There are two sure things in the Atlantic Division: Philadelphia will finish on top and the Nets at the bottom. It's the middle that's muddled. The Knicks might even climb over Boston into second place; that old Celtic magic is losing its zing. And in Buffalo the new owner is trying to do for the Braves what he did for fried chicken.
A current Philadelphia television commercial peddling 76er season tickets ends with Julius Erving saying, "We owe you one. We owe you one." The Dr. is not given to making idle promises, and if he is implying that he will be responsible for bringing the NBA title to Philadelphia, well, who is going to stop him? Now that the Sixers' tragicomic "almost" season is history, Erving's teammates should realize that they alone can stop Erving. The Dr.'s 30.3 average in the 4-2 final playoff series against Portland—40 points in the last game—proves that other teams cannot. So what can the 76ers do to mend their fractious ways? Given the brilliance of Guard Doug Collins, the steady control and defense of Henry Bibby, the muscle of Steve Mix, the amazing shooting and jumping of Lloyd Free—the finger falls on two men.
One is Forward George McGinnis, and he knows it. His quite understandable struggle with Erving for control of the team last year turned destructive. The Sixers became notorious for their junior high antics in practice, best symbolized by McGinnis sneaking cigarettes while the team ran fast-break drills. He half expected to be traded but, as Coach Gene Shue says, "Apparently there wasn't as much interest in our players as some of them thought." This year McGinnis reported to camp 11 pounds slimmer at 237, in shape for a change. If he concentrates on picking and rebounding and shooting in moderation—a lesson he may have learned after a thorough whipping by Portland's Maurice Lucas in the playoffs—the 76ers will be playing for another championship next spring.
October 31, 1977
The other main man is 20-year-old, 6'11" Darryl (Black Jack) Dawkins, with a clean-shaven scalp and a gold ring in his left ear. "I'm the black Kojak," he says. Dawkins took off 10 pounds—he is now a wispy 250—had his hair removed with "magic shaving powder" and has reasonable hopes of becoming the regular center, displacing Caldwell Jones and causing Harvey Catchings to be shifted to strong forward. Says General Manager Pat Williams, "If Darryl just whetted our palates last year, if he's ready to make that a night-to-night reality, that's the difference between being good and being great." Dawkins made his presence felt in preseason. He collided with Erving and put the Dr. out through the opening game with a strained knee. It could have been worse. "He could have fallen on me," said the Doc.
Late last season, after the Knicks' latest series of desperate moves had failed to get them into the playoffs. Red Holzman threw up his hands in disgust and said, "Maybe it's time for a new man to run this team." Was he implying that the newest savior, Bob McAdoo, was uncoachable? Was he tired of Spencer Haywood's eternal injuries? Did he think Jim McMillian's jumper was never coming back? Had he had enough of Walt Frazier's sulk act? Whatever, Holzman is gone and the problems belong to new Coach Willis Reed. Or most of them.
The Knicks' old captain bulled into the job declaring that the party was over. At training camp players roomed in pairs and ate team meals. They practiced twice a day and ran laps right into exhibition season. Then, after a summer-long search for a deal for Frazier, the Knicks found one. They signed 28-year-old free agent Guard Jim Cleamons, a superb playmaker and defender for five years at Cleveland, and sent 32-year-old Clyde to the Cavaliers as compensation. "I feel terrible for Clyde," said his Knick backcourt mate, Earl Monroe, "but I have to admit it will be good for the team." "I will not try to replace Frazier," said Cleamons solemnly.
But the very day old Clyde left, the new Clyde arrived: Guard Ray Williams from Minnesota, the first-round draft choice, who even looks like Frazier did as a rookie. Williams is 6'3" and super-quick. In his first exhibition games Williams scored 16 points against Boston, then 22 against the Nets. He should make the Garden crowd forget Eugene Short, Mel Davis and Tom Riker, who happen to be the Knicks' last three first-round draftees. With Williams, Cleamons and Monroe—who ages like fine wine—plus the steady Butch Beard, the Knicks' backcourt may be as strong as it was in those magical years of 1970 and 1973.
Reed's very presence should go a long way toward convincing McAdoo and Haywood, now healthy, to learn to play forward and maybe even some defense, and he can at least hope that McMillian finds his shot. Second-year Center Lonnie Shelton played in all 82 games last year and is Reed's personal protégé. There is plenty of depth up front with Tom McMillen, the practically ageless Phil Jackson and rookies Toby Knight of Notre Dame and Glen Gondrezik of UNLV. Says Jackson, "It's rather odd. We've got a lot of hungry players here."
