Everyone knows that NBA champions do not repeat, right? And that in the Western Conference there is no team that looks stronger as the season begins than the defending champion Lakers, right? So who do the smart early-money guys think will win the 1981 championship? Philadelphia, of course. Better carry that money in buckets, too, because the 76ers are loaded. Their preeminence in the five-team Atlantic Division is such that Boston Coach Bill Fitch, whose miracle Celtics had 61 wins and finished two games ahead of the 76ers last year, talks of challenging for second place.
Philadelphia is so strong that it almost deserves a bye for the entire regular season. Besides Julius Erving, who seems to be getting younger and stronger each year, Caldwell Jones, who is simply getting better, and Bobby Jones and Steve Mix, who don't have to get better, there are other reasons for Philly to be confident. The backcourt could hardly be better. Lionel Hollins was a savior last season; he arrived in Philly on Feb. 8 and stepped right in as a running mate to Point Guard Maurice Cheeks. The Sixers have added a can't-miss rookie, Andrew Toney from Southwestern Louisiana, who impressed the observers in training camp with his instant acceleration and strange but deadly jumper—a jackknifing pop from in front of his face, seemingly launched with two hands. And, as an unexpected bonus, Doug Collins is back after complex foot surgery. In the last two seasons, including playoffs, he has played in 83 games and missed 108.
Philadelphia's greatest concern continues to be Center Darryl Dawkins, whose 14-point, four-rebound performance against the Abdul-Jabbar-less Lakers in the sixth game of last spring's championship series has never been explained. The Sixers hoped Dawkins would come to camp considerably lighter than the 255 he supposedly played at last season, figuring that adherence to the league's new rule banning neck jewelry would eliminate 10 pounds by itself. But Dawk returned at 273, and then he managed to gain weight during two-a-days. Coach Billy Cunningham worked him harder in camp than anyone, and now he's down to 260.
If Philadelphia gets the 60 or so wins it should, the main reason will be Erving, who is coming off his best NBA season (26.9 points per game) at age 30. "I feel I am respected by the vast majority of players," he says. "Those who don't respect my game or my attitude are jealous, and that's their problem."
The house that Red Auerbach built last year with Rookie of the Year Larry Bird and new Coach Bill Fitch, lost some shingles during the preseason, so here the Celtics come again, with another new cast. The first change occurred when Pete Maravich announced his retirement. But given Maravich's age and poor physical condition, this was a minor loss compared to the one that followed. Nine days before the season began, captain and spiritual leader Dave Cowens decided he could no longer perform effectively and stunned his mates when he stood up on the team bus in Terre Haute, Ind. and announced that he had played his final game. He made a special point of huddling with his successor, former Golden State Center Robert Parish, in a sort of ritualistic passing of the mantle, but how can he pass the hellfire that burned inside his Celtic-green heart for 10 seasons?
Fortunately, the Celtics are well-stocked with big men—7' Parish, 6'11" Rick Robey, 6'10" Bird and their No. 1 draft pick, 6'10" Kevin McHale. Parish is a good scorer, but he's not the passer or runner or defender Cowens was, even on bad feet. Fitch wants to put Parish in the low post, an alignment the Celtics rarely used in the Cowens years, so that Bird can then move to the high post. Positioned out front, Bird can better use his passing talents, the best of any player in the game today.
The Celtics are set at the point, Nate Archibald having come to contract terms just three days before the season opener. Now he must come to terms with the new lineup that has Parish in place of Cowens and M.L. Carr, the small forward-turned-guard, ahead of last year's starter, Chris Ford.
Washington's new/old coach, Gene Shue, has one big problem and a bunch of little ones. The big problem? "I have to win, get this team into the playoffs for the 13th straight year, and still rebuild the team," he says. The little problems? Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, Kevin Porter, Kevin Grevey and John Williamson.
After five years in Philadelphia and two in San Diego, Shue returned to the Bullets to find little had changed since he last coached them in 1967-73. Hayes is still racking up marvelous numbers (in the 81 games he played at age 34 last season, he averaged nearly 40 minutes, 23 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.33 blocked shots) and Unseld can still rebound (13.3, third best in the league at age 33), set big picks and move s-l-o-w-l-y. On the first day of training camp, Unseld actually ran—not walked—an eight-minute mile. "But I did the last 20 yards as fast as I did the first 20," he said. Shue must keep the veterans happy and playing, and arrest the slide that caused the 1979-80 Bullets to fall to a 39-43 record. He will have to rebuild around forwards Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard. Kupchak's successful recovery from back surgery and Ballard's development into a first-rate (but on the Bullets, non-starting) power forward will make that job easier. However, the backcourt situation is complicated by the moodiness of Porter, the slowness of Grevey and the erratic behavior of Williamson. No. 1 draft pick Wes Matthews is a 6'1" playmaker brimming with talent and pep, but he, too, has a history of difficulties with coaches. How will Shue use him? "Very carefully," says the coach.
The New York Knicks have suddenly become the league's No. 1 show team—as in Guard Sugar Ray Richardson's promise, "We're going to give the Garden crowd a show." But will they win more than the 39 games they won in 1979-80? Even the 76ers don't have as many players with the flashy talents of Richardson, who last year led the league in assists, steals—and turnovers; his slick-shooting backcourt mate Ray Williams; second-year Center Bill Cartwright and newly acquired Forward Campy Russell. Only Coach Red Holzman's gray suit evokes memories of what the Knicks once were—the model of conservative elegance in pro basketball. In those days, success was measured by how often the Knicks held opponents to fewer than 100 points; now, for the most part, they will win only on nights when they score around 120. If 7'1" Marvin Webster's fragile knees hold up all season, Cartwright can become a devastating big forward, Russell will be free to drive or bomb away from 22 feet—and the Knicks might make the playoffs. But during preseason, Webster was barely able to run. Richardson and Williams could form a solid backcourt if they can control themselves; rookie Reggie Carter will put pressure on them to shape up. Mike Woodson, who at 6'5" played forward at Indiana, will help the Knicks keep up with the league's trend toward taller guards.
The New Jersey Nets will bring up the rear of the division, but they, too, are greatly improved. First-round draftees Mike Gminski and Mike O'Koren are young players to build a dream on. O'Koren, a forward, could pass as the twin of Philadelphia's Bobby Jones in physical appearance, style of play and college background (North Carolina). "He understands the game better than most rookies," says Nets Coach Kevin Loughery. "Reminds me of myself." Gminski, 6'11", should convince doubters that he's no Kent Benson, another big, white All-America center who has been a disappointment since he entered the league. Gminski is an excellent shooter who needs to learn defense. Loughery is upset that New Jersey let shot-blocker George Johnson sign with San Antonio. "You just can't lose your starting center in this league," he says. "Now Mike will have to jump right into the fire." If Gminski can take the heat, the Nets won't do badly at all. Former Cavalier Clarence (Foots) Walker joins eclectic shooter Mike Newlin in the backcourt. At small forward, O'Koren and Jan van Breda Kolff will share the time opposite Maurice Lucas, who is determined to prove that his reputation as the league's best power forward did not come just from playing next to Bill Walton in Portland for two seasons.