When you subtract Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Bing from the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons, respectively, add still another year onto the collective age of the venerable Chicago Bulls and consider the young and brash Kansas City Kings—well, this division ain't what it used to be. But it should be more interesting, if only to unemployed coaches out there keeping track of possible job openings. At Milwaukee, Larry Costello has to prove he can win without the big guy, a less than enviable task, although it is not true that the Bucks will play their home games on the Little Bighorn. Last year was supposed to be Chicago's, but wasn't; Dick Motta will try again with the same old Bulls minus Chet Walker (probably)—and now you know why Motta bought a gas station. At Detroit, Ray Scott exchanged Bing for Washington's Kevin Porter, which brought peace to the Pistons; if Scott could trade some of that calm for two forwards his future would be less bleak.
For the first time in their short history the Kings will be favored in the division. They will be going with the same team that won Coach of the Year honors for Phil Johnson. In fact, the Kings were so pleased with the lineup that finished in second place just three games behind Chicago that the most significant move they made was to drop the Omaha half of their name. The Kings have excellent backcourt leadership in Nate Archibald; a continually improving center in Sam Lacey, who still looks awkward on occasion but more and more seems to be making the right play in the right place at the right time; and a powerful second-year forward in Scott Wedman. They also picked up three players who should be able to help right away. They sent Ron Behagen to New Orleans for a first-round draft choice and used it to get Bill Robinzine, a 6'7" 230-pound forward from DePaul. With their own first-round pick they took Bob Bigelow of Penn, a 6'7" guard who can play forward, and added Glen Hansen, a 6'5" forward from LSU. "What we needed was a big guard," says Johnson. "Everything just fell into place for us."
For shipping their franchise to Los Angeles, Milwaukee got a number of very respectable athletes. When Abdul-Jabbar went that away, back came seven-foot Center Elmore Smith; Brian Winters, a solid guard the Lakers hated to give up after just one year; UCLA All-America Forward Dave Meyers; and Junior Bridgeman, a quick 6'5" guard out of Louisville. On their own they drafted Clyde Mayes, a burly rebounder from Furman, and slender Cornelius Cash of Bowling Green.
"I'm very, very excited," says Costello, swearing that he has simplified his mammoth playbook. "We've got a new style, new players, new everything. Meyers can do everything. This is the best crop of young players I've ever had."
How well they are able to function depends largely on Smith, who still may have the same high potential he had when he came into the league four years ago but who has never made a mistake once that he hasn't repeated a couple of hundred times. In 1971 they said he'd be another Abdul-Jabbar, but he's been traded away twice, and now Costello will discover why.
A year ago, Chicago money, a draft choice and Clifford Ray went to Golden State for Nate Thurmond. But Thurmond did not turn out to be the key to an NBA championship. Instead, Nate turned out to be old, slow and brittle. Bitter salary disputes involving Bob Love and Norm Van Lier at the beginning of the season didn't help any. The Bulls did win the divisional title but lost in seven games to the Warriors in the conference finals, and the bright promise of October became numbing humiliation in May.
And now canny old Forward Chet Walker is gone, although he has promised Motta he would "reconsider" his retirement. Replacing him will be Cliff Pondexter, who as a 6'9" rookie sensation out of Long Beach State spent last season on the sidelines with a broken leg. He is evidently healed; in the Southern Cal Summer League he averaged 19 points.
Both Love and Van Lier, who had been expecting to be traded, were in camp on time, but Tom Boerwinkle, who replaced Thurmond late in the season, has tendinitis in the left elbow and may miss some of the early season. That would leave Thurmond in the pivot, and the Bulls now know he can't do the job anymore.
With Porter in the Detroit camp, Scott wasted little time installing the fast break, and then acquired veteran Guard Archie Clark from Seattle. The departure of Bing, an All-Star guard, was prefigured by his poor relationship with Scott. Porter claimed to be happy about the swap. In Detroit's first intrasquad game the fiery little playmaker poured in 32 points and has been averaging nearly 16 in exhibition games.
"Man, has he got us turned on," says Bob Lanier, the burly center with the tender knees. "Sometimes he starts to drive, and I just stand there and watch. Then the next thing I know, the ball is in my hands for an easy layup."
That's the problem: after Lanier there aren't many people in Detroit that Porter can deal off the ball to. Last year, when they stumbled to a 40-42 record, the Pistons' scoring came from Lanier inside and Bing outside, and not much from anybody else. Meanwhile, Porter was leading the league in assists serving up the ball to Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Mike Riordan. For Porter to even come close to his assist mark of last season, Lanier will have to break every scoring record known to man.