The easiest thing to say about this division is that the New York Knicks will finish last no matter what Eddie Donovan, Jack Kent Cooke and Wilt Chamberlain finally work out. Now onward and upward.
Immediately after the end of last season, after losing to Washington in the Eastern playoffs, the Boston Celtics set out in search of help, the need made even more pressing by the departure of Don Chaney to the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis. They came up with Charlie Scott of Phoenix, a freelancer forever embroiled in controversy, most of it sparked by himself. Charlie Scott? Playing with Dave Cowens and Paul Silas with John Havlicek and Jo Jo White?
Visions of four fast-breaking Celtics watching Scott launch his running 22-footers danced in his new teammates' heads. Said one, "Charlie's going to learn our style of play. If he doesn't he's going to end up in a hospital." No problem, said Scott. He came to camp early, worked hard and has blended his undeniable talents into the Boston system. Playing more of an offensive role than Chaney did, Scott has teamed well enough with White to cause Coach Tommy Heinsohn to boast, "They give us our best offensive backcourt since Cousy and Sharman." For a Celtic that is not a compliment dished out lightly. Kevin Stacom will be the third guard.
In the middle, of course, is Cowens, just 27 and at his physical peak. The weakness at the position is that Cowens, who runs and runs and runs, must occasionally be relieved to maintain his stratospheric energy level. That means 6'9" Jim Ard, who is usually back on the bench before he has warmed up.
Age at forward is another limiting factor. John Havlicek (35) and Paul Silas (32) were both outplayed by the younger Bullets in last season's playoff, and Don Nelson (35) has got to slow down some time. Help must come from second-year-man Glenn McDonald, maybe even 6'9" rookie Tommy Boswell, who arrived from South Carolina with a no-cut contract and no discernible love for labor.
Buffalo will make its annual run at the Celtics with a prodigiously potent offensive machine. Bob McAdoo is an exceptionally quick big man, a scorer who is close to being unstoppable. The trouble is that, except for an occasional blocked shot, he seldom stops anyone else, either.
Last season the Braves won 49 games and then extended the Bullets to the limit in the Eastern semifinal. They did it without Ernie DiGregorio, their play-maker, who missed most of the year with a knee injury. The return of Ernie D. means two things: not having to handle the ball, Randy Smith will become a devastating off-the-ball guard, and forward Jim McMillian, 10 pounds slimmer, will be taking DiGregorio's pinpoint passes again for the corner jumpers he favors.
The Braves have strong rebounders in Gar Heard and Dale Schlueter, and the happy problem of finding a spot for Tom McMillen, the 6'11" Maryland All-America back from being a Rhodes Scholar and a superstar in the European League. For now, he will back up Heard. At guard the Braves are deeper than the Marianas Trench, with Bob Weiss, Ken Charles and swing man Dick Gibbs, acquired from Washington.
Many and loud hosannas have been sung to celebrate the arrival of George McGinnis in Philadelphia, but 76er fans better face the fact that the team is not quite ready to go 79-3 and make the world safe for fife-and-drum players. For sure the club will improve on its 34-48 record, and might well make the playoffs. But General Manager Pat Williams has got to figure out how to pack the Spectrum in order to get the loot for the league's largest payroll. Before signing McGinnis for $3.2 million the 76ers paid SI million for 6'11" 251-pound 18-year-old Darryl Dawkins, the high schooler from Orlando, Fla., and $800,000 for 6'10" rookie Joe Bryant. There are also the salaries of Doug Collins ($240,000) and Billy Cunningham ($300,000).
Dawkins is still growing, and Coach Gene Shue must use him sparingly. Harvey Catchings will start in the middle, but Shue hopes to get away with a three-forward front line of McGinnis, Cunningham and All-Star Steve Mix at least some of the time. At guard, the 76ers have Collins, who may be the best off-the-ball backcourt man in both leagues, and Fred Carter, who may be 30 but still hasn't learned that you can't win in the NBA with nothing but one-on-one basketball. Then there is Clyde Lee, still a superb rebounder, and Center Leroy Ellis, who at 35 may be just the right teacher for Dawkins.
The Knicks barely made the playoffs as the wild-card team, and were promptly bopped by Houston. When the season ended, they decided they had better spend some money. First they went after Abdul-Jabbar and missed. Then they signed but failed to secure McGinnis. A flutter at Spencer Haywood didn't work out. Now, in a move that is pure desperation and slightly degrading, they are chasing Chamberlain, the 39-year-old multimillionaire who hasn't suited up in two years and was recently declared a free agent by Commissioner O'Brien. But he still is probably a better center than the ones they have (John Gianelli and Tom Riker) and unquestionably better box office. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe remain perhaps the best pair of guards around. Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson are remnants from that last championship season, but neither will make any All-Star teams. The Knicks have two promising rookies in Eugene Short and Larry Fogle, but not even Red Holzman can work enough magic to get them to help much this year.