SCOUTING REPORTS ON ALL 23 OF THE LEAGUE'S TEAMS
APARTMENTS TO LET
The LOS ANGELES LAKERS training camp was at once the league's smallest and biggest. Only 13 players attended, but eight were 6'8" or taller, including 7-foot, 210-pound rookie Earl Jones from the University of the District of Columbia, who needs bulk, time and a greater challenge than Division II competition. There's no hurry as long as L.A.'s bench carries James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper and Mitch Kupchak, whose left knee seems sound for the first time in three years. L.A. was whipped in last spring's championship series by Boston in the half-court game, in which L.A. relies on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes, so coach Pat Riley is installing non-Islamic post-up options and new perimeter patterns.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Billy Cunningham is modifying his offense, too, adding a motion game to the post-up plays for Moses Malone and Julius Erving that made Philly too predictable during last season's abortive title defense. Cunningham has two notable rookies: Olympic point guard Leon Wood, the speed reader of defenses whose mom's name is Evelyn, and Charles Barkley, who's 6'6", 265 and so impressed Malone in off-season pickup games that Mo phoned 76er officials at the league meetings just to rave.
The holdouts of Gerald Henderson and Cedric Maxwell were the first indications that the BOSTON CELTICS might be weaker than they were last season. Though Henderson finally signed, he was sent to Seattle for a 1986 first-round draft choice, leaving Danny Ainge in his starting guard place. Despite the presence of rookie guards Michael Young and Rick Carlisle, that's a net loss. After Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, the most important Celtic may be M.L. Carr, who supplies end-of-bench brio and off-the-bench woofing.
Indignant callers lit up telephone switchboards on local radio shows this summer after the PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS sent Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper and Fat Lever to Denver for Kiki Vandeweghe. The Blazer management saw the swap as essentially Natt-for-Vandeweghe: Lever and Cooper had become expendable because of, respectively, fourth-year guard Darnell Valentine's development and the drafting of 7'1" Sam Bowie. What's more, last season the Blazers had done about the best they could (48-34) as a half-court team, and Bowie and Vandeweghe fit in with coach Jack Ramsay's plans to run the fast break at every opportunity. The risk is in Bowie's history of injuries—and that selecting Bowie in the first round instead of Michael Jordan might remind Portland fans of the Blazers screw-up in '72, when they chose LaRue Martin instead of Bob McAdoo.
The DETROIT PISTONS seem poised to move in with the league's top three. They sent a reserve (Cliff Levingston) and a 1983 draftee they hadn't been able to sign (Antoine Carr) to Atlanta for Dan Roundfield, a top-shelf power forward. Questions center on Detroit's chemistry: Will Kelly Tripucka's seven-year, $6.3 million contract sit well with Isiah Thomas, who earlier had signed for $9.6 million over 11 years? And how can guard John Long, who starts, accept the $1.45 million (over three years) going to his backup, Vinnie Johnson? (Right now, Long can't, and is holding out; until that's settled, Tripucka will start opposite Thomas.) With Roundfield added to the mix, the Pistons will either backfire or purr.
Considering the difficulty the NEW JERSEY NETS experienced from the foul line last season, they should have been renamed the New Jersey Rims. The Nets' .700 free-throw percentage was easily the worst in the league, and, along with the NBA's second-highest turnover total, it tended to sabotage New Jersey's elegant running game. Frustrated coach Stan Albeck was tempted to take one fan's suggestion and apply a balm of vanilla and vinegar to his players' hands. Center Darryl Dawkins finally played true to his imaginary habitat, which is to say out of this world, especially in the playoffs, in which New Jersey ousted Philadelphia. The Nets won 19 of their last 27 regular-season games, but, alas, missed 18 foul shots in a playoff game loss to Milwaukee en route to being beaten by the Bucks.
The DALLAS MAVERICKS are the league's most robust franchise, with a moderate payroll, a phenomenal season-ticket base (11,250) and two studhorses, forward Mark Aguirre and guard Rolando Blackman, locked into new long-term contracts. Dallas may even have the center it has heretofore never been able to draft: 6'9", boom-armed Sam Perkins contained Ralph Sampson during their collegiate days, and his outside shooting and inside passing skills will pose problems for other pivotmen.
