This is the division in which Denver always runs off with the title, Chicago and Milwaukee surprise everyone by being either terrific or awful, Indiana stages a telethon to stay alive and Kansas City finishes sixth in the Continental League. But this year things should be different. All five teams are capable of making a run at the playoffs.
Denver, in fact, can be a contender for the NBA championship provided Coach Larry Brown's "chemistry" does not blow up in his face, the two volatile agents added to the delicate mixture being George McGinnis and Charlie Scott. "Exactly what we needed to complete the puzzle," says Brown, which is, in effect, what he said upon the arrival of Paul Silas (1976) and Brian Taylor (1977), both of whom soon departed. What makes Brown think McGinnis and Scott will blend in? "They've both been misunderstood. They haven't had a lot of love," he says.
Truly the mind boggles at the prospect of those two playing up to their potential in Brown's passing-game offense and deny-the-ball defense: the 6'8", 235-pound McGinnis pounding the boards and, along with Center Dan Issel, closing down the basket area to all comers; the 6'6" Scott running the offense and taking turns attacking the hoop with David Thompson; all this while second-year man Anthony (Woosie) Roberts leads the fast break.
But McGinnis had Brown pacing the halls of his hotel during training camp, mainly because Brown had to give up defensive whiz Bobby Jones to get him from Philadelphia. "I'd have long talks with George," says Brown, "tell him how much we need him and what he needs to do, and he'd say, 'Perfect, coach.' Then in practice he'd be the last in everything, pulling up for that trashy jumper, forgetting what we talked about." At times during the exhibition season, McGinnis seemed to be paying attention. At other times, he left Brown wondering.
On the day that Denver traded Ron Boone to Los Angeles for Scott, GM Carl Scheer declared, "This is one of the most significant days in the history of the franchise. Charlie Scott's reputation precedes him." Indeed it did, and fans were thinking more of his tag as a troublemaker in Phoenix, Boston and L.A. than his lofty credentials as a player. "Charles is Charles," says Brown of his fellow North Carolina alumnus. "He'll drive us all crazy at times, but he wants to be accepted."
There are no doubts about Issel, who is coming off the best year of his career, or Thompson, who finished the regular season by scoring 73 points against Detroit to fatten his NBA career average to 26.5. And this year the Nuggets have unprecedented depth. The backcourt has 6'7" Bobby Wilkerson and 5'11" Robert Smith, and rookie Hollis Copeland, a 6'5" showstopper from Rutgers, has been used as a swingman. Kim Hughes will back up Issel, while 6' 9" Tom Boswell, who never got a fair shot in Boston; Geff Crompton, a 6'11", 282-pound hulk who barely played at North Carolina; and 6'7" Phil Hicks more than make up for the failures of No. 1 draft pick Rod Griffin from Wake Forest and second-year man Bo Ellis.
After their meteoric rise last season on the shoulders of rookie Forward Marques Johnson, the Milwaukee Bucks have done nothing to improve themselves, except to grow a year older. Now if they can get Kent Benson to grow into an NBA center, they will do even more damage in the playoffs than they did last year, when they upset Phoenix and took Denver to seven games. Coach Don Nelson flew to Indianapolis early in the summer to have a heart-to-heart talk with Benson. "We hit about all there was to hit," says Nelson, who then sent Benson to the Southern California Summer League, in which he was named MVP. He reported .to training camp 15 pounds under his 245-pound playing weight of last season, and in excellent shape.
Nelson still will start John Gianelli, who did a solid job with the Bucks last year. "But it is not inconceivable that Bennie will be my center before long if he keeps progressing," says Nelson. Alas, that appears to be wishful thinking. As for Johnson, although Phoenix' Walter Davis beat him out for Rookie of the Year honors, he thoroughly outplayed Davis in the playoffs, averaging 24 points and 12.4 rebounds. Johnson and David Meyers are back in the corners with a bit more pressure on them since Milwaukee lost Alex English, its fifth-leading scorer, to Indiana. There's a scramble for the backup forward jobs among 6'6" Ernie Grunfeld, 6'10" Kevin Restani, and rookies Otis Howard (6'7") out of Austin Peay and George Johnson (6'7") out of St. John's.
The backcourt is settled, getting direction from Quinn Buckner, deadeye shooting from Brian Winters and relief from Junior Bridgeman and peppery Lloyd Walton.
Chicago is bringing back Larry Costello, known in his Milwaukee coaching days for his short hair and 400-pound playbook. Surely the stern and humorless Costello would have trouble relating to the likes of Norm Van Lier and Artis Gilmore. "There are no problems," says Bulls Managing Partner Jonathan Kovler.