Boston waited until opening night to resign Sidney Wicks, but even with Wicks impersonating a Celtic strong forward, this team is still weak, lacking an adequate backup center and sufficient help in the corners. Dave Cowens once looked left and right and saw Paul Silas, or Don Nelson, or a vibrant John Havlicek. Now he sees Wicks, or Curtis Rowe, or Fred Saunders, or Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell. Can you imagine Cowens, fire in his eyes, yelling, "Watch the pick, Cornbread!"
Some people think Cowens bolted the Celtics a year too soon. He says he will take no more unscheduled leaves. "I feel good, how about you?" he says to anyone who asks. He took a less active role in his network of summer camps that so consumed him last year, made a trip to Japan, attended the weddings of two of his brothers, did some light farming in Kentucky and installed seven Nautilus weight machines in his Wellesley apartment, on which he enjoys "relaxing" workouts. Unfortunately, the Celtics have no one better than Jim Ard or Tom Boswell to relieve him, a situation that forced Cowens to average 42 minutes in Boston's nine playoff games.
Havlicek is back (of course) to play small forward and some guard for his 16th season in his 38th year. He joined the team late, after an appendectomy and some fishing, and in his first exhibition game ran all over Philadelphia like a rookie. He still has a bad knee, which flared up at times last year, so he will need help, and the only source of that is Saunders, whom Boston rescued from free agency last year.
The Celtics used Wicks, unsigned, last season at strong forward, but when Sidney demanded a salary in the $250,000 range Boston told him where to go. Now he is back, along with Rowe, Boswell and the rookie Maxwell, a sensation in last year's NCAA playoffs with UNC-Charlotte.
Desperate is not too strong a word for how Boston felt about the guard position until the Celtics pulled one of the year's steals and signed a "retired" Dave Bing to relieve Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott. The 33-year-old Bing quit the Washington Bullets after sitting on the bench last year. "It was an insult to me," he says. White has painful heel spurs, Scott can still get into foul trouble, and reserve Kevin Stacom has yet to fulfill his promise, so Bing will surely get plenty of time. "Don't anybody think Dave Bing can't play," he says.
The Buffalo Cookie Monster took the money and ran, leaving the Braves a smoldering 30-52. That would be Paul Snyder, erstwhile Nabisco king, famed for selling Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Tom McMillen and Moses Malone in a single season. He sold his share of the club to John Y. Brown, onetime Kentucky Fried Chicken baron and ABA president, who—quick as you can get an order of extra-crispy—built the Braves back up again.
First he re-signed All-Star Guard Randy Smith, who had threatened to jump ship. Then he traded the Braves' first-round draft pick (No. 3 overall) to Milwaukee for Center Swen Nater, a bruiser, but unproven in the NBA. He let Guard Ernie DiGregorio go to Los Angeles.
Next in one day Brown traded Rookie-of-the-Year Forward Adrian Dantley to Indiana for Forward Billy Knight, the NBA's No. 2 scorer last season, and four hours later he sent Center George Johnson and a 1979 first-round draft pick to the Nets for Guard Tiny Archibald. So with Smith, Knight, Nater, Archibald and Forward John Shumate, the Braves had a respectable starting five—until Archibald tore the Achilles tendon of his right foot in an exhibition against Detroit and was down for the season. This left ABA veteran Chuck Williams, rookie Larry Johnson (Kentucky) and veteran Ted (Hound) McClain to fill Archibald's not-so-tiny shoes. Along the way, Brown somehow remembered to hire a coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, ex-Phoenix, ex-Atlanta. Where will these Braves be a year from now? A bad guess is Buffalo. If the Braves fall below 4,500 season tickets—they're now at 2,300—Brown has the right to take them out of town. The smart money is on either Hollywood, Fla. or Dallas.
Where—and who—are the Nets? It is not true that the Nets offered to sign any player who could locate Piscataway on a map of New Jersey. That is where the Nets will play this season and next—on the Rutgers campus, where they will likely be the second-best team. The NBA should grant them a leave of absence while their new home is being built in the Hackensack Meadowlands. Maybe by that time No. 1 draft pick Bernard King, the 6'7" inside terror from Tennessee, will be a superstar and they will have filled the rest of their roster with players.
New Jersey will just be another stop for three of the guards who will join veteran Al Skinner. Bird Averitt, Dave Wohl and Bubbles Hawkins have played on 11 different teams. Hawkins, who didn't do at all badly last year with a 19.3 average after being retrieved from the Detroit City Courthouse, where he almost went to work handing out summonses, finally signed after an initial request for a two-year, $200,000 no-cut. "Is he kidding?" asked GM Bill Melchionni.