Despite an infusion of eight million petrodollars from their new part-owners, Saudi Arabian brothers Adnan and Essam Khashoggi, who have a couple of bucks in Salt Lake City real estate, the UTAH JAZZ, with a $1.9 million payroll, is still the league's most penurious franchise. No new money is earmarked for NBA scoring champ Adrian Dantley, despite his resolute holdout for an upgrading of his contract. To duplicate its surprising 1983-84 showing (45-37 and a Midwest Division title), Utah must have A.D., the team must stay as injury-free as last season, and it must bring along rookie John Stockton as Rickey Green's backup at point guard.
The NEW YORK KNICKS will begin the season with centers Bill Cartwright (stress fracture of the left foot) and Marvin Webster (probably out for the season with acute hepatitis) in sick bay. That means they'll be relying even more than ever on phenomenal Bernard King and will find out quickly whether high-priced ($600,000 a year) free agent Pat Cummings is worth it. Coach Hubie Brown will have his starting team—now including Trent Tucker, who's taking over for the unsigned and unwanted Ray Williams—apply the traps that, last season, were the tool of the second unit.
Under new coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, the SAN ANTONIO SPURS are calling their new game Cotton Ball. Among other things, that means everyone must abide by a dress code on road trips, and George Gervin won't be able to bag the occasional practice, as has been his wont. It's most important that the Spurs not repeat the lousy start that led to last season's embarrassing 37-45 record. With pricy rookie guard Alvin Robertson, the Olympic defensive hound, joining Gervin, John Paxson and Johnny Moore, San Antonio suddenly has a strong backcourt.
Bob Lanier's retirement and the trade of Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings to the Clippers for Terry Cummings means that the MILWAUKEE BUCKS won't have to put Geritol in the squirt bottles anymore. They will, however, have to spend a while rebuilding. Although Milwaukee coach Don Nelson wasn't happy that Johnson's replacement, Kenny Fields, reported out of shape, he was encouraged by the superb summer-league seasons of Lanier's heirs apparent, 7-foot Alton Lister and 7'3" Randy Breuer.
Remember the old PHOENIX SUNS, all patterns, finesse and high-post play, before they were broken up for chronically disappearing in the playoffs? The addition of rugged Rick Robey last season helped little. Phoenix got off to a plodding 5-13 start in keeping with its Clydesdale style. Now the Suns have an identity crisis. They want to run, as they did with some success in the latter part of last season. And in Larry Nance and Walter Davis (after his ailing knee recovers) they have the fast-break finishers. But even if unsigned Maurice Lucas returns, Phoenix—17th in defensive rebounding last season—won't have anyone who can throw the electric outlet.
The WASHINGTON BULLETS have added two mobile scorers, Cliff Robinson (from Cleveland) and Gus Williams (from Seattle), to Washington Monuments Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn. The result: a more experienced team that certainly won't finish No. 21 in the league in offense again. Between them, Williams and Robinson averaged almost 37 ppg last season. Coach Gene Shue's challenge is to find the proper backcourt running mates for Williams.
By trading Vandeweghe for bangers Natt (6'6", 220) and Cooper (6'10", 220), the DENVER McNUGGETS—the NBA's fast-hoop franchise—will be more physical. Coach Doug Moe says he'll play a pressure defense and gushes about the third man in that Blazer swap, Lever. But many question Denver's commitment to D, of which less has always been Moe. New club president Vince Boryla calls last season's offense "scatterass." If these Nuggets don't get cooking early, Moe will be done by January.
After being let go by Indiana, Jack McKinney is the KANSAS CITY KINGS' new coach. His is a complex offensive system, and at one preseason practice he got so frustrated with the Kings' inability to execute it that he sent them home. However, once molded in McKinney's style, the Kings should improve. They'll have rookie forward Otis Thorpe and runnin' Reggie Theus for a full season. Problem is, SACRAMENTO KINGS bumper stickers have cropped up around Kansas City, in reference to the home of absentee owners Joseph Benvenuti and Gregg Lukenbill. They haven't renewed the Kings' Kemper Arena lease and are thought to want to move the team west.
The SEATTLE SUPERSONICS' recent housecleaning was a purging of the guards. They sent Williams to Washington for Ricky Sobers and forced Fred Brown into retirement. But even with veterans Henderson and Sobers, Seattle is thin in the backcourt. It's rebuilding around towering towhead center Jack Sikma, but for now the Sonics are likely to be bad and boring. That thud, thud, thud you hear is the echo of a Seattle guard bringing the ball up against a press in an empty Kingdome.
