They're known as McHone's Cones, the four Day-Glo markers SAN ANTONIO SPURS Coach Morris McHone puts out for fast-break drills. At the end of each practice, groups of three go up and back, navigating the cones, passing the ball and making a layup. The goal: Sink at least 56 shots in the allotted seven minutes. To the Spurs, who under their rookie coach will try to win a fourth straight Midwest title, 56 has special significance. That's the number of victories they need to qualify for owner Angelo Drossos' salary incentives. Once they reach 56 wins, the Spurs "break the bank," according to McHone. For instance, All-Star Guard George Gervin could earn as much as $300,000 above his salary.
The Spurs still haven't gotten over the hump of the Western Conference finals and into the Championship Series, and some laid last season's 4-2 playoff loss to L.A. to a suspect bench. But the club won't lack Spurs of the moment if one of two rookies, Notre Dame's John Paxson or St. John's Kevin Williams, can deepen the guard corps. "At a predraft camp it seemed like every guy Williams guarded wanted to fight him," says McHone. "That's an attitude we need." Says General Manager Bob Bass, "If our bench looks weak, it's only because our starters are so good." Those starters include Gene Banks, Mike Mitchell, Artis Gilmore, Johnny Moore and Gervin.
Cotton Fitzsimmons' KANSAS CITY KINGS won 45 games last season, 10 or so more than they had any business winning. And they did so well despite the flashy but erratic play of Guard Ray Williams. Now Williams and his 39% shooting are gone, traded back to New York. Williams became expendable because of the emergence of scorers like Eddie Johnson (19.8 ppg at small forward), Mike Woodson (18.2 off the bench) and Larry Drew (20.1), whom teammates have been calling Landlord since he signed a $600,000 contract this fall that includes full ownership of an office building under construction in Sacramento. It'll be at least a year before second-round pick Larry (Mr. Mean) Micheaux, a 6'9" forward out of Houston, will make an impact. (He was spotted taking righthanded layups off his right foot in one scrimmage—no mean feat.) But with Joe C. Meriweather and the much-improved LaSalle Thompson at center and the acquisition of Forward Mark Olberding and guards Billy Knight and Don Buse, the Kings shouldn't be nearly as mercurial as last season.
Denver Nuggets Coach Doug Moe was running 2½-hour training-camp practices, unheard of previously, in an effort to fine-tune Denver's defense, the league's most scored-upon. "We're going to give up the most points in the league regardless of how good our defense is, but we do play defense," he says. "In the past we've started off overplaying. This year we're going to be aggressive close to the basket, not outside. Guys like Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe [the first teammates to finish 1-2 in scoring in the NBA in 29 years] and Dan Issel [the 6'9" center] have to play the majority of the game, and they simply can't keep that pressure up." Outside, Rob (Judge) Williams will bring order to the court from the point. Theodore Roosevelt (T.R.) Dunn, a fine defender and rebounder at off-guard, speaks softly, but doesn't have the big stick from the outside. So top draft pick Howard (Hi C) Carter from LSU will be expected to juice up Denver's perimeter game. "He has a lot of outside potential," says Moe. So do the Nuggets, if they can fulfill their limited inside potential.
The DALLAS MAVERICKS remain desperate for a center, something they have never had in their three seasons in the NBA. In 23 of last year's 44 losses, the Mavericks were ahead or tied in the fourth quarter. "If we had one man who could get 80 percent of the other team's missed shots, we might have won 12 more," says Coach Dick Motta. "Or if we had a guy we could go to for either a basket or a foul, we might have won six more and made the playoffs."
Dallas made the fewest turnovers in the league, and floor leader Brad Davis had the highest assist-to-turnover ratio while setting an NBA record for the best field-goal shooting percentage for a guard (.572). All Motta can hope to do is squeeze a little more rebounding and defense out of starters Rolando Blackman, Jay Vincent and the svelte Mark Aguirre, who reported six pounds underweight. No. 1 pick Dale Ellis, a 6'7" forward from Tennessee, will be asked to come off the bench and shoot a la Milwaukee's Junior Bridgeman. "Dale's going to play a lot," Motta says. "He has a chance for greatness, and I don't say that about a lot of rookies." Dallas may make the league's expanded playoff picture, but it won't be able to do great things until one of its 11 stockpiled draft picks—including Cleveland's top choice the next three years—yields one great big thing.
Quiz time. (1) In 1967-68 the San Diego Rockets won 15 games. Who was the No. 1 draft pick who led them to 37 wins the following season? (2) In 1978-79 the Boston Celtics won 29 games. Who was the coach who, taking a rookie named Larry Bird, directed 61 victories the next year? The answers—(1) Elvin Hayes and (2) Bill Fitch—are both with the HOUSTON ROCKETS. And so, too, is 7'4" Ralph Sampson. "From the time he hits the floor he's saying, 'How great can I make my teammates?' " says Hayes. "We've got to say, 'How great can we make Ralph Sampson?' " Alan Leavell, who led the team in scoring (14.8 ppg) and assists, leads the guards, and Swingman Robert Reid returns after a year away for religious reasons.
Fitch's fast break will be a welcome departure from too many years of walk-it-up offenses. "One of the benefits of fast-break basketball is you get in shape to play defense," Fitch says. "Conditioning is 90 percent of defense." Sampson should provide the other 10% with his shot-blocking. And Sampson's defense might permit Fitch to start Lewis (Black Magic) Lloyd, a defenseless offensive machine, at small forward. Rodney McCray, a 6'7" forward from Louisville and the No. 3 pick in the entire draft, was a holdout for the first three weeks of camp—he has back problems.
Having long laid claim to the league's most incongruous name, the UTAH JAZZ now sports the NBA's least likely homes: Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Utah will play 11 "home" games in Vegas, but there's no truth to the rumors that the Jazz's droll coach, Frank Layden, will become the Strip's new Bob Hope, or that Jerry Eaves, their black, Jewish point guard, will supplant Sammy Davis Jr., or that backup Center Rich Kelley (an unsigned free agent) will take his phone-answering machine routines and replace George Carlin, or that top draft pick Thurl Bailey will put his fabulous bass voice to use and Lou Rawls to shame, or that 7'4" Mark Eaton will be mistaken for Caesars Palace. But the Jazz could be good for more than a few postprandial laughs. Unlike Richard Pryor, Forward John Drew makes no jokes about his rehabilitation from freebase abuse, a comeback Layden calls "a wonderful thing." And Forward Adrian Dantley, who went down after 22 games last season when he tore ligaments in his right, or shooting, wrist, is completely healed. Eventually, look for Drew to become sixth man, and the 6'11" Bailey to start. "Teams won't be able to put a big man on Dantley," Layden says. "Like the Lakers—they've always put Jamaal Wilkes on our big forward and Abdul-Jabbar on Dantley. Now they'll have to play A.D. honest." But that they can afford to do; the rest of the team isn't exactly playing with loaded dice.