guard in NBA history. Coach Bob Cousy would like Archibald to give up the ball more often, but he cringes when he looks over the receivers available for Tiny's passes. The Kings' special embarrassment is at forward. With less than two weeks remaining before the season opener, Cousy still had eight cornermen on his roster, ranging from 39-year-old Johnny Green to 22-year-old Marquette dropout Larry McNeil. Among the most promising were Ken Durrett, coming off two years of injuries, and rookie Ron Behagen, but both will need at least a season to mature. "I told the forwards before the exhibitions began that we'd try to give them the ball more, but if we didn't win we'd go back to Tiny carrying the offense," says Cousy. "I'd like a team offense, but mostly I like expediency. I want to win a few games." Archibald can win a few by himself—but not nearly enough.