The Nets made a modest improvement in their frontcourt, which—with the potentially great King—only underscores how bad it was. Center George Johnson, from Buffalo, joins free agent Bob Carrington and Kim Hughes, who averaged seven rebounds and shot 27% from the foul line in 81 games. Darnell (Dr. Dunk) Hillman, from Indiana, augments a stronger, heavier Jan Van Breda Kolff and enforcer Tim Bassett. But there are sure to be many long nights in Piscataway to try Coach Kevin Loughery's patience.
In the first years of this decade, the Central Division championship seemed to be decided as soon as the Bullets' Wes Unseld cut loose with his first outlet pass. Houston and Atlanta and New Orleans would limp in behind and Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch would tell a lot of jokes. But in 1975-76 Fitch's Cavaliers turned serious and toppled Washington, and last year that much-traveled infant Moses Malone led the children of Houston to the top. This year the rejuvenated Bullets should be back, but they will have to outduel the other guys, plus San Antonio. Atlanta? No longer limping. Crawling.
Blame for the Bullets' near-hits the past two years has been laid on Unseld's troubled knees, Phil Chenier's troubling cold spells and Elvin Hayes' trouble. Or all of them. The fact is that Washington could never seem to find the right man for the small forward spot, a weakness that contributed mightily to its embarrassing washout against Golden State in the championship series of 1975 and its six-game loss to Houston in the conference semifinals last year. The answer to that problem is Bobby Dandridge, cast off at age 29 by youthful Milwaukee, but still a first-rate scorer who will fit in well opposite Hayes in Dick Motta's running game. In fact Motta states unabashedly that "Dandridge is the key to our championship hopes." Says Dandridge, "Here there's a beautiful mixture of youth and experience."
The experience part of the equation is clear enough. Chenier at 27 can still shoot the picture jumper, though he is troubled by a chronic back problem; Unseld, now 31, is slimmed down, moving better and working harder than he has in years. The youth on the Bullets is what will stir things up. Mitch Kupchak, listed at 6'9" as a rookie out of North Carolina a year ago, played all three frontcourt positions—including Unseld's center spot—with furious intensity, leading the team in floor burns and making a strong bid for Rookie of the Year. When Kupchak-at-center forced Unseld to play small forward, Wes fumed, "It's tough to rebound from 20 feet away." This year the Bullets list Kupchak as two inches taller and claim he is stronger, and center is his best position. "I don't care about starting," he says, "but I want to play 40 minutes a game." Says Unseld, "Whatever they do it's their business, but I'm not going to be happy losing any minutes." Motta, of course, loves the competition.
Even when Chenier is fit, there is competition in the backcourt as well. Tom Henderson, the other starter, finished fifth in the NBA in assists after arriving from Atlanta in the Truck Robinson trade. And second-year man Larry Wright, starting for a spell in January, led the Bullets on a 12-4 tear. The draft yielded another shooter, Phil Walker, from Millersville (Pa.) State.
That leaves the enigma of Hayes, who always scores (23.7 last year) but fades at crucial times in the playoffs. Said one Bullet, "We just don't know when he's going to go to sleep." That isn't the happiest sort of attitude to start a season with, but Motta insists on optimism. The young bloods on the team will energize Elvin, he thinks, especially Kupchak, who could steal anyone's job. "We've got the horses," Motta gloats, "and we're going to use them."
Motta will need horses, and so will everyone else, if Houston is to be dethroned. The Rockets not only won their first division title but also had their first winning season (49-33) since they entered the league. They went all the way to the conference finals, against Philadelphia, before losing, four games to two. "Winning tastes so good to us, we intend to do it again." says Calvin Murphy.
Tom Nissalke, voted Coach of the Year in his first season with Houston, modestly claims that the element of surprise was largely responsible for the team's success. "We went for 10 or 15 games where no one scouted us," he says. "We snuck up on a lot of people because no one was prepared for a lineup with our big guys." Maybe no one had a lineup that could stop the big guys: 6'8" Rudy Tomjanovich, 7' Center Kevin Kunnert and 6'10" Moses Malone. The big guys are why the Rockets were outrebounded only 12 times during the 82-game regular season.
The indispensable man in that combination is Malone. Embraced by Nissalke after first Portland then Buffalo dumped him last season, Malone responded by setting an NBA record with 437 offensive rebounds, averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots per game. And Malone's work at forward gave new confidence to fifth-year man Kunnert, who had wept openly after being booed by the Houston fans early in the season. Nissalke had thrown the two big men into a fight for the center job.
But Nissalke is concerned that his tall lineup may also be too slow, so he will use the 6'5" Kamikaze character Mike Newlin, at small forward to split open defenses, not to mention a few skulls. This leaves the back-court in the capable hands of Murphy and lefty John Lucas, the only second-year lead guard in the league who is treated with seven-year man respect. They are backed up by third-year man Rudy White when he recovers from a broken toe.
