As pro basketball winds up winter training in preparation for the grueling season ahead, let us now praise famous men: Walt Frazier reclining in his llama-skin Manhattan apartment; Dick Motta dangling fish bait as the lakes thaw near his Idaho home; Pete Maravich hanging up his pistols in the courtyards off Bourbon Street; and, finally, the supreme Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing penance on the slopes of Nepal for being so good he was forced to play with the most inept supporting cast since the Nixon gang.
Besides celebrity, what these gentlemen have in common is time on their hands. They are fittingly—in some cases, shockingly—idle because their teams did not qualify for that terrific April...and May...and maybe June, too...madness known as the NBA playoffs.
As the 1975-76 pro basketball season began, we had just recovered from the World Series. Before it ends, we will have seen the Russian hockey team, the Super Bowl, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Winter Olympics, Opening Day, Love Doubles, Indiana, Jean-Pierre Coopman and about 26 presidential primaries. At different times during the pros' interminable run, Patty Hearst was tried and Cher was true, Howard Hughes was alive and Hubert Humphrey dead, Cuckoo's Nest was just another film and Margaret just another princess. What more could be asked of a sports season than that while it went on a whole society seemed to change before our very eyes?
Well, we could ask what price New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—the nation's media-market titans—being eliminated from the television showcase that is the playoffs? And CBS-TV executives might answer with razors at their throats. The NBA Sunday ratings are down a disastrous 28% from last year, hardly a peak season. But be that as it may, the folks who do watch the 1976 rendition of the playoffs will be in for a rare treat. New faces are everywhere, at least in the early going. The Philadelphia 76ers haven't been involved in this type of competition for five years, the Phoenix Suns for six years, Cleveland never.
Cleveland? The Cleveland of Bob Feller and Early Wynn? Otto Graham throwing to Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli? Jimmy Brown running over people? Are they back again?
Not really. These are the Cleveland Cavaliers of bantering Bill Fitch, a team that came out of nowhere, firing from the perimeters, to wrest the Central Division away from the Washington Bullets. Not really nowhere, either. The Cavs came awfully close to the playoffs last spring when they lost out on the final day of the season. As Fitch said then, "Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies."
The Cavaliers have old Nate Thurmond, young Jim Chones, a cast of thousands scoring in double figures and two of the league's best shooters coming off the bench in Campy Russell and Austin Carr. Besides winning 49 games during the regular season, the team accomplished the fairly amazing feat of drawing nearly 5,000 people more per game than last year. That these average crowds of almost 13,000 Ohioans managed to find the Coliseum in the cornfields of Richfield is satisfying enough. But the Cavs are worth the drive.
"The Cavs right now look as good as anybody," says Laker Coach Bill Sharman. "There is no reason they can't win it all."
In reality, Cleveland is one of four teams with a legitimate shot at the championship. The reasons the Cavs can't win it all are basically Washington, Boston and Golden State—mainly the latter two.
Though Cleveland's inside power is suspect and the team has no real star to go to in the crunch—a useful asset in the playoffs—Fitch gets full mileage out of seven men who average between 10 and 16 points. And this does not include the veteran center, Thurmond, or the whippet guard, Foots Walker, both of whom will be key figures in the first series against Washington.
Cavalier detractors point out that it takes poise, concentration and experience to survive the whirlpool of the playoffs, but Fitch says his team is mature "in the way of unselfishness. It's a young team with the attitudes of an old one." Above all, the Cavs may possess more talent than anybody. And look what inexperience and talent did for Golden State in last year's whirlpool. "Sure I think they can win," says the Bullets' Wes Unseld. "Cleveland is like the old Knicks. They shoot from outside, run their plays well and don't let you fast-break."
The series between Cleveland and Washington should be the best of the opening-round matchups. The Cavs beat the Bullets 4-2 during the season and should win again if Thurmond supports Chones enough to wear down Unseld, who has had big rebounding nights against Cleveland, and if the fleet Walker aids Jim Cleamons enough in tiring out Dave Bing.
With Elvin Hayes, Leonard (Truck) Robinson and Phil Chenier, the Bullets would seem to have an edge at the other positions. Yet the Cavs' Jim Brewer out-rebounds Hayes, Bingo Smith has been effective hitting baseline jumpers on Robinson and Dick Snyder seems to neutralize Chenier with his own offense.
Since Washington's vastly improved Truck convoyed himself from a substitute's role to that of a star, the Bullet bench has become inoffensive. The backup guards are old and slow, Nick Weatherspoon has been in and out of Coach K. C. Jones' doghouse and not much has been heard from Mike Riordan since he headlocked Rick Barry last May.
For their part, the Cavs can throw the explosive Carr and Russell as well as Thurmond and Walker at the Bullets and stand fresher at the end. Having both depth and the home-court advantage, that is what the Cavs probably will do as they advance to the Eastern final.
With the best record in the East, the Celtics must wait for Philadelphia and Buffalo to have at one another in what should be an exhausting mini-series. This one is best-of-three, you shoot-me shoot, oley-oley-in-free stuff. The 76ers have the home-court advantage and the more intimidating crowd. Pointing up the trend toward home-court dominance, the 76ers were 34-7 in Philly and 12-29 away from the friendly confines of the Spectrum. As Coach Gene Shue admits, "We really have not become a team."
What the 76ers have become is a veritable time bomb on offense, featuring George McGinnis inside and Doug Collins and Fred (Mad Dog) Carter outside. The team does not guard anybody and it is stuck with a center named Harvey (Catchings) who, like the rabbit, is well-nigh invisible. But Philadelphia should beat Buffalo anyway, simply by letting Bob McAdoo get his 80-90 points a game and working hard to contain the outstanding guard, Randy Smith, and the rest of the Braves.
