As the Dick Motta, Dick Motta show opens the fall season for the first time in Washington, can the pampered Bullets find happiness with a tough guy? If Cleveland is for real, will the Cavaliers survive the Fitch-Mileti feud? Will the wedding of Pistol Pete and Gatling Gail breed a bouncing winner in New Orleans? Can Tom Nissalke turn those nice young men from Houston into a bunch of muggers? Even with San Antonio unleashing all that new ABA talent, will the Central Division become another Alamo? Is Atlanta still in Georgia?
In Scene 1 Motta arrives in the capital as part of the shuttle that brought nine coaching changes to the league, four of them to this geographically ungainly division, which now spans the 1,559 miles between the banks of the Potomac and South Texas. Fired after a dismal 24-58 season with the Chicago Bulls, the fiery Motta replaces K. C. Jones, a quiet and gentle man with a three-year record of 155-91. Jones' sin: finishing second to less talented Cleveland last season in the division and then losing to them in the first round of the playoffs.
It will be Motta's chore to awaken the talented Bullets from the complacency that lulled them to eight defeats in their last 12 regular-season games. Washington's springtime slide carried over into the playoffs, reduced the Bullets' dreaded fast break to a crawl and allowed Cleveland to win—four games to three—though scoring fewer than 90 points in three-quarters of their victories. Exit the taciturn tactician K. C. Jones.
"I'm not going in with my six-guns drawn," says Motta, who has never been known to own a pair of velvet gloves. "I'm not going to pound my chest and say this is the way we are going to do things. There is a lot I have to learn about these players, and there is a lot they have to learn about me. But they are no strangers to me. I've seen them play. I've competed against them. I've hated them."
October 24, 1976
Those whom Motta once hated are very much still there: Elvin Hayes and Len (Truck) Robinson, the forwards; Wes Unseld, solid and stoic at center; Dave Bing and Phil Chenier, the sharp-shooting guards. It is a team that lives and dies with the fast break. In contrast Motta is a coach who lived and died at Chicago with the slow, patterned offense.
Motta, who has shown unexpected adaptability, says, "I love to fast-break. I always did it in college. But at Chicago, how could I? The Bullets will run. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of Unseld's great outlet passing. I look at the Bullets like I would a 73 golfer. All the Bullets need is a little improvement to win four, five, six more games."
At the moment the battle between Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch and Owner Nick Mileti has cooled, mainly because there is nothing like winning to repair ruptured egos. Should the Cavs pick up where they left off last season—taking the heavily favored Boston Celtics to six games in the NBA Eastern finals—Mileti may even forgive Fitch's attempted desertion to Los Angeles in the final weeks of the season.
Defense was the spur to Cleveland's sudden and unexpected success. While finishing next to last in the league in scoring (101.7 per game), the Cavs were second only to Chicago in points allowed (99.2).
Strangely, the one area in which the Cavs are strongest is in the backcourt, where Jim Cleamons, the team quarterback, is just reaching his peak at 27, and Dick Snyder continues to be one of the best pure shooting guards in the league. And Fitch lost little when he went to Austin Carr (his comeback successful after two knee operations), and Foots Walker, who supplied the spark and speed from the bench. And so, of course, the Cavs' first-draft choices were guards: Chuckie Williams of Kansas State and Mo Howard of Maryland.
Thanks to the unselfish tutelage of Nate Thurmond, ABA castoff Jimmy Chones has emerged as a solid center. And with Thurmond still around to add maturity and leavening to the Cavs, Fitch can be assured that there will be no dropoff in intensity of play when Chones repairs to the sideline. "Thurmond made this ball club," says Fitch simply.
For points from up front, there are Bingo Smith and the ever-improving Campy Russell, and for muscle there is Jim Brewer. Last season Fitch won by sending his Cavs at the enemy in waves. Going into the playoffs, Cleveland's top scorer was Chones (15.8). The Cavs made up for their lack of a superstar with seven players in double figures. To repeat, they'll need every bit of that again.
