There are a lot of questions in the Central Division: Are three trees better than one in Chicago? Will Tree or any of the twigs be healthy in Atlanta? Can money buy love in Cleveland? Will a child lead them in Detroit?
But the biggest questions in the division and perhaps in the league are: How long will Marques Johnson hold out and where will the MILWAUKEE BUCKS be if he never comes back? Marques was the cornerstone of a pressing defense and fast-breaking offense that made the Bucks a top-shelf team; they had the third-best record in the league last season, behind the Celtics and 76ers, and lost the seventh game of the conference semifinals to Philadelphia by one point.
"This year we'll just have to outhustle and outrebound Boston and Philly," Coach Don Nelson says. But that will be well nigh impossible without the 6'7" Johnson, who may be the most underpaid superstar in sports. Entering his fifth season, he wants to renegotiate his six-year contract, and the Bucks are adamantly opposed to doing so, just as they were when he tried the same thing two years ago. Without Marques, Mickey Johnson and Sidney Moncrief or Pat Cummings should start at forward, with jelly-kneed Bob Lanier back at center and Quinn Buckner, fresh from the best shooting year of his career, and either Moncrief or Brian Winters at guard.
If Marques returns, Nelson's only tough decision will be choosing between the super-quick Moncrief and the dead-eye Winters. Moncrief replaced the injured Winters last season and sparked the Bucks down the stretch. He gives them speed on offense and defense and felixibility—he can play guard or forward. If the Bullets don't match the Bucks' offer sheet to Bob Dandridge, the 12-year veteran will become a Buck once again. Nelson was heartened by the Bucks' 119-103 victory over the Celtics last weekend. Moncrief had 29, Winters 26 and Buckner 22. Take that, Marques Johnson!
The CHICAGO BULLS also have more than a few horses. Seven-two Center Artis Gilmore, who led the league in field-goal percentage (.670) in 1980-81, will be joined up front by 6'10" David Greenwood, who's quietly becoming an outstanding forward, and 6'10" Dwight Jones, who replaced the disgruntled Larry Kenon in the starting lineup late last season. Kenon, whose freelance game clashed with Coach Jerry Sloan's patterned play, wants to be traded and probably will be.
The key to Chicago's hopes of moving into the top rank of NBA teams this season (the Bulls won 45 games last season) lies with second-year man Ronnie Lester, the playmaking guard who missed 74 games last year with a sore right knee. In a limited appearance against Boston in the conference semifinals, Lester ran the show for Chi and more than held his own. His quickness and savvy would be a plus in a backcourt that already includes jazzy 6'7" Reggie Theus and Ricky Sobers, who began last season as a free agent and found happiness as a sixth man, winning eight games with last-second shots. Lester's knee held up well in preseason and in last weekend's opening losses to Indiana and Detroit.
Last season the INDIANA PACERS made the playoffs for the first time since their glory days in the ABA and were summarily dismissed by Philly in the mini-series. Coach of the Year Jack McKinney has made a few changes in hopes of hanging around the playoffs a little longer. The best move was acquiring Center Tom Owens from Portland to replace departed free agent James Edwards. Owens uses smarts to make up for what he lacks in speed. Rookie Herb Williams was impressive at times in the preseason, which wasn't the case when he played the pivot at Ohio State. "It was hard to do anything when you only get the ball 10 times a game," says the 6'11", 240-pound Williams. Things may not change much now that Williams is with the Pacers; he figures to play as a backup to forwards Mike Bantom and Louis Orr. Riding the bench with Williams—and competing with him for playing time—will be the onetime toast of Naptown, George McGinnis, whom the Pacers reportedly "asked" to retire just before the season. No way, said Big George, who makes about $750,000 per season. At guard, Don Buse ably takes care of the point, leaving most of the shooting in the equally able hands of 6'6" Billy Knight. At times in exhibition games McKinney used Orr, a 6'9" stringbean, as a sub for Knight, an experiment that should end now that Butch Carter, a mere 6'5", has been picked up from Los Angeles.
Buse started in both of the Pacers' opening victories over the Bulls and Knicks, getting 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in New York. "Making Buse a starter and using Johnny Davis off the bench has a great deal to do with our good start," McKinney says. "I decided to give Buse a start in an exhibition at Evansville [his alma mater]. I wanted to push him up and not use him constantly as a sub."
A year ago the ATLANTA HAWKS were trying to improve on their 50-32 finish of the previous season, but, in ending up 31-51, broke more bones than records. The biggest casualty was Center Wayne (Tree) Rollins, who missed 42 games because of bad knees.
Now Tree is healthy, but just about everyone else, except solid Forward Dan Roundfield, is hurt. That's going to make things tough for new Coach Kevin Loughery, who has given up the broadcasting booth to replace the demonstrative Hubie Brown. Brown, naturally, has become an announcer. Loughery can be even more outrageous than his predecessor during games, but at least the Hawks' practices should be quieter—if, in fact, anyone is well enough to show up.
First-round pick Al Wood (chronic left shoulder) will shuttle between guard and forward, John Drew (stress-fractured left foot) and Roundfield are set at forward, Rollins at center and the diminutive Eddie Johnson (suspended list) and Wes Matthews (broken left foot) at guard. James McElroy and 5'8" Charlie Criss opened the season at guard. Rookie Rudy Macklin from LSU filled in opposite Roundfield. And rookie Clyde Bradshaw shored up the backline.
Speaking of his team's training camp, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS Coach Don Delaney said, "This isn't to get the players in shape. We expect them to be in shape. They are here to learn Cavaliers basketball." But first they must learn each other's names. Joining the team are three free agents: Forward Scott Wedman from Kansas City, Guard Bobby Wilkerson from Chicago and Edwards from Indiana. Another new face is playmaker James Silas, acquired from San Antonio. They will join holdovers Bill Laimbeer, a center, and forwards Kenny Carr and Mike Mitchell. Mitchell scored 24.5 points per game last season, eighth-best in the league, and set club records for minutes played, field goals and points. The backcourt also has depth in the person of Roger Phegley (14.4 ppg last season). Besides finding playing time for all those guys, the problem might be paying them. Last year the Cavs lost at least $4 million—and then they hit the free-agent market. Cutting the roster won't help either; 12 of the players in camp had guaranteed contracts.
No less a source than Magic Johnson says rookie Isiah Thomas from Indiana University will turn things around for the DETROIT PISTONS. The last time a sophomore who led his team to the NCAA championship turned pro, he immediately led his new club to the NBA title. That man was, of course, Johnson. Thomas has little chance of pulling off a similar feat, although his 31 and 28 points helped beat the Bucks and Bulls, respectively, to get the Pistons out of the gate quickly last weekend. Sure, Detroit will be improved—but not much. During the preseason Thomas was throwing passes and expecting to see Ray Tolbert and Randy Wittman on the receiving end; what he was getting was Paul Mokeski and Kent Benson. A surprise starter with Phil Hubbard at forward was rookie Kelly Tripucka from Notre Dame. He had 15 and 19 last weekend. Thomas's teammates will get used to him and vice versa, but Coach Scotty Robertson isn't expecting that to happen overnight: "Last year my goal was to be competitive every night. This year I want a team that's knocking on the door of a break-even season. I know people are going to say, 'Gee, he isn't even talking about the playoffs,' but I'm a realist."