Another forward who can break in is 6'9" rookie Larry Moffett out of UNLV, especially if Ed Ratleff is slow to recover from a ruptured disk. "I guess there'll be no surprises this year," says Nissalke. The only surprise will be if the Rockets don't fly.
"Fly" was once a popular jive word used to describe Walt Frazier when he was living high in New York and helping lead the Knicks to two world championships. That was before all the misery and derision from three losing seasons fell heavily on Frazier and ended New York's love affair with Clyde. Now Clyde will be doing his flying in Cleveland, sent there by the Knicks for last year's Cav playmaker Jim Cleamons.
At 32, Frazier is in good shape and still may call up another splendid year or two. In the Cavalier backcourt he teams up with quality youngsters like Foots Walker, a quick penetrator, rookie Ed Jordan and veterans Austin Carr and Dick Snyder. At forward Cleveland has 6'8" Campy Russell, still trembling on the verge of stardom after three seasons, Bingo Smith, bruiser Jim Brewer and Terry Furlow, who can also play guard. In the middle are Jim Chones, now a solid center, and the sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful. Elmore Smith.
Frazier at first was stunned by the idea of leaving the Big Apple, then said diplomatically, "Cleveland isn't New York, but I'm more concerned with being on a winning team."
San Antonio should have no trouble scoring, but keeping the other team from scoring more will present a problem. The schizoid Spurs averaged 115 points a game but allowed 114.4—first in offense and last in defense. And they easily led the league in crazy fans. The Spurs went 44-38, finished third in the division and made the playoffs, losing 2-0 in the first round to Boston.
"How'd we do it?" says Coach Doug Moe. "We just ran." They might have been even better but for the absence of Guard James Silas, who missed 60 games after knee surgery. "Maybe the best guard in the game and the NBA still hasn't seen him," says Moe. In his first game on returning, Silas scored 28 points against Denver. The next day he couldn't walk. This year he reported healthy, but after four days the knee flared up and Silas was rushed to a specialist.
Without him, Moe will again be forced to use 6'7" All-Star George (Iceman) Gervin (23.1 points a game) in the backcourt, along with Mike Gale and the ageless Louis Dampier. The starting forwards are powerful Mark Olberding and graceful Larry Kenon, who averaged 21.9 points and set an NBA record last year with 11 steals in a single game. Center Billy Paultz had a down year so Moe picked up free agent Jim Eakins. Even if the Spurs don't improve, their home-court edge will as soon as renovations are completed in the HemisFair Arena. That will increase its capacity from 10,000 to 16,000 crazies.
New Orleans has never been a factor in its three years in the NBA. At least this year the Jazz made the move that saved the franchise. That was signing Pete Maravich to a new five-year contract, lucrative enough (reportedly $500,000 per) to persuade the Pistol to finish his career playing virtuoso solos with a high school band. Maravich proved last season that he is the best guard on the planet, leading the NBA in scoring with 31.1 points a game, and in one dizzying, not-soon-to-be-forgotten night, hitting 26 of 43 from the floor for 68 points against the Knicks. So much for the Pistol, but what about his sidemen?
Leonard (Truck) Robinson, a formidable strong forward, comes from Atlanta as a free agent, with Ron Behagen going to the Hawks as compensation. Gone too is E. C. Coleman, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, to Golden State. The starting small forward is 6'5" Nate Williams, quick and a decent shooter. Other survivors are 6'9" second-year man Paul Griffin and 6'8" Aaron James. Center Rich Kelley is second-rate, but a late deal brought Joe C. Meriweather and faint hope from Atlanta. While 34-year-old Gail Goodrich tries to come back after an Achilles tendon injury, Maravich will team up in the backcourt with Goodrich; Jim McElroy, Freddie Boyd and Gus Bailey are in reserve. All in all, a typical Jazz year. Watch the Pistol.
When Atlanta's sailorman owner Ted Turner returned home from the seas this summer, he found his coach, Hubie Brown, and his general manager, Mike Storen, at each other's throats. At issue was a botched deal with Portland for rookie Forward Rich Laurel, the loss of Truck Robinson, and Brown's accusation that Storen was trying to tap his office telephone. Storen was fired, and Brown began trying to improve a team that won only 31 games and led the league in empty seats. By the end of the preseason, he had moved 25 players through the Hawks' camp.
Kenny Charles and Armand Hill, a second—year man out of Princeton, emerged as the starting guards, but the frontcourt was a mess. Last year's center, Meriweather, was dealt to New Orleans, and his backup, Tommy Barker, walked out. That left 7'1" rookie Wayne (Tree) Rollins of Clemson and 6'9" Steve Hawes to play in the pivot. The forwards are leading scorer John Drew (24.2) and 6'7" John Brown. The backups are Ollie Johnson and Ron Behagen. Laurel, who finally signed after Brown said he had "no use for him," will play guard when he comes off the injured list. Season-ticket sales have soared past 600. If Turner can watch all this and not get ill, no wonder he can drink and sail like a champion.