The new lad on the block—if you can call trips to Cleveland (1,404 miles), Washington (1,559) and Atlanta (983) down the street—is San Antonio, one of the ABA Four, and a lot stronger than most NBA oldtimers expect.
The Spurs will be coming in with a new coach, former Denver assistant Doug Moe, who is an advocate of the pressure defense and a fast-breaking offense. And Moe has got the studs to work with. For openers, up front there is Larry Kenon, a powerful 6'9" ex-New York Net who averaged 11 rebounds and 18.7 points; and George Gervin, a 6'7" All-Star, who averaged 21.8 points. Billy Paultz, another ex-Net, should be more mobile at center now that he has pared down to a svelte 240. The backcourt is well supplied with James Silas, another All-Star; muscular Mike Gale, a 6'4" defensive specialist; and seven-time All-Star Louie Dampier, late of Kentucky, in reserve. If Moe can teach that crew to play defense, it will make all those long trips worthwhile.
At one point the irrepressible Butch van Breda Kolff was predicting no less than an 81-1 season for his New Orleans Jazz. But that was before Sidney Wicks, supposedly en route from Portland in a straight cash deal, elected not to report. Still, the Jazz now have the extraordinary services of Gail Goodrich, another free shooter, and if he and Pete Maravich discover they can work together in the same backcourt, well, things should be super in the Super Dome.
Goodrich is no stranger to being paired with another fine ball-handling guard. For most of his time with the Lakers, the guy on the other side was a dribbler named Jerry West. Butch's first worry is to get his stars healthy. Goodrich has been suffering from an Achilles tendon injury, and Maravich, seldom healthy before the season opens, this time discovered a pinched nerve in his neck.
After two nonproductive seasons under Johnny Egan, Houston finally went to the trade mart in an effort to escape the dreariness of seasons like 41-41 and 40-42. First off, they replaced Egan with Tom Nissalke, formerly of Seattle, Dallas, San Antonio and Utah.
Nissalke inherits a wingding shooting team, which last season averaged 106.2 points a game. The Rockets' problem was that they gave up 107. Being charitable, Nissalke said the Rockets played a soft defense; in the last three years only one Rocket has ever been involved in a fight. The lone battler was Calvin Murphy, the 5'9" guard who has suffered no worse than a draw against some of the giants of the league.
From the ABA, the Rockets picked up five-year veteran Tom Owens, who is expected to push Kevin Kunnert at center, and added Dwight Jones, a part-time swingman up front from Atlanta. But their best move was to use their No. 1 pick in the whole NBA draft to take John Lucas, the All-America guard from Maryland. "John will step in and play," Nissalke says. "He's got great floor sense and he directs a team. He and Scott May were the only players in the draft with no weakness."
Until the owners stop sitting on their money, nothing will help Atlanta, not even bringing in Hubie Brown as the coaching replacement for Cotton Fitzsimmons. Desperate for a center, the Hawks had chances for good big men in both the college draft and the ABA dispersal draft—and both times opted for less costly guards. With an attitude like that, they deserve what they get.
Which can be nothing. A year ago they drafted David Thompson and Marvin Webster and lost both to Denver in a one-sided bidding contest. In this year's college draft they had the No. 1 pick and traded their draft rights to Houston for 6'10" Joe Meriweather, a forward-center in his rookie year. Then they used their other first-round pick (No. 9) to choose Guard Armond Hill of Princeton. In the ABA dispersal draft, with such big men as Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas and Marvin Barnes available, Atlanta traded its No. 2 pick to Portland and got in return All-Star Geoff Petrie, yet another guard.
With the additions of Petrie and Hill, the return of injured veteran Tom Henderson, plus rookie Ken Charles from the L.A. summer league, the Hawks have guards aplenty. Forward is another matter. John Drew can be erratic. Lou Hudson has never been the leader Atlanta hoped for, but Bill Willoughby played creditably last year as the youngest man in the league. In all, it should be another long season for Atlanta.