Flipping the dial for some late-night TV last May, you may have caught the HOUSTON ROCKETS. Featuring a few Irish surnames—Malone, Murphy, Dunleavy and Willoughby—and under the direction of a dead ringer for the Man from Glad, the Rockets went all the way to the NBA finals before losing in six games to Boston. They're all back, and bolstered by the—not-ready-for?—prime-time body of Elvin Hayes.
Coach Del Harris, the NBA's answer to George Allen, adopted a "future is now" policy about 50 games into last season: "We weren't winning enough with the younger players. So we went back to the Whopper [Billy Paultz, a 33-year-old center-forward] and Tom Henderson [a 29-year-old guard] and played one season at a time. That's why we got Elvin."
Hayes, snapped up from Washington during the off-season for a couple of draft picks, will help Houston's inside defense with his shot-blocking. But at least one NBA coach sees pitfalls in using Center Moses Malone and the Big E together: "They're probably the two worst passers in the league. How can you run any plays with them in there together?" Robert Reid, who is 6'8", will be spelled at small forward by Bill Willoughby, also 6'8". Small forwards, right?
Guards Henderson, Allen Leavell and Mike Dunleavy flirt with the 24-second clock on each possession and mug opposing guards on defense. While Paultz will lend a hand to the inside power game, sixth man Calvin Murphy, who comes off his most explosive season (.63 points per minute) since 1977-78, joins Dunleavy as an outside threat. Murphy signed a three-year contract on the eve of training camp, after making it known that he wants to start.
"Hey, everyone knows Murph wants to start," says Reid, who starts. "But that will make us more competitive." Enough, at least, to win the division.
The SAN ANTONIO SPURS used to be thought of as high-scoring pussycats. So last season they dubbed their front line The Bruise Brothers and won 52 games. "The name got us a little notoriety," admits Bruise Brother extraordinaire Mark Olberding, who goes 6'8", 230 pounds. But the Spurs choked on their thin ties in the playoffs, where defense matters most, and in the great tradition of fingering and trading a playoff scapegoat, sent Guard James (Captain Late) Silas and his 17.7 points per game to Cleveland in exchange for, essentially, nothing.
That still leaves the backcourt with George (Iceman) Gervin at shooting guard. "Ice just sits out there and draws interest on 27 or 30 points a game," Coach Stan Albeck says. Johnny (Junior) Moore, who will run the club, can be erratic, but did pace San Antonio in steals and assists coming off the bench as a rookie last season.
Center George Johnson also made good use of his time last season, leading the league in blocked shots in just 24 minutes a game. Olberding, who had his best season last year, will have to score more than 12.3 points a game to offset Silas' loss. He'll start opposite Reggie Johnson. Kevin Restani, Dave Corzine and Paul Griffin round out one of the NBA's deepest frontcourts and the Brothers will welcome rookie Gene (Tinkerbell) Banks. "I like the physical game," he says. Get a new nickname, Tinkerbell.
In an eight-hour period in June, the KANSAS CITY KINGS lost their heart (outside shooter and defensive ace Scott Wedman) and soul (score-at-will Guard Otis Birdsong), free agents who fled to Cleveland and New Jersey, respectively. "I've got a lot of robins in the nest and I've got to get them some food," Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said as training camp opened. The Kings were 17-24 at the end of last December and then lost Birdsong and his running mate, Phil Ford, to injuries; only the Warriors' el foldo (they lost five of their last six games) got K.C. into the playoffs. Once the Kings got there, they upset Portland and Phoenix and lost the conference finals to Houston.
Though their heart and soul may be gone, the Kings have kept their head. Fitzsimmons thanks God for small favors: "The day Phil Ford came and played for me it made me a better coach." Hawkeye Whitney will make a run at Birdsong's slot if his right knee responds to a summer's rehabilitation program. Other candidates for the same spot: Larry Drew, acquired from Detroit for two future draft picks; Kevin Loder, a 6'6" leaper and first-round sleeper from Alabama State; and, most likely, Ernie Grunfeld, who filled in magnificently in the playoffs. Satchel Sam Lacey is Methuselah in the middle and 6'6" Reggie King, a scaled-down Truck Robinson, is solid at one forward. Cliff Robinson, Joe C. Meriweather, John Lambert or one of two rookies, Steve and Eddie Johnson—will start at the other forward.
The DENVER NUGGETS had an offense as reckless (121.8 points per game, nine more than any other team) as their defense was feckless (122.3 allowed, nine more than anyone else), but that doesn't bother Coach Doug Moe: "Bad defensive play will help our offense." "We cut a lot, so many teams zoned and sagged on us last year," says David Thompson (25.5 points a game in 1980-81), who with Forward Alex English (23.8) and Center Dan Issel (21.9) constituted the NBA's highest-scoring threesome since Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor 12 years ago. "The new anti-zone rules will allow us to isolate guys easier."
T.R. Dunn and Billy McKinney are able backcourt backups to Thompson and lead Guard Kenny Higgs, and forward will be well stocked, especially if James Ray's left knee comes around. He'll alternate with Cedrick Hordges, Glen Gondrezick and Kiki Vandeweghe opposite English.
Tom Nissalke has different problems. "We've been changing our players like Grand Central Station the past few years," the UTAH JAZZ coach says. Rookie of the Year Darrell Griffith (20.6 ppg) was the seven-year-old franchise's first No. I pick ever. Their most recent No. 1 is 6'11" Center Dan Schayes, no bruiser but a good shooter and passer and, the Jazz hopes, a late bloomer.
The Jazz needs another guard to handle the ball and to get it to league-scoring-champ Adrian Dantley (30.7 ppg). Rickey Green, a gypsy from the Continental Basketball Association, might have to do. Erstwhile Center Ben Poquette will play forward opposite Dantley once Schayes is ready to go full time, and burly Bill Robinzine (acquired from Dallas) and rookie Howard Wood (a second-round pick from Tennessee) will also help in the forecourt.
General Manager Norm Sonju gushed last season that the DALLAS MAVERICKS would embody "wholesomeness and goodness and respect for God and country." But in their first season, the Mavericks had fewer wins (15) than players who suited up at one time or another (21). Now Coach Dick Motta has weeded out the "head cases" and bad citizens, and he feels the wins will follow.
Unlike the Jazz, the Mavs have nine first-round picks to exercise through 1986. "I think about the draft picks a lot," Motta said last season. "Sometimes it's all I have to think about."
This season he might find it worth-while to exert some of that brainpower on coaching four excellent rookies: Swingman Elston Turner, Center Jay Vincent, Guard Rolando Blackman and Forward Mark Aguirre, who says, "Dallas is a lot slower than Chicago. It gives you a chance to concentrate on the things you want to concentrate on—like basketball." So far, Aguirre's carefree ways haven't clashed with Motta's disciplined offense and businesslike workouts.
Survivors from last season who figure in this year's plans include leading scorer Jim Spanarkel, Forward Tom LaGarde, Center Scott Lloyd and Point Guard Brad Davis, who blossomed into a 56 percent shooter, while averaging seven assists. Davis was so impressive that the Mavericks, who had the No. 1 pick in the draft, passed on Isiah Thomas and went for Aguirre, who should start eventually with Blackman. Dallas' biggest concern should no longer be encroaching secular humanism but finding a dominating center.