For three years Atlanta Hawk Coach Hubie Brown has patiently nurtured his band of low-priced castaways and carefully developed draft choices into one of the league's most stable—and, now, most talented—teams. There are no superstars in Atlanta. In fact, few fans knew anyone was there until the playoffs last spring, when the Hawks knocked off Houston and then almost beat Washington. Will Atlanta get past the conference semifinals this season? Bet on it.
The main reason is that the Hawks have well-defined roles; Brown has meticulously assigned each Hawk a job that the player is well suited to fill. Take Iron-man Armond Hill, for example. He's in his fourth season, and he knows his prime function is to set up the offense and leave most of the backcourt scoring to Eddie Johnson. Hill has played in every Hawk game for two seasons and has the third longest starting streak in the league (198 games). He had 5.9 assists a game last season, ninth-best in the league. Johnson finished second on the team in five categories—including scoring (16.0)—and was named to the league's all-defensive second team. "Armond and I know we have to apply pressure high and early," he says. "They still may make the play, but, hey, they're going to be real tired of us in their faces by the third quarter and they're going to miss." Terry Furlow, a Cleveland castoff, averaged 15.1 points (and nearly as many insults) a game coming off the bench during the playoffs, and with Hill and Johnson he gives the Hawks one of the best backcourt corps in the league.
Forward John Drew, the NBA's 12th-leading scorer (22.7 points per game), lifted weights all summer so that he could lend a hand on the boards to 6'8" Dan Roundfield. Only Houston's Moses Ma-lone had more offensive rebounds (587) than Roundfield (326). Overall, Round-field pulled in 10.8 rebounds per game, more than three a game better than either 7'1" Tree Rollins or 6'9" Steve Hawes, the Hawks' tandem at center. The Tree had foul problems—19 disqualifications—but was the NBA's third-best shot blocker, with 3.14 an outing.
Houston finished one game ahead of Atlanta in the regular season and the Rockets could be the Central's first-place team this time around. Albuquerque hotel and bank owner George Maloof, who bought the franchise on May 25, wasted little time in canning Coach Tom Nissalke and promoting three-year assistant Del Harris to his first head job. Maloof then traded a 1980 No. 1 draft pick for Bullet Guard Tom Henderson.
It would seem that Houston's strength, Center Moses Malone, couldn't improve. After all, he was the landslide choice for the league MVP last season. Nonetheless, Harris has been broadening Malone's game; on offense Moses will move more, set more screens and shoot more from the outside because, Harris says, Robert Reid can free Malone from some of his rebounding duties. "Mo will surprise some folks," says Harris. But even with Reid working underneath, it won't be surprising if Malone surpasses the pro record for offensive rebounds that he set last season. Malone was the league's fifth-leading scorer (24.8) and became only the sixth player to have both 2,000 points and 1,400 rebounds in a season. Improve on that? Go ahead, Mo, surprise us.
The Rockets went after Henderson to plug the guard spot opposite 5'9" Calvin Murphy that five different men vainly tried to fill last year. Houston's front-court includes the stylish 6'8" Reid, who had a strong exhibition campaign. The other forward spot will be shared by Rudy Tomjanovich and Rick Barry, who's nearing the end of a brilliant career but is still capable of a big night.
Coach Doug Moe and his running San Antonio caballeros are going to find themselves hard pressed to retain the division title they narrowly won in a mad scramble with the Hawks and Rockets last season. George Gervin, the league scoring champ for two straight years, again leads the Spurs, who scored more than any other team (119.3) and ran the Bullets dizzy in the Eastern Conference finals before losing a dramatic seventh game while trying to play—what?—defense. When the 6-7 Iceman isn't freezing the nets, Forward Larry Kenon is. Special K, an erstwhile free agent who signed a one-year contract shortly before camp opened, is coming off a strong season.