The 76er bench is superior to that of the Braves because of Guard Lloyd (Born) Free and Clyde (Died) Lee. Besides doing a good job in relief, Free hurls more banana balls than even the Mad Dog, and Lee falls down a lot, making the 76ers a bunch of laughs to watch.
McGinnis had a splendid record in ABA playoff competition and there is no reason to believe he has forgotten how. He and McAdoo became fast friends late in the season, but if Philly gets in against Boston, amity will not be involved.
Back on March 20, McGinnis collided with the Celtics' Paul Silas and suffered torn knee cartilage. (He is well now.) Surely the incident had nothing to do with Silas' earlier criticism that McGinnis was a "hot-dog player" who turns on for the crowd. Still, there is no love lost here. This would be Boston-Philadelphia, remember. Shadows of Russell-Chamberlain; Sixer announcer Dave Zinkoff versus Celtic championship banners. Crowd hostility. Blood. Fun.
Boston would be heavily favored. Though it is not an overpowering Celtic team, playoff opponents must remember that Boston is sitting there like a wounded old lion who never forgets. "We know how it felt getting beat by the Bullets last year," says John Havlicek. "I like us knowing that. I like our chances."
Meanwhile, the great backcourt experiment of Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White is having mixed results when Scott insists on firing his 40-foot prayers up there and then cussing out the referees; Scott's mouth may be quicker than his hands.
Celtic depth is a question mark. Coach Tom Heinsohn sat Forward Don Nelson down earlier this season before realizing he was the only scorer left on the bench. While Kevin Stacom and Glenn McDonald both lean toward defense, Jim Ard just leans.
Against the 76ers, Boston likes to start Havlicek on McGinnis, then come in with Silas for muscle. McGinnis doesn't bother the Celtics as much as Doug Collins does. Nevertheless, the series should turn on Dave Cowens' ability to dominate Philly. In competition between the teams, the marvelous Cowens averaged 24 points and 18 rebounds. Catchings just can't catch him.
When the Eastern survivor—probably Boston over either Cleveland or Washington—stumbles into the finals, the Golden State Warriors are almost certain to be waiting. That is, if the defending champions can stay awake long enough to dispatch their rivals in the West.
At one point early in the season Golden State was actually behind Los Angeles in the standings. Then Abdul-Jabbar appeared to lose interest ("I don't know what's going on around here. I just show up and shoot hook shots," he told Ted Green of the Los Angeles Times). Eventually there came a night when the Warriors outscored the Lakers 108-61 in less than three quarters and—presto—total boredom for Al Attles and his crew.
The truth is the Warriors have maybe the best forward in the game in Rick Barry, the absolute best guard in Phil Smith and the best team concept, team concepts being 12-headed these days.
Golden State has amused itself during its runaway season by falling behind in games, chopping away at leads and ultimately overcoming. Which is exactly the way the team won championship rings last spring by beating Washington four straight.
"Their patience is amazing," says Attles. "It's one thing to tell them to get one basket at a time. But they believe it and they do it. I guarantee I don't teach them to fall behind."
The newly coiffured Barry's scoring is way down, but he might be the best-passing big man who ever lived and he has shown why this season. Smith, who has speed, touch and the versatility to be a superb play leader as well as defender, is "in the same class as Jerry West," according to teammate Jeff Mullins.
Golden State's first victim will be a fugitive from the NBA Midwest, or dodo division—either Milwaukee or Detroit. These two nonachievers first must battle each other for the right to, as Fonzie might say, "sit on it."
Milwaukee is 0-5 against Golden State, having blown one 31-point lead. Detroit likewise is 0-5 versus the champions, having become nothing so much as an answer in a trivia quiz. Namely, what team fired a black head coach, hired the Jewish brother of an ABA white head coach and became the only Western team to make the playoffs three years in a row? Zzzzzzzzzz. The Pistons and Bucks finished a combined eight games below .500 and have about as much right in this tournament as Walter Matthau's Bad News Bears.
On the other hand, Phoenix and Seattle earned their spurs in a tense final month in which they both outlasted Los Angeles. The teams' offenses are built around pivotmen Alvan Adams, the Suns' Rookie of the Year, and Tom Burleson of the Sonics. But for scoring Phoenix and Seattle depend mainly on Paul Westphal and Fred Brown, respectively, shooting from outside.
This series features Sun strength at forward against Sonic speed at guard. But a Seattle plus (steals) happens to fit very neatly with a Phoenix minus (turnovers).
"Slick Watts unsettles our defense," says Phoenix Coach John MacLeod, "and all the Sonics have learned to move at his pace." Basketball's answer to Kojak, the bald Watts concluded a season in which he became the first man to lead the league in steals and assists; he could be the difference against Phoenix.
With powerful Leonard Gray healthy, Seattle might have a chance against Golden State. But Gray was lost in late March (another knee), leaving Burleson and Mike Bantom to battle the two Warrior centers, Clifford Ray and George Johnson.
Golden State beat Seattle in the playoffs last year as Jamaal Wilkes throttled Spencer Haywood. Without Haywood, the Sonics are better. "We're the team who can beat Golden State," says Slick. "We can really cook 'em." But with Barry, Smith, Wilkes and all the rest, the Warriors are better still, though Seattle Assistant Coach Bob Hopkins can still dream. "We can create more problems for the Warriors," he says. "It's just the way we match up. We'd be kind of like Michigan in the NCAA finals against Indiana. It was no disgrace for Michigan to lose to Indiana."
Right. By 18 points. It should not be a disgrace for Seattle to lose to Golden State. Or for Boston. Or for Cleveland. Or for Washington again. Unwittingly, Hopkins may have given the champion Warriors something finally to aim for in the season that is about to begin.
Golden State was truly devastating during the regular season. But, after all, Indiana went undefeated.