The Atlantic Division is the only division in pro anything to feature, simultaneously, two defending world champions. Interesting—an accident of history that won't happen again. Unhappily for the Celtics and the Nets, no championship of any kind—not even one—is likely to come their way again this year. Too bad, Dave. Tough luck, Doctor. The problem is Philadelphia.
The 76ers have the kind of team that keeps general managers off Gelusil: five good guards! Four good forwards! Three centers! The joy of it all widens Coach Gene Shue's smile every day, and when asked about things he says, "Fan-tas-tic!" Actually, all he will concede publicly is that this team is better than the one he inherited three years ago. Then his word was "Fabulous!" Shue never has been known to be pessimistic.
Last year Philadelphia was blessed by the arrival of George McGinnis. This time the newcomer is Caldwell Jones, the 7'1" ABA survivor who was headed from St. Louis to the 76ers eventually anyway but has now arrived a year earlier than expected. There are ABA coaches who will tell you that Jones was the best center in the league—some nights. "I don't put none of these NBA guys on pedestals," Jones says. "I'm motivated." If he isn't, he can listen for the footsteps of two-year veteran Harvey Catchings, the league's fourth-best shotblocker, and 19-year-old Darryl Dawkins, whose strength from a massive 6'11½", 245-pound frame has been compared, if somewhat optimistically, to Wilt Chamberlain's.
The strength of Jones, particularly in the low post, will afford McGinnis a chance to operate near the basket, where he is close to unstoppable. The other cornerman is burly Steve Mix, who can run, score, rebound and intimidate. Billy Cunningham, at 33, tried gamely but failed to come back from a devastating knee injury. Backup strength is there: 6'10" Joe Bryant, rookie Terry Furlow and ex-Virginia Squire Mel Bennett.
October 24, 1976
The backcourt is young and experienced, a rare combination. The old man, Fred Carter, is 31 with seven NBA years behind him and, apparently, a new attitude; Doug Collins, despite his new Little Orphan Annie hairstyle, is one of the best running guards around; and there is quick Henry Bibby, ex-New York, ex-New Orleans.
The Celtics approached the new season like bears coming out of hibernation, still feeling the strain of winning last year's NBA final over Phoenix. But when their General Manager Red Auerbach thumbed his nose at the Celtic "family" tradition and treated John Havlicek and Paul Silas like a couple of ingrates during contract negotiations, they became ill-tempered. Growled one Celtic, "John could have taken a million four years ago and gone to the ABA." Said another, of Silas, "All he did was win us two championships in three years."
Then, with Hondo signed but Silas still out, Auerbach landed 6'9" Sidney Wicks, the All-Star forward-center from Portland, and the Celtics felt better. Wicks had bounced from Portland to New Orleans and back again, refusing to sign because he wanted "to play with a winner. Like Los Angeles." Los Angeles?
Now Wicks could have his winner. Boston starts Silas, Havlicek and Dave Cowens up front, Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott in the backcourt, the same five that played nearly every minute of last year's championship series. Wicks comes in, joining Silas and Cowens on a front line that could move out the Minnesota Vikings, and Havlicek moves to guard, where he preserves his precious legs, and allows Scott to sit down before his ninth personal foul. Then Cowens sits down and luxuriates while Wicks, the best backup he's ever had, moves to center.
The only questions are whether Silas will do his part by signing and how far Boston can go with six players, even six this good. Steve Kuberski can play some forward, but Glenn McDonald, at times brilliant, is mostly inconsistent. In the backcourt the problem is thorny even with Havlicek putting in more time. Kevin Stacom has tried to help for three years, but the Celtics haven't had a good off-the-bench guard since they traded Paul Westphal.