The biggest worry in South Texas is a lack of depth. Louie Dampier packed his free-agent bags and his three-point gun and headed for Piscataway, N.J. Also gone are Center Mike Green (to K.C.) and forwards Allan Bristow (Utah) and Coby Dietrick (Chicago), who provided a lot of what little rebounding the Spurs had. Center Bill Paultz spent the summer massaging his ego; he slipped from 15.8 to 11.5 in scoring and from 8.4 to 7.9 a game in rebounds. Massive—6'9", 230-pound—Mark Olberding apparently will start opposite Kenon. The No. 1 draft pick, Forward Wiley Peck of Mississippi State, led the SEC in rebounding last year but had a tendency to get in foul trouble during the exhibitions.
James Silas, the Spurs' anchor in the backcourt, missed most of two seasons following knee surgery in 1976, but proved he's fully recovered by finishing third among San Antonio's scorers. The No. 3 guard is a good one—experienced Mike Gale, the Spurs' leader in assists.
In Cleveland, former Los Angeles Assistant Coach Stan Albeck has replaced Bill Fitch and installed a new fast-break offense. Unfortunately, he has slow-break players. Albeck arrived amid a sea of discontent. Walt Frazier and his bad foot appeared in only 12 games last season, and Fitch contended the pain was in Frazier's head, which led to several unpleasant moments. "I don't think it was just me," says Frazier. "Bill didn't hit it off with anyone." Now, Clyde's happy. But former Clipper Guard Randy Smith isn't, even though his presence in Cleveland has put some wind in the Cavs' ticket sales and should puff up the Cleveland offense, which can't help but benefit a little from Albeck's running style. A year ago, the Cavs were third from the bottom in scoring (106.5). Randy Smith can put the ball in the hole—he had 20.5 points a game last year for San Diego—and so can Austin Carr, the Cavs' second-leading scorer (17.0). Foots Walker, a strong defensive guard, can neatly complement either Smith or Carr. Up front, 6'8" Campy Russell leads the scorers (21.9), while promising second-year Forward Mike Mitchell is strong and moves well inside. The key will be the ever-ailing Center Elmore Smith, who was out most of last year with aching knees. He still has physical problems and 6'10" journeyman John Lambert may end up getting most of the pivot time, along with Dave Robisch.
In Detroit, Coach Dick Vitale, Mr. Bubbles, thinks it will be a very good year. But except for his effervescence, the Pistons are pretty flat. Assist champ Kevin Porter and steady Forward M. L. Carr couldn't come to contract terms, so they went elsewhere. In their stead, the Pistons have rookies and a big new name, Bob McAdoo, whose presence should sell tickets, if not win games. Two of the first-year men, UCLA Guard Roy Hamilton and Michigan State Forward Gregory Kelser, played in last season's NCAA final eight. Forward Phil Hubbard, late of Michigan, will line up opposite McAdoo, acquired from the Celtics as compensation for Carr. While McAdoo won't turn Detroit into a playoff threat—any more than he transformed the Knicks or Celtics—Vitale believes his rookies will turn the trick someday. Of Kelser, he says, "I will be shocked and amazed if he doesn't become one of the premier small forwards in the league."
Vitale will be better off if Bob Lanier stays healthy, and if Forward John Shumate, who sat out last season with a pulmonary embolism, can play effectively. Lanier averaged 23.6 points last year, but missed 29 games with a bad knee and feuded with his friend Vitale, reportedly over Vi-tale's grousing that Lanier wouldn't play hurt more often. "I'd hate to go through another season like that," says Lanier, who is partners with Vitale in a summer basketball camp.
Moving to the Central Division (New Orleans' transfer to Utah prompted the switch) was the best thing that could have happened to Indiana. Last season the Pacers' 38-44 record would have been good enough for the conference's final playoff spot.
Johnny Davis, the Pacers' leader in scoring (18.3) and assists (453) last year, will be the man who will principally determine if Indiana succeeds or fails. He's swift, talented and, most important, is still improving. The forwards, 6'9" Mike Bantom, 6'8" Alex English and 6'7" Corky Calhoun, are a lightweight but productive group. On the other hand, 7-foot Center James Edwards hasn't delivered as expected. He had only 8.4 rebounds a game last year.
The Pacers have developed well under Slick Leonard, but their lack of depth and of beef in the front line may prove their undoing. If something can be done, however, Leonard will do it. He didn't earn his nickname for nothing.