All right, place your bets and get ready to sweat until April, because this year's Midwest Division race promises to be the tightest in a long history of good scraps in the heartland. Here we have Milwaukee, last year's doormat, hitting the Big Triple in the draft. There is Chicago, which was the NBA's best team in the last third of the season and might have been world champion had it not been for a bunch of upstarts from Portland. And Detroit—oh yeah, all that talent—leading the league in backstabbings and gun raps. And Kansas City, killed by a late-season injury, now featuring a fast-draw draft pick from Houston and a Space Needle from Seattle. But Indiana, what have you done? Traded away your two best players? Go to your room. And let us not forget Denver. After all, the Nuggets were the new kids who took over the neighborhood last year. Now, after some modest "housecleaning," Larry Brown's baby-faced legion looks like it can win at least an NCAA championship.
As if in penance for the Nuggets' 4-2 playoff loss to Portland and to demonstrate their new zeal for this season, David Thompson and his mini-munchkin mate Monte Towe decided to bicycle the 60 miles from Denver to their Colorado Springs training camp. They made 30 miles before giving up and finishing the trip in a car. Such is the history of the Nuggets in Coach Larry Brown's three years: strong starts and limp finishes. Last year Denver won its first eight games and closed with the league's second-best record, 50-32. But along the way the Nuggets grew tired, openly criticized Brown, and the big happy family atmosphere crumbled. As promised. Brown "backed the truck up" and cleared out the dissenters saying, "I will no longer adjust to the players. They must adjust to me." Forwards Paul Silas and Willie Wise and Center Marvin Webster were shipped off to Seattle for Center Tommy Burleson and Guard Bobby Wilkerson. Then Burleson went to Kansas City for Brian Taylor, the quick take-charge guard Brown's Nuggets have never had. The move seemed to give Denver a lineup of Bobby Jones and Thompson at forward, Dan Issel at center and the advantageous arrangement of Taylor and the 6'7" Wilkerson at guard. Except that Brown immediately started experimenting with Wilkerson at forward—an unnatural position for him—and Thompson at guard, away from the basket, where the 6'4½" flying boy does his best stuff. "I just love David at guard," says Brown. Thompson prefers the proximity of the hoop. "Ballhandling and dribbling are my strongest weaknesses," he says.
What this leaves is a lightning-quick team (with the exception of Issel), perfect for Brown's "passing game" offense. The problem, of course, is that no pure "passing game" team has won an NBA championship, and without strongmen like Silas and Webster, the Nuggets' rebounding and defense may be insufficient. The only depth is provided by rookie Center Tom LaGarde, a Tar Heel import coming off knee surgery, and rookie Forwards Bo Ellis from Marquette and Anthony Roberts out of Oral Roberts. The weakness up front was all too apparent as the Nuggets got off to an 0-3 start in preseason. And after all that cycling, poor little Monte was cut before the first exhibition.
On Washington's Birthday 1977, Chicago was a fifth-place, 24-34 club. Then the pieces—Artis Gilmore, Scott May, Mickey Johnson, Wilbur Holland, Norm Van Lier, Tom Boerwinkle, Jack Marin and John Mengelt—fell into place and the Bulls finished 20-4. The key man was the 7'2" Gilmore, who for those final two months was either center No. 1 or 1A in the NBA. Portland kept the Bulls from what might well have been a championship with a 2-1 win in the most furious playoff series of the year. Though second-year Coach Ed Badger fingered Captain Van Lier for the loss and spent the summer trying to trade the tough-playing guard, Stormin' Norman is back—with a raise. So are the rest of the Bulls, except for "instant-offense" Marin, who retired to attend law school, and that will hurt.
In any case, the Bulls should avoid the kind of disastrous (2-14) start it had last year when May and Marin had mononucleosis, Gilmore was not getting the ball, and "Dr. Junk" Holland had not yet arrived. Johnson has established himself as an excellent offensive rebounder, defender and scorer. May, at 6'7", is shorter than most of the forwards he guards, but when he regained his considerable strength during those heady two months, his defense improved and his baseline jumper swished at 48% accuracy. "Crash" Mengelt is a worthy third guard, but with the exception of center, where the massive Boerwinkle still picks and passes, the backups are woeful: rookies Tate Armstrong, 6'3", from Duke, and 6'7" Steve Sheppard from Maryland and veteran Forward Nick Weatherspoon. Badger, whose head was on the block early last year, became a big man in the Windy City, but when the Bulls got off to an 0-3 start in the preseason. Van Lier began blasting management in the papers, and Gilmore was again reported "moody." In other words, everything is as it should be in Chicago.