To his credit, Costello thinks his two years out of the league helped him bridge a gap between NBA generations. "I've seen happy teams and unhappy teams," he says, "and I think I know what makes the happy teams happy." Abridging the monster playbook to six basic patterns was a step in the right direction.
The forwards will be Scott May and Mickey Johnson and Gilmore is set at center. However, backcourtmen John Mengelt and Van Lier are twisting slowly in the trade winds. "I'm always on the block," says Van Lier.
Costello was taking plenty of time evaluating his guards before choosing his starting combination. Rookie Reggie Theus, the No. 1 pick from Nevada-Las Vegas, is a strong candidate. The 6'6½" Theus gives the Bulls the big guard they haven't had since Jerry Sloan. Theus, who had knee surgery over the summer, will apparently start alongside Wilbur Holland, the 6' lefty "Dr. Junk," forcing the disconsolate Van Lier to the bench.
With the exception of Theus, the provisional starting five is essentially the same unit that won 20 of its last 24 games in 1976-77, but last season lost 19 of its last 30 after knee injuries to May and reserve Center Tom Boerwinkle. Gilmore comes off a super year—23 points, 13 rebounds per game—and May is now sound, but until Boerwinkle recovers from the surgery he underwent 10 months ago, former Celtic Jim Ard will back up Gilmore; and until the Bulls can find another forward, only Mark Landsberger, a 6'8" second-year player, provides relief for the cornermen.
If anyone in the NBA deserves to be a winner, it is Slick Leonard, Indiana's coach and general manager. He has begged and borrowed money, peddled tickets door to door and completely rebuilt his team for the second consecutive year to try to revitalize the Pacers, who were 31-51 last season. Only Guard Ricky Sobers, Forwards Mike Bantom and Steve Green and reserve Center Len Elmore began last season in Indianapolis, the nine other players coming via the draft, free agency and the kind of deals that earned Leonard his nickname. He traded the No. 1 pick in the college draft to Portland in exchange for the outstanding third-year Guard Johnny Davis and used his No. 3 pick to draft 6'10½" Rick Robey, Kentucky's All-America forward. In the second round he picked 6'3", 205-pound Indiana U. Guard Wayne Radford, described by his coach, Bobby Knight, as "a Quinn Buckner who can shoot." Leonard also dealt a future draft choice to Portland for Forward Corky Calhoun, who plays good D, traded Earl Tatum to Boston for its 1980 first-round draft choice, and signed Alex English, who was a free agent. Measured against his only loss. Forward Dan Round-field, who jumped to Atlanta, Slick came out well ahead.
Robey, a banger who can shoot the medium jumper and go up and down the floor well for his size, will start in one corner, Bantom in the other. English, who averaged 9.6 points on 54% shooting in Milwaukee last year, will come off the bench, as will Calhoun and 6'7" swingman Pop Carrington. The center is 7'1" James Edwards, who averaged 15.4 points for the Pacers after they acquired him from the Lakers in midseason. Davis and Sobers will start in the backcourt, with Kevin Stacom and Radford in reserve. This should be the Pacers' strongest team since George McGinnis left in 1975, and Leonard is sticking his neck out. "We're a playoff club," he says, "no question about it. I'm predicting we're going to win at least 40 games, maybe more. Baby, we're due."
Kansas City, which tied the Pacers for last place in the division last year, will be much better as well, owing to a new coach. Cotton Fitzsimmons, a new lead guard, Phil Ford, and a new starting center. Tommy Burleson. When the Kings chose Ford, the brilliant North Carolina playmaker, as the second pick in the college draft, K.C. General Manager Joe Axelson said, "Cotton has visions of handing Ford the ball and letting him run the show for the next 12 years. Ford and [Guard Otis] Birdsong should work like a ball and a glove." Birdsong averaged 24 points a game after he became a starter at the end of last season. Veteran Lucius Allen, second-year man John Kuester and rookies Marlon Redmond (San Francisco) and Billy McKinney (Northwestern) are the backcourt reserves.
Fitzsimmons gave a full vote of confidence to Burleson at center and is backing him up with former Pacer-Net-Nugget Darnell Hillman and Sam Lacey, who was woeful last year. Bill Robinzine, the bruising power forward who has finally recovered from a broken ankle suffered two seasons ago, and smart, quick Scott Wedman, who chose to stay with the Kings rather than become a free agent, will start in the corners, with Richard Washington and Bob Nash in reserve.