The world champion Washington Bullets won't have the Central Division to kick around anymore, which should make life more agreeable this season in Cleveland and San Antonio, and especially so in Houston.
Detroit replaces the Bullets, who moved to the Atlantic, but this change will not affect the remaining balance of power, as the Pistons essentially run on one cylinder, Center Bob Lanier. However, Rick Barry, who signed with Houston as a free agent, is capable of turning the more talent-laden Rockets around. Houston was in the basement almost from the first tip-off last season, even though the Rockets were expected to repeat as Central champions. The only category in which Houston led the league was injuries, nine players missing a total of 221 games. The most devastating loss was that of Rudy Tomjanovich, whose face was fractured by a punch delivered by then-Laker Kermit Washington on Dec. 9. Without him the Rockets dropped 41 games, while winning 18. Moreover, for 23 of those games Center Moses Malone was sidelined with a stress fracture in his right foot. Nonetheless, he led the NBA in offensive rebounds for the second straight year. Now that Malone and Tomjanovich are fully recovered, and Barry has arrived, the Rockets should reclaim the title they won in 1976-77. Among his other heartening statistics, in eight NBA seasons Barry has missed only 14 games.
At Golden State, teammates accused Barry of bossing them around, but he now seems prepared to accept whatever role the Rockets ask him to play. "He will complement me by his willingness to work with the ball," says Tomjanovich, who has sensed a mellowing in his new teammate.
"I have nothing to prove. I don't care if I score six points a game," says Barry, who has a career scoring average of 25.6. "I know I'll be able to give the ball to our shooters enough that they'll be happy as pigs in slop. But the key to the Rockets' success is Moses Malone."
The 24-year-old, 6'10" Malone is rapidly becoming one of the league's dominant centers. He has gained nearly 20 pounds, now weighing in at 230, and as trainer Dick Vandervoort says, "He's starting to walk like Wilt Chamberlain." The Rockets, who lost their smooth playmaker, John Lucas, to Golden State as compensation for Barry, acquired Slick Watts from New Orleans for backcourt depth. He will play alongside either Calvin Murphy or Robert Reid, a 6'8" second-year man from St. Mary's (Texas), who has been shifted from forward. Watts, who led the league in steals and assists in 1975-76, gives Coach Tom Nissalke defense and speed, Murphy gives him scoring (25.6) and Reid may give him all of the above plus rebounding.
But the injury curse hasn't lost its potency. Guard Mike Newlin caught a finger in Reid's jersey during a scrimmage and wound up with a fractured finger and a seat on the bench. That same afternoon Murphy caught a calf in the mouth of a German shepherd and wound up with a couple of teeth marks.
Like the German shepherd, San Antonio will be snapping at Houston's heels. The only time the Spurs collapse is in the playoffs, but Coach Doug Moe isn't panicking. He has made no major changes and has no plans to alter the running and passing game that last season produced a club-record 52 wins.
"We run the opposition down and then we shoot them down," says reserve Forward Allan Bristow. Indeed, last year only the 76ers outscored the Spurs, who averaged 114.5 points per game. "We have the ability to move the ball around, and no matter who gets it we can score," says Center Billy Paultz, who averaged 15.8 points a game last season. But the Spurs' key man is George Gervin, who led the league in scoring with a 27.22 average and makes the Spurs' offense go. That being so, the Spurs are expecting to roll smoothly until 1984. After lengthy see-saw talks, San Antonio agreed to renegotiate Gervin's $150,000 contract, giving him a reported $300,000 a year for six years.
Either Mike Gale or James Silas, whose injured knee has kept him off the court for most of the last two seasons, will play in the backcourt with Gervin. In the frontcourt, reliable Larry Kenon does the scoring (20.6), and Coby Dietrick and muscleman Mark Olberding (6'8", 230) assist Paultz inside.
"Our strength is that the same basic group of players have been together for four years," says Assistant Coach Bob Bass. But the Spurs have been bullied about for years by bigger teams. More than any other club, San Antonio should benefit from the rule change that prohibits hand-checking. And the Spurs excel at the foul line, where they led the league with 80% accuracy. However, this can't make up for the Spurs' lack of rebounding. Their 1,030 offensive boards in 1977-78 earned them the league's booby prize.
What happens to the Cleveland Cavaliers every April and May? Each year they make the playoffs, only to falter. Now the question is: Can the Cavs even make the playoffs, after getting there three seasons in a row?