No one quite knows how things should be in Detroit, except "interesting," which the Pistons unarguably are. Last year they were as good as any team on paper; on court they are a three-ring basketball circus. In Ring One we have Guards Chris Ford, Ralph Simpson, Kevin Porter and Eric Money in a desperate free-for-all for playing time. In Ring Three we have Giant Bob Lanier. Giant Bob has a new four-year, $2 million contract and can lift any team in the NBA and toss it away. In the Center Ring is 6'9" Marvin Barnes, straight from a five-month command performance at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute, promising to perform death-defying slam dunks and to tame ferocious opponents. And the ringmaster, who will see that everything runs along just so smoothly, is Mr. Herb Brown. Don't worry about Herb. He has all the security that a one-year contract bestows.
Despite last year's public battles among themselves and against their coach, Brown's Pistons cruised into mid-March with a 40-28 record, fifth best in the league. Then Lanier, in the midst of his finest season, and Barnes, who had begun to approach his playing potential, each broke a hand. But Detroit rode to the playoffs anyway on the strength of backup Center Leon Douglas, Forwards M. L. Carr, Al Eberhard and Howard Porter and those feisty but talented guards. During the summer Brown tried unsuccessfully to dump his main nemesis, Kevin Porter. The two have not exactly made peace, but they are willing—so they say—to lay down their swords for the common good. "This year when I'm yanked I'll accept it," says Porter. Says Brown, "I may have made some mistakes." Says Lanier, "You can't change human nature. To be fair they should trade one of them."
No one should count out Kansas City, because the Kings may have more depth than anyone in the division, thanks to three new acquisitions hand-picked to fit Phil Johnson's slow-and-steady game. To replace Brian Taylor, who alerted team officials of his desire to be traded by announcing it on national TV during the playoffs, Johnson obtained Lucius Allen, who averaged 14.6 with the Lakers last season, for Forward Ollie Johnson. Then with their No. 1 draft pick, the Kings went for 6'4" Otis Birdsong, who averaged 30.3 last year at the University of Houston on 57% shooting. He will be a potent weapon next to Allen and Ron Boone, one of the great pure shooters in the game, who led the team in scoring with a 22.2 average. Next, Johnson gave Sam Lacey, the Kings' starting center the last seven years, a kick in the shorts by acquiring 7'2" Tommy Burleson from Seattle via Denver in the Taylor deal. "I have a two-center concept," says Johnson. "Sharing time equally, we should be strong in the middle always." And strong in the corners, too, with 6'7" Scott Wedman, 6'11" second-year man Richard Washington and 6'7" enforcer Bill Robinzine, recovered from a fractured ankle that killed the Kings' playoff chances late last season.
Of course, as soon as the baby Bucks grow up—the average age is 23.6—the rest of the division can step aside. The trifecta that should pay off so handsomely in Milwaukee is made up of first-round draftees—6'11" Kent Benson of Indiana, 6'7" Marques Johnson of UCLA and 6'6" Ernie Grunfeld of Tennessee. Johnson is a small forward who plays big, and he began dazzling the NBA in preseason play. Grunfeld, a 53% shooter last year, plays forward behind Johnson and 6'8" David Meyers, who is still fighting injuries—this time he has tendinitis in his right ankle. Kevin Restani and 6'7" Alex English provide further support. The guards are shooter Brian Winters and playmaker Quinn Buckner, backed up by versatile 6'5" Junior Bridgeman. How good this team is and how soon depends on Benson, whose strength and talent at center are not questioned, though his stamina and intensity are. Coach Don Nelson was miffed when Benson forsook summer league ball for fishing and water skiing. While he develops, his backup is journeyman John Gianelli, who should work well into Milwaukee's system. It is beginning to look like Celtics West, what with Nelson running the offense and Tommy Heinsohn's ex-assistant, John Killilea, in charge of the pressure defense.
Finally we come to Indiana, which nearly went down the tubes this summer, ran a telethon to sell season tickets and raise money, then traded away Billy Knight and Don Buse, its two best players. General Manager-Coach Slick Leonard claims he was being "held up" by their respective agents. But Slick—who did not get his name for being dim-witted—minimized his losses. He sent Knight to Buffalo for Mike Bantom, who fills a pressing need for a strong forward, and Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley. "I checked the record books," says Dantley. "I believe I'm the only Rookie of the Year ever traded in any sport." Buse went to Phoenix for Ricky Sobers, a quick, good-shooting guard also known for quick fists. Next to him will be John Williamson, another hard man. Center Len Elmore returns from knee surgery and teams with Dave (Robo) Robisch in the middle, and superjumper Dan Roundfield moves back to forward. The best Leonard can hope for is a last-place finish and a decent draft choice. This year's top pick, Alonzo Bradley from Texas Southern, didn't like the offer Leonard made him and decided he'd spend the year playing for Athletes in Action. Who can blame him?