The ATLANTA HAWKS sent point guard Johnny Davis packing (to Cleveland) and Roundfield likewise (to Detroit), vowing to emphasize youth—Dominique Wilkins, Doc Rivers and their two acquisitions from the Pistons, Levingston and Carr. Word is that owner Ted Turner, whose WTBS snared the league's national cable-TV package (55 regular-season plus 20 playoff games) for the next two seasons, is willing to bide his time until '86, when Atlanta, by then theoretically much improved, may return to the SuperStation and pull big ratings as a creditable America's Team. Meanwhile the Hawks, losers of an estimated $3 million last season, will play 12 games in New Orleans (giving them a total of 53 games away from home), and Turner has had Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young phoning around town delivering season-ticket pitches to corporations.
Having sailed up the San Diego Freeway to the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, the LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS hope to avoid getting swamped in the Lakers' wake. To that end, they're underselling the smug club from across town ($15 for a top ticket versus the Lakers' $27.50), and the deal with Milwaukee brings former UCLA star Johnson back home. He'll join with his old college mate Bill Walton, who seems hale and hardy, and erstwhile Laker Norm Nixon to give the Clippers three local face cards—and to make them almost as appealing a bet as they are a buy. To get Marques the Clippers gave up the talented Cummings, a player the team's veterans had lost patience with.
You take 302 more shots than your opponents. You make 11 fewer. You are the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS, suffering through the NBA equivalent of smoking more and enjoying it less. A trade for Melvin Turpin, a 6'11" offensive center, will allow promising 6'9" Roy Hinson, who blossomed late last season and was MVP of the Southern California Summer League, to play his natural position, power forward. New coach George Karl also hopes to get more speed from former-Hawk Davis.
The HOUSTON ROCKETS are unbeatable if you're tossing quarters up in the air. With basketballs it's another matter. To haul in 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon and 7'4" Ralph Sampson in consecutive drafts, the Rockets had to win two straight coin flips—and lose a lot of games. Sampson was the unanimous choice as the 1983-84 Rookie of the Year, but he often hoisted J's from the outer reaches. This year he'll play power forward to Olajuwon's pivot. Among the supporting players, none is more important than point guard John Lucas.
"We're guardedly optimistic," says CHICAGO BULLS general manager Rod Thorn. The guards to which Thorn unwittingly refers are Quintin Dailey, Ennis Whatley and Olympic hero Michael Jordan, whose acrobatics alone will double attendance at Chicago Stadium. With the arrival of 7-foot Caldwell Jones, obtained from Houston for Mitchell Wiggins, center Dave Corzine's minutes should go down (from 32.6 per game last season) and his effectiveness up.
The INDIANA PACERS are the best-off bad team in basketball. Their biggest advantage is their youth, which begins with 36-year-old coach George Irvine, extends across their tyro front line of Clark Kellogg, Steve Stipanovich and Herb Williams and runs through the rest of the roster, which averages 23.4 years. Irvine is installing a running game, figuring that former coach McKinney's half-court, patterned offense only highlighted Indiana's feckless guard play. Vern Fleming, picked only 18th in the first round, became an Olympic backcourt starter after the draft and will help immediately. The highlight of the season, though, will probably come on Feb. 10, when the Pacers host the NBA All-Star Game.
The GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS have succeeded in missing the playoffs for a remarkable seven straight seasons. Larry Smith boards with the best and Purvis Short shoots with the sweetest, but without an effective center (free-agent Joe Barry Carroll is being held out by agent Howard Slusher as they seek a reported $1-million-a-year deal) or a consistent scoring guard—even wide awake, Sleepy Floyd doesn't qualify—Golden State's fate is going to be eight.
THE PENTHOUSE. Where air is rare. The last five titles have been won by these elite three, and one of them should claim the classiest premises again.
THREE-BEDROOM CONDO. Each of these clubs has stability, depth and at least one superstar. Chemistry, coaching and luck will determine whether they can move into a higher rent district.
ROOM WITH A VIEW. But these clubs are paying a burdensome rent. After years of being fixtures in the playoffs, they're faced with the encroachment of age and a paucity of draft picks.
COLD-WATER FLAT. But movin' on up. Each of these clubs has helped itself after missing or barely making the playoffs last season, although each must win more than 10 games on the road if it wants to play in May.
THE OUTHOUSE. No sweet smell of success here. These teams are certain to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the '85 draft (sure to be Patrick Ewing) which—so long, coin flip—will be determined by lottery among the saddest seven.