Forget that stuff about the NBA's regular season being meaningless. The members of this division will have to play every game as if it's crucial if any of them—other than the champion—hopes to make the playoffs. Six clubs per conference, including the division champs, will qualify for postseason play, and the Midwest teams will be vying for those spots with the apparently more powerful Pacific squads.
Defending champion Kansas City invited 17 players to training camp—enough to stock an "A" squad, a "B" team and a trout stream to be named later. No wonder the Kings appear to be both deep and strong. In one year K.C. went from last to first and then got hammered by Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs because, among other reasons, Kings Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons didn't have an adequate backup for Center Sam Lacey. So Kansas City acquired 6'10" Mike Green from San Antonio. Meanwhile, Fitzsimmons is holding to the hope—albeit a slim one—that 7'3" Tom Burleson will return to action. K.C. was 35-21 last season before he tore three of the four ligaments in his left knee in February. While sharing the pivot with Burleson, Lacey came through with the finest work of his career. But with Burleson injured, Lacey had to play full time and often got into foul trouble.
Scott Wedman should be his usual reliable self at small forward, where he has scored in double figures in more than 50 straight games and is the Kings' best defensive player. In the other corner, things have been pleasantly muddled for Fitzsimmons by rookie Reggie (Mule) King from Alabama, who was so impressive in exhibition play that Kansas City tried to trade Bill Robinzine, the incumbent strong forward.
Phil Ford, the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1978-79, will run the show from point guard, and Otis Birdsong was shooting with such deadly accuracy at the other guard spot during training camp that it seemed every time he touched the ball the Kings would shout in unison, "Sing, Bird, sing!" With all this talent, you would think Fitzsimmons would be optimistic. He isn't.
"Last year we won on emotion," he says, "but this is not the kind of team that can play poorly and win. Some teams have enough outstanding talent to do that—we don't, and we can't. We could win our division, but we can also finish in the cellar. If we play bad, we lose."
Another team that always seems to play just badly enough to lose—the big ones, anyway—is Denver, which should fall just short again this year. The coach at the start of last season was Larry Brown, who brought in those noted individualists George McGinnis and Charlie Scott and tried to get them to adjust to Denver's one-for-all style. When they and some of the other Nuggets didn't meet Brown's expectations, he flew the Cuckoo's Nest in February with a case of "nerves," and assistant Donnie Walsh became the coach.
For the first time since Denver joined the NBA in 1976, it made no major trades during the off-season, a fact that could go a long way toward enhancing the Nuggets' playoff hopes. "Larry's philosophy was that if you didn't win a championship, you went out and got a bunch of new players," says Dan Issel, the Nuggets' longtime center. "For the first time that I can remember, I walked into the locker room and didn't need a program to tell who was here."
The question in Denver is not so much who is there, but if, as that noted NBA savant Gertrude Stein once pointed out, there is enough there there. McGinnis is coming off a season in which he averaged 22.6 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, but he tore ligaments in his left ankle on March 30 and had his foot in a cast for three months. He came to camp weighing 260 pounds, 25 pounds over his playing weight. By last weekend he was down to 240. Bobby Wilkerson is the small forward, though he's a natural point guard, a spot Scott now occupies. The trick would be to get Scott to accept a more limited role, so that rookie Gary Garland from DePaul could get more playing time alongside David Thompson. Thompson, of course, is one of the game's most gifted players, with a 25.8 career scoring average, and he finally seems settled in the backcourt after playing most of his career at forward. "The world has not seen the real David Thompson," says the unreal one. "I intend to come out this year doing the things—the little things—that will add to my game."
Denver cannot afford anything like its 17-19 start of last season and hope to stay alive in the race for a playoff berth. "I think last year everybody was waiting for Kansas City to fold," says Issel, "and it never did."
Just when it was beginning to look as if Milwaukee would finally make good on its promise of two years ago, when the young Bucks rolled over Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, the talented Marques Johnson reared his handsome head and demanded that his contract be renegotiated, though it still has three years to run. His absence during training camp and the divisiveness wrought by his demand for renegotiation cannot help but raise additional questions about a team that was already in need of a few answers.
Johnson may well have become the league's most complete forward in his two NBA seasons, having averaged 22.4 points and 9.1 rebounds for Milwaukee. But Coach Don Nelson says, "The Bucks have never been a one-man team."
Johnson vastly enhances the Bucks, as do their two good shooting guards, Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman. Milwaukee also took Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas No. 1 in the draft. Moncrief was too good a player to pass up, but unless he can supplant Quinn Buckner as the playmaker, Nelson had better start figuring how he's going to sneak a three-guard offense past people.
But what Milwaukee most needs is the kind of performance from Center Kent Benson that it has never gotten from the big redhead since drafting him first in 1977. Benson began to show modest improvement last season, but lest that pattern not continue, the Bucks got Harvey Catchings from New Jersey as insurance. "He gives us a new dimension at center," Nelson says. "A shot blocker, a good transition player and an intimidator." Although Catchings stands 6'11", he weighs only 220 pounds, and though he can jump, the only person in the NBA he's likely to intimidate is Benson.
In fact, when it comes to intimidation, the best the Bucks may be able to hope for is the reemergence of Dave (Crash) Meyers at power forward. Meyers missed all of last season with a back injury. If he is able to regain his form of two seasons ago, when he was often mistaken for a rabies victim as he thundered to the basket, Milwaukee has a chance to rise in the standings.
The Utah Jazz, formerly the New Orleans French Quarter, may or may not tear the league apart, depending on how long Coach Tom Nissalke can maintain peace—that is, keep his passel of gunners passing to one another.
Utah General Manager Frank Layden wasted little time acquiring a whole new front line to go with Pete Maravich and Ron Lee in the backcourt. Layden's first coup was signing 6'7" Forward Alan Bristow, who had become a free agent after four seasons in San Antonio. Bristow is one of the best in the league coming off the bench, and he will get a chance to do just that because Layden engineered a trade with New Jersey for a formidable starter at small forward, Bernard King. King has had his share of off-court problems since entering the NBA two years ago, but he is one of the best shooters around, with 22.8 points.
In between those two moves, Layden picked up Adrian Dantley for Spencer Haywood in a deal with Los Angeles; he also got Center John Gianelli—while giving up Rich Kelley—in the King deal. What Nissalke will do with the wild bunch Layden has assembled for him is anybody's guess. The first thing he must do is find a way to give Maravich, King and Dantley each his own ball.
The Chicago Bulls should be less dreadful than they were last year (31—51), but that won't help matters much. Rickey Sobers has been acquired from Indiana to bring some stability to the backcourt, where Reggie Theus is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the premier big guards in the league. Artis Gilmore is back in the middle, after having been dangled about as trade bait all summer, and he will get his points, as usual, and probably lead the league in either blocked shots, rebounds or frustration, as usual. If Forward Scott May's knee finally stops bothering him, the Bulls could be respectable. But not good. Fiery Jerry Sloan is in his first year as the Chicago coach and has announced that, "I won't be as disappointed if we lose this season as I will be if we take it casually. If there's a loose ball and nobody goes for it, I don't care if the score is 100-50—I'm going to come down on somebody hard."