This is the division of a million surprises. If Golden State isn't roaring out of nowhere to win the NBA championship (1975), Phoenix is sneaking out of nowhere to come close (1976). If Los Angeles isn't Jabbaring its way to the best record in the league without any other players (1977), Portland is red-bearding everybody in the course of bringing still another shocking championship (also 1977) to the West Coast. In recent years only Seattle, among Pacific Division teams, has failed to make a strong run for the title. Then again, who needs victory when you can watch your own coach, the famous TV shill, Bill Russell, hook 'em in on behalf of Ma Bell and L-O-N-G D-I-S-T-A-N-C-E.
The Pacific is once again the strongest division in the NBA and surely the place to be when the game's most exhilarating individual matchup—the Trail Blazers' Bill Walton versus the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—continues this season. While L.A. Coach Jerry West cleaned house and swept all the spear carriers out of the Forum except Jack Nicholson. Portland's Jack Ramsay decided to stick with a pat hand. "You win or lose with your basic game," he says. "We have the people who established our basic game." Cornerman Bob Gross and Guard Dave Twardzik have exchanged hairstyles—Twardzik's sandy-colored perm curls already have earned him the monicker "Polish Orphan Annie"—but otherwise the champions appear to be the same crew that withstood Walton's absence in 17 regular-season contests and went on to sweep through four playoff series with the loss of only five games. Maurice Lucas is back to frighten the women and children and strengthen his position as the best power forward in the league; Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis return to run their relay races past opposing back-court men; and the firm of Neal and Steele (Lloyd and Larry) provide support off the bench. Backup Center Tom Owens and rookie Guard T. R. Dunn are the only newcomers to a lineup so secure that when first-round draft choice Richie Laurel demanded a no-cut contract, Ramsay suggested he get lost. Showing spectacular vision for a rookie, Laurel ended up in Atlanta, which is approximately the same thing. A recurring problem hit the Blazers early in preseason when Walton's back vertebrae acted up, the result of (wouldn't you know it?) some wood chopping. The tall lumberjack missed most of the exhibition season and was in traction for a few days while doctors labeled the injury "not serious." Ramsay said, "Anything that keeps him from playing is serious to me." The coach also said, "We're just not as good when Bill isn't in there." Really, Jack?
Additional health disorders exist in Southern California, where Abdul-Jabbar now must wait for his finger to heal before attempting to take command as he did last season, when he won 53 games almost single-handedly as well as his fifth MVP award. However his 319 assists (compared to league leader Don Buse's 685 in less playing time) showed how poorly the Lakers took advantage of the quadruple-teaming their center was subject to. Moreover, the Lakers were almost paranoid in the face of tenacious defensive pressure on their guards, a concern that became justified when Portland's road-runners stripped bare the helpless Laker backcourt in the playoffs. To alleviate the team's shooting weaknesses, the Lakers picked up Golden State free agent Jamaal Wilkes and Atlanta oldtimer Lou Hudson. To add some much-needed speed at guard, West drafted burners Norm Nixon and Brad Davis as well as Forward Kenny Carr who promptly fractured his foot in the final exhibition game. To lead this congregation, West longed for the Knicks' Walt Frazier, but owner Jack Kent Cooke opted for Buffalo's Ernie DiGregorio (thus infuriating the coach). Strongman Kermit Washington has recovered from a knee injury that forced him to miss the playoffs, but the other Laker veterans may never recover from West's recycling program: starters Don Ford and Don Chaney are on the bench while Cazzie Russell was waived after prophetically practicing one day with golf tees and ball markers in his pocket. Wilkes, an errorless, consistent forward at both ends of the court, is the crucial man in the mother lode of talent the Lakers have stockpiled. "We have so much more ability than last year I can't believe it," says West. But the Lakers also have people who do not sit well—namely pogo stick Earl Tatum, the sulking Carr and little Ernie D. As the coach attempts to parcel out playing time, he may find that too much Cooke does indeed spoil the broth.
All-Star Guard Paul Westphal of Phoenix calls his team's effort last winter a "non-season," and who could blame him after injuries struck down so many of the Suns for so much of the time, causing the team to play all but six games with a patchwork lineup consisting of somebody—anybody—other than the regular starters. As a result the Suns, who had startled the NBA by reaching the championship finals the previous spring, won only 34 games and finished last in the division. The team did strange things like lose 18 games by four points or less and finish 19 games out of first place while still outscoring their opponents over the season.