Cleveland has the experience, the ability and the coaching. What the Cavaliers lack is consistency. Center Elmore Smith (7', 250 pounds) is more than intimidating on defense and his soft touch is effective (12.5 points per game). But too often he neglects to do what he is capable of doing. Backup Center Jim Chones, whose job Elmore took last season, will take over if Smith fails to produce. Forward Jim Brewer provides defense and rebounding but Campy Russell, who, at 26, may yet emerge as the dominant player the Cavs so desperately need, still confines himself solely to the task of scoring nearly 20 points a game. Walt Frazier, who moved his fur coats and his cars to Cleveland last year, got off to a bad start with Coach Bill Fitch when he was suspected of babying a foot injury. Guard Terry Furlow, acquired from Philadelphia last exhibition season, provides a constant reminder to Frazier, Austin Carr and Foots Walker that jobs are never secure in the NBA.
Here is the corporate policy of the Atlanta Hawks: don't hire high-priced talent, teach the marginal, disregard the veteran and hope for the future. The man who conceived such heresy is Ted Turner, the yachtsman who purchased the Hawks two years ago to prevent the team from leaving town. The Hawks' play-book preaches the same philosophy; Coach Hubie Brown believes he can get something from nothing and that, in fact, more is less.
In some areas, however, Atlanta, 41-41 in 1977-78, has strengthened itself. Last season the Hawks trailed the league in rebounding but, with the signing of free-agent Dan Roundfield, they should improve in that respect. Brown also has two masterful shot blockers in 7'1" Wayne (Tree) Rollins and the 6'8" Roundfield. By drafting Guard Butch Lee from Marquette, Brown gained a shooter; he already has a quarterback in Armond Hill. Feisty Guards Eddie Johnson and 5'8" Charlie Criss are back, and former Trail Blazer starter Geoff Petrie, coming off knee surgery again, is trying to make a comeback. Says Brown, "We'll probably have six guys with one year or less experience and Hill, our team leader, only has two." Twenty-four-year-old John Drew, who led the team in scoring with a 23.2 average last season, is Atlanta's link to a forgettable past. Brown hopes he'll lead the Hawks to a memorable future.
If desire were all that's required to make the playoffs, then the revitalized Detroit Pistons would glide right in. The Pistons have a new coach and general manager, Dick Vitale, a spanking new home under the Silverdome and a new exuberance, but they have to transform chaos into order.
Last season the Pistons led the league in turnovers, so Vitale, who last coached the University of Detroit, is stressing fundamentals, assigning every player a number from one to five, corresponding to a role and a place on the court. "He's given us a much more defined running game," says Forward M. L. Carr. "Last year we ran on instinct." Carr will be firing away from the outside, particularly off the fast break, while John Shumate will complement Lanier by rebounding from the power forward spot. In an attempt to rid the Pistons of their long-standing dissension, Vitale sent unhappy Guard Eric Money to New Jersey in exchange for Kevin Porter, who left Detroit last season because he was unhappy. Porter gives Vitale quickness, penetration and ball handling, and all he asks of Guard Chris Ford is a bit more scoring than his 10.5-point average last season.
Lanier says he has never been happier in his eight years as a Piston. He's survived the bickering and jealousy among players and coaches, and injuries to himself. Now 30 years old and recovering from his third knee operation, the 6'11", 255-pound center will score his 25 points a game and probably improve his shooting percentage for the sixth year in a row.
New Orleans Jazz Coach Elgin Baylor, the third-highest scorer in NBA history, is looking for a way to improve the club record of 39 wins set last season. His ace, Pete Maravich, is still recovering from knee surgery, but in the first preseason game he scored 21 points in 22 minutes. Gail Goodrich, Maravich's 34-year-old backcourt partner, averaged 16 points last season and reported to camp at a trim 166 pounds, a drop of 15 pounds from 1977. Center Rich Kelley has never given the Jazz much offense, but Forward Aaron James is starting to give them defense. Guard Jimmy McElroy's jumping ability provides the Jazz rebounding and defense. Their No. 1 draft pick, 220-pound James Hardy of San Francisco, got a quick indoctrination into board crashing in the NBA when Truck Robinson, the league's leading rebounder last year, refused to attend training camp, claiming there was a separate set of rules for team Captain Maravich and demanding to be traded. He finally showed up shortly before the season started, still unhappy. So the Jazz' season-ticket slogan, "You can bet on the fire of the Pistol and the power of the Truck" seems a questionable wager.