Musing over prospects of his New York Knickerbockers for the 1955-56 National Basketball Association season, Coach Joe Lapchick ventured an opinion one day during a preseason workout. "This league is so well-balanced," he said, "that all a team has to do to lose a game is slip just once on a slick spot bringing the ball down court."
It was about as good an analysis as anyone has yet offered of what every coach in the business expects to be a sizzling race—and the first week of the season did nothing to clarify the picture. Weak teams like St. Louis (which moved from Milwaukee), Philadelphia and Rochester are all improved with the addition of some great rookies. The good teams also picked up help from the best college crop in history. The basketball will be better—and it's going to be spread around a lot more equally than in the past.
Syracuse Nationals. The Nats won the Eastern Division championship and then beat Fort Wayne in the playoffs last year. Now Coach Al Cervi comes back with the same ball club to try again. The best defensive team in basketball, the Nats also have one of the real scoring and rebounding standouts in Dolph Schayes (6 feet 8 inches), a member of the all-star team every season since 1949. If Earl Lloyd (6'6") and Johnny Kerr (6'9") come through the Nats will be very solid up front. Red Rocha (6'9") is a defensive whiz in addition to being a fine shot, and in the back court Syracuse is two deep with Paul Seymour, George King, Billy Kenville and Dick Farley. Ed Conlin, the high-scoring rookie from Fordham, is expected to break into even this experienced lineup before the season is long underway.
Fort Wayne Pistons. Favored to win the Western Division championship for the second straight year, the Pistons come back with an experienced team which has height, shooting ability, defensive strength—and great spirit. In Larry Foust, a 6'9" all-star, and George Yardley (6'5"), Coach Charley Eckman has two players who tossed in over 1,000 points apiece last season. Mel Hutchins, a 6'6" smoothie, is one of the real finished pros in the business and a defensive genius. Bob Houbregs (6'8") and Odie Spears (6'5"), who was with Rochester last year, and a 6'8" rookie from Dayton named Johnny Horan add strength up forward. Andy Phillip, in his ninth year in the NBA, and Max Zaslofsky, a 10-year veteran, are bolstered in the back court by two highly promising rookies, Corky Devlin (George Washington) and Chuck Noble (Louisville).
Minneapolis Lakers. Last year the Lakers had to learn to play without George Mikan. This year they've got to get along without Jim Pollard. The combination may be too much for a team which once was the terror of the league. The Lakers still have height with Clyde Lovellette (6'9"), Vern Mikkelsen (6'7"), Dick Schnittker (6'5"), Ed Kalafat (6'6") and a promising newcomer, 6'6" Bob Williams, discovered while playing service ball. But Johnny Kundla's squad lacks speed in the forecourt, and even with such fast-moving ball hawks as Whitey Skoog, Slater Martin and Rookie Dick Garmaker playing outside, the Lakers must stick to a set pattern offense for their scoring.
New York Knickerbockers. For the first time in his many years of coaching, Joe Lapchick has all the height he wants with three men 6'9" or taller and four others at least 6'5"—and speed and shooting ability to go with it. Four returners, sharpshooting Carl Braun (6'5"), Harry Gallatin (6'6"), Ray Felix (6'11") and Jim Baechtold (6'4"), scored over 1,000 points each last year. Now, the Knicks also have 7-foot Walter Dukes, picked up from the Globetrotters but out temporarily with an injured knee; and 6'9" Rookie Ken Sears from Santa Clara. Sweetwater Clifton (6'7") and Bob Peterson (6'5") join Sears, Gallatin and Felix to give the Knicks great strength off the boards. Flashy Dick McGuire and fast-improving Gene Shue form a near-perfect team to feed and set up the high-scoring front line.
Boston Celtics. Bob Cousy and Co. are still the scoring terrors of the league—but it remains to be seen if the draft and off-season deals have given them enough added rebound strength to make up last season's main deficiency. Ball-handling magician Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley, Boston's Big Three, will again lead the league's top race-horse style offense. But up front Arnie Risen (6'8"), purchased from Rochester, and Rookies Jim Los-cutoff (6'5") from Oregon and Dick Hemric (6'6") from Wake Forest must come through to help out Macauley (6'8"), Jack Nichols (6'7"), Red Morrison (6'8") and Togo Palazzi (6'4") under the boards. Basically, however, as Eckman of Fort Wayne says: "The Celtics are a team which throws defense out the window—and any ball club which plays against them has to do the same to stay in the game."
Philadelphia Warriors. After four dismal seasons, the Warriors are loaded and ready to challenge for the division championship. George Senesky, taking over as coach from Owner Eddie Gottlieb, is faced with the happy prospect of handling the league's two top scorers, 6'8" Neil Johnston (1,631 points) and 6'4" Paul Arizin (1,512), in addition to last year's most widely publicized collegian, Tom Gola, the catlike wonder of La Salle. Gola had to sit out the opening games with a broken hand but once he leaves the bench he is expected to step right in as one of the league's best. And that isn't all. Back to help out are 6'8" Joe Graboski, 6'8" Walt Davis, the Olympic high jump champion, and back court men Jack George and George Dempsey. Fresh out of service are sharpshooting Ernie Beck and Larry Hennessey while another good-looking rookie is Bob Schafer of Villanova. "The greatest collection of shooters ever assembled on one club in the history of pro basketball," says Syracuse's Al Cervi.
Rochester Royals. Tremendously handicapped last year by the lack of even one great scorer, the Royals had to depend on back court ace Bobby Wanzer to show the way with 942 points—and Wanzer, now the new Rochester coach, ranked only 21st in the league. But in the draft the Royals picked up Maurice Stokes, and the 6'7" rookie from little St. Francis (Pa.) should be one of the game's real great ones—a fine shooter, outstanding rebounder and steady playmaker. The Royals also picked up hard-driving Richie Regan (Seton Hall) to go with Wanzer at guard, and they have Art Spoelstra (6'10"), Jack Coleman (6'7") and Don Meineke (6'7") to furnish the height. Still and all, in a year in which every team has improved, even Stokes may not be enough.
St. Louis Hawks. Along with Philadelphia, the Hawks should be the most improved team in the league. The big reason is Dick Ricketts, the 6'7" star from Duquesne. Teaming with Bob Pettit, an outstanding rebounder who was fourth in the league in scoring, and Frank Selvy, a sensational shotmaker who ranked fifth, Ricketts should give the Hawks a peerless one-two-three punch. Chuck Share, a 7-footer who can also score and rebound, and Guard Bob Harrison return to give the team depth and balance.