General Manager Jerry Colangelo and Coaches John MacLeod and Al Bianchi must have figured that standing around and mixing it up caused bruising and bleeding as well as the heartbreak of psoriasis. They have restructured the team with the accent on speed and a fast-break attack. Center Alvan Adams is in Cowens' league as a runner and Walton's league as a passer; Westphal is in his own league as a shooter off the break. What the Suns needed was a middleman to coordinate this activity. Ba—oom! Enter Buse from Indiana, he of the monster assist and steal numbers, in a trade for Ricky Sobers. "Ricky was a pounder," says Colangelo. "Buse doesn't have to set up to be effective." Buse's job will be to give the other Suns the ball in good position and show them the value of playing with someone who makes a mistake about once a month. Buse even consented to play third guard so that the Tasmanian devil himself, Ron Lee, could start rather than pout. The ferocious Lee was the only Sun to play in all 82 games last season. Smooth rookie cornerman Walter Davis, already into wearing turquoise jewelry like every other Arizonan, is so fast and so good he is forcing veterans Garfield Heard and Curtis Perry to share time in the other corner where they can concentrate on helping Adams on the boards. While another rookie, Greg Griffin is Davis' mirror image, the great Phoenix Christian movement turned out only semiglorious: of the Suns' charmingly named recruits from Athletes in Action, Bayard Forrest made it. Freeman Blade did not.
Meanwhile there is thunder 'cross the Bay: Rick Barry came back from a summer of telecasting golf tournaments and Calgary stampedes and of switching from hair weaving to hair transplants to announce that the Golden State Warriors' "attitudes had slipped into gradual decline. We needed a shakeup." The departed Wilkes countered that the attitude problem was Barry's. "I haven't figured out why we went sour," said Wilkes, "but the guys got tired of Rick's making 20 times as much and bossing all of us around, including the coach." Somehow the 33-year-old Barry found a way to climax another wondrous season by carrying the Warriors in their thrilling seven-game losing playoff series with the Lakers. The question is how much longer can he keep doing this?
By necessity the Warriors have won in the past from the outside, but Coach Al Attles plans to go low now that Center Robert Parrish has shown how impressive he can be there. Parrish will have to increase his rookie averages of nine points, seven rebounds and 18 minutes of playing time, but erstwhile starting pivotman Clifford Ray promises to cooperate. "If Robert makes it big, we all make it big," Ray says. Golden State might have another budding star in Forward Sonny Parker, and defensive specialist E. C. Coleman has arrived from New Orleans to replace Wilkes. A skilled, if enigmatic, back-court remains in Phil Smith, Charles Dudley and Charles Johnson, with all eyes on the on-again, off-again Smith. "I don't want to put Phil under the gun," says Attles. "He tries too hard to be brilliant." Still, a couple of freshmen may have to come through for the Warriors to contend. In that regard, Wes Cox came to camp overweight and Rickey Green came overrated; only the little-known 6'3" Ricky Marsh, out of Manhattan, impressed the Warrior veterans. "Marsh is a real player," says Barry. "He could be the stabilizer we need."
Which leaves Seattle, where the SuperSonics' supposed stabilizer, Mr. Telephone Man. Russell, left the team amid a swirl of controversy and now writes local newspaper columns on such diverse subjects as why the United States should sell the Panama Canal and how the tsetse fly makes love. Russell's successor and cousin, Bob Hopkins, has even started writing his own column—on basketball, which is more to the point. It is called Hoppy Talk. Will the Sonics be happy under Hoppy? Guard Fred Brown says. "Russell played with the team like it was a toy. This guy will teach us." Guard Slick Watts says, "Russell wouldn't adjust. We were just herkel sherkel. Hop will give us direction even if it's just 12 sets of shoes goin' in one direction with the bodies all wore off." Whatever that means, Hopkins went for muscle and rebounding in a huge, off-season deal that brought Marvin Webster, Paul Silas and Willie Wise from Denver. That was before the new coach realized he must have movement, too. While the sore-kneed Wise at least tries, Silas moves only in the direction of the nearest bank, and Webster, according to Hopkins, is "extremely slow."
A sleeper rookie, 6'11" flaxen-haired Jack Sikma, should play a lot with shooter Bruce Seals at forward, while spindly Mike Green, who exploded for 33 points in a preseason game, may wind up playing more center than Webster. Seattle has a quality second-year guard in Dennis Johnson and capable newcomers in Joey Hassett and Al Fleming. The team might even avoid those nightmarish blowouts of last winter. "People think we're a patsy, but we mean business," says Hopkins. Still, this is a last-place club through and through and the coach looks like the real patsy—probably nothing more than a fall guy until he loses enough games to justify new Director of Player Personnel Lenny Wilkins' stepping down and taking over. Wilkins' column will be called Patsy Talk.