"The Knicks will be back by hook or by crook." So prophesied one NBA general manager. The crook method cost them a first-round draft choice (for trying to steal McGinnis last year), and so far the hook has only caught them a small forward, not the big center they need. Buffalo sold them Forward Jim McMillian, a quintessential Red Holzman player who is an updated version of Bill Bradley: smart, quick, good defense, and he'll hit a million in a row from the corner. The backcourt will be no problem if Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Butch Beard stay healthy. Frazier had an abysmal year, missing 23 games with one malady or another, prompting some to suggest that Clyde was shot. "Maybe I am," he said in straightface. "I'm olllld. I'm tired." Monroe, who simply gets better as he gets older, just laughed. "This year we make the playoffs. I can assure you." Not without a center, though. Well, the Knicks think they have found the new Willis Reed. At 6'8", 240, rookie Lonnie Shelton of Oregon State looks enough like the old captain. The question is, can he play like him? And if so, when? Until Shelton proves himself, Holzman is determined to convert 6'8" Spencer Haywood to the center position he has always abhorred. Which means that Haywood must take a crash course in passing, picking and boarding, skills heretofore absent from his repertoire, and Holzman must come up with another forward. Phil Jackson and Bradley are now strictly backups. If Haywood doesn't work out and Shelton is no miracle man, Eddie Donovan will be back at the telephone—mostly calling dial-a-prayer.
Since the Knicks have McMillian, Buffalo doesn't, and now that the Braves' last link to calm and steady basketball is gone, watch out. Coach Jack Ramsay was sent on his way by peripatetic Owner Paul Snyder—basketball's answer to Charlie Finley—who also got rid of Guards Ken Charles and Bobby Weiss and swingman Dick Gibbs. In June, Snyder nearly had the Braves moved to Hollywood, Fla., and in July sold half the team to John Y. Brown, the former owner of the Kentucky Colonels—and the ABA's answer to Paul Snyder.
When the smoke cleared, new Coach Tates Locke looked out and saw what he had: three prolific point producers, a big forward and a pudgy guard. Not much more. Forward Bob McAdoo and Guard Randy Smith combined for 53 points a game last year. This year, without McMillian, they could hit 60. McMillian was unloaded to make room for 6'5" rookie Forward Adrian Dantley, who averaged 30 points the last two seasons at Notre Dame. Switching with McAdoo between the pivot and the corner is big (6'9") Forward John Shumate, a second-year man and Dantley's old Irish teammate. Shumate was sensational in the playoffs after arriving in midseason. Locke will use Shumate defensively against the big centers—as much as anything to keep McAdoo out of foul trouble. Ernie DiGregorio is back as a starting guard, but Locke does not like his defense and erratic offense, and will look closely at the whippet, former Colonel Bird Averitt, and Claude Terry from Denver.
If the merger was a sugarplum for the three other ex-ABA teams, it turned out to be a poisoned apple for the Nets, who just four months ago were sipping champagne. Since then Owner Roy Boe has been like a man sinking in quicksand. Even before Julius Erving realized he was the single most valuable commodity in the new NBA and decided to make Boe pay, money problems forced him to deal off three players who had a hand in the championship. The best defensive guard, Brian Taylor, and Jim Eakins, the strong backup center, went to Kansas City for the colorful Tiny Archibald. Ted McCain, the next best defensive guard, was sent to Denver. Boe said he had made the deal with Nugget President Carl Scheer in return for Scheer's promise to help ease the Nets' $4 million indemnity owed the Knicks. The preseason without Erving was difficult: in the backcourt Archibald was operating without the Nets' singular offensive weapon to get the ball to; John Williamson seemed uneasy without the ball; and Al Skinner was not reacting well to the pressure of being the team's top defensive guard. Up front in Erving's spot, Jan van Breda Kolff, a skinny defensive forward from Kentucky, did not seem to fit opposite either Rich Jones or Tim Bassett. Kim Hughes, who can play, was sharing center with ex-Muskie-Pacer-Sound-Claw Mel Daniels, who used to play. At one point the Nets were carrying six centers.
"Adjusting," says Williamson. "We'll be doing that for a while. Adjusting to Tiny. Adjusting when the Doc gets back." With or without Erving, there are two things to be said about the Nets: they would not be the first team to finish last after winning a title. The Syracuse Nats did that in 1956. And Roy Boe may have himself the most colorful last-place team in basketball.