This is a time of change for the NBA, and times of change are both tough and rewarding. It is going to be harder tow in this year as easy games become the exception rather than the rule. The stars of the past will find things more difficult because the stars of the future are both excellent and ambitious. These younger players can make a major difference in the standings, and veterans will have to really fight to keep previous winning teams on top. One of the powers, Los Angeles, should—nevertheless—prevail in the West. The other, Boston, could be upset in the East. Here are the teams, and men who hold the keys to their hopes.
On February 3, 1963 one of the best basketball teams ever assembled stopped being that. It was on that day that Laker All-Star Jerry West pulled a muscle, and the team that had just won 42 of 50 was thenceforth to be no more than a win-one, lose-one powderpuff in powder blue. It is going to be a lot of seasons before anybody wins 42 of 50 in the NBA again, but the truth is that with an improved bench the Lakers are even stronger than they were, and once again they are favored to win the championship. The Lakers' only obvious weakness—and it is a tall one—is in the pivot, while their only hidden question is whether All-Star Elgin Baylor's legs are really bothering him, not just annoying him a little, as they seem to be now. If Baylor (34.0) and West (26.6) can both stay with the club for a whole season, no one is likely to notice what is happening at center. There Coach Fred Schaus will rotate three men—Gene Wiley, who blocks shots but cannot sink them, Jim Krebs, who can shoot but cannot jump, and Leroy Ellis, who shows promise but cannot gain weight. Also available is Hub Reed from Cincinnati, who can be used at center and forward. Another newcomer, Forward Don Nelson from Baltimore, may be good enough to let Schaus give able Rudy LaRusso plenty of rest. Then there is Dick Barnett (18.0), one of the best substitutes since Roosevelt for McKinley. Frank Selvy will start again in the backcourt with West, while two rookies, Jim King and Mel Gibson, may help on occasion. It adds up to a formidable bench. Schaus likes to see the Lakers run, but they do not control the boards enough to run well. What they have is the best one-two punch in history. That should be enough.
With a buck and a coupon from a loaf of Kroger bread you can get a seat to see a Hawks' game this year. This is bad news for opponents because it will increase attendance at St. Louis, and there are no fans like St. Louis fans. Exasperated visiting teams have been known to call time-outs just to set up plays that end with a wild pass skulling some especially noisy Hawk follower. The St. Louis team—with Richie Guerin—is now as tough as its fans. It plays a careful, patterned offense, a tight, leeching defense. The Hawks score less than any other team, which sounds like one step backward, except they allow fewer points, too, which is two steps forward. The vital man is still 30-year-old Bob Pettit (28.5), who shows no sign of giving up his All-Star status. Cliff Hagan, 31, the other high-scoring forward, almost quit to coach, but is back again, too. Coach Harry Gallatin can rest Hagan—who is a defensive liability anyway—for he has fairly competent backup help in Bill Bridges and Mike Farmer. He also has Zelmo Beaty at center, who has improved tremendously. He is showing better shooting and more muscle. The Hawks need a substitute center, though. Bridges will fill in against some teams, but he is only 6 feet 5. Gene Tormohlen (6 feet 9) gets too anxious and fouls too much. In Guerin, St. Louis now has the scoring guard it desperately needed. He will complement play-making Lenny Wilkens, with Chico Vaughn and John Barnhill as reserves. All are quite able on defense. Gerry Ward, the only rookie on the squad, has been too cautious thus far. With such an experienced squad, the Hawks should get off to a good start. If LA falters, the St. Louis fans could have plenty to shout about.
Not even a new nickname every season and getting successive rookies of the year—Walt Bellamy and Terry Dischinger—were enough to attract Chicago fans, so Owner Dave Trager swung a deal for the beautiful new Civic Center in Baltimore, and the NBA has the Bullets. No casualties occurred in the welcoming rush and only a handful of season tickets were sold. But the city has a history of liking pro basketball. It ought to like the rugged young Bullets. Coach Bob Leonard himself is 31, the youngest major-sport pro coach in captivity. The starting team averages 23—yes, 23. The Bullets got up at 6:45 a.m. this fall to run before breakfast. After lunch and before bedtime Leonard had them running some more. The kids will run all year, but they need an experienced guard to steady them. A shooting guard would also stop defenses from doubling up on the Bullets' Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside—Center Bellamy (27.9) and Forward-Guard Dischinger (25.5). Leonard will start two rookies, Forward Gus Johnson and Guard Rod Thorn. Both can shoot, and Johnson is as flashy as the star-shaped gold filling in one of his front teeth. He is 6 feet 6 but rebounds as if he were 8 feet 6. Depending on where Dischinger plays, the fifth starter will be either a forward—Charlie Hardnett or rookie Don Kojis—or veteran Guard Si Green, a good-drive, no-shot type. Bill McGill, a fine shot, will relieve Bellamy. The kids are strong—"There's no skinny guys there," says a rival coach—fast, confident and well handled. Like youngsters everywhere, they will be very, very good sometimes and horrid others. But there will be fewer horrid nights. By midseason they will be nobody's patsy.
Alcatraz was more of a spectator attraction than the Warriors last year, and Alcatraz has folded. The Warriors must have thought about folding, too. In their first year in the West, they played poorly (31-49) and drew poorly (3,855 a game). The whole dull show was Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 44.8 points a game while the rest of his team forgot to score. The Warrior defense was beyond disparagement because there was no Warrior defense. This year things should change because of the signing of Alex Hannum as coach. Hannum's teams move constantly, and everybody works for shots. Could Chamberlain, who sometimes seems an immovable object, fit into the new style? The answer appears to be yes. The new Wilt is moving. He is passing, playing alert defense, running and rebounding, but not scoring nearly as much. He is getting some help from rookie Nate Thurmond (6 feet 11), who will be Wilt's first relief man in his four seasons as a pro. Thurmond, who could start at center for many NBA teams, is also working as a forward, where he will back up Tom Meschery and Wayne Hightower, both of whom look much better this year. At guard, Al Attles is fast, Guy Rodgers is a playmaker, and Gary Phillips is the best of all when his erratic game blows hot. But none of them can shoot, and the team needs a long threat to help its running game and keep the defenses from sagging on Chamberlain. Wilt is the Warriors. They cannot win without him. Hannum feels they might win with him if he is really changing his technique. Opposing players are sure Wilt will relapse to his old style once the season opens. He always has, but Hannum is a hard man.
Before Piston Owner Fred Zollner hired Coach Charley Wolf away from Cincinnati, he pushed him for NBA president. "That is what I think of Charley," Zollner said. Many people think that highly of Wolf, but Zollner is a habitual meddler with his team and Wolf will need all his qualities to endure, let alone succeed. In Detroit, Wolf picks up a weak team in a bad basketball town. Detroiters, says one native, "don't give a damn for Wilt or Russell or any of that razzmatazz." Instead, the big gate is a local boy and summertime White Sox pitcher, Dave DeBusschere, who led the Pistons to a 31-30 finish—after a 3-16 start—when he was moved to guard last year. Back at forward in what may well be his last year of basketball, DeBusschere wants to go out a big home-town winner. It will be tough, though, for even with good shooters and fine balance, the Pistons are so desperate in the pivot they might consider using Zollner himself there. Six-foot-8 Bob Ferry will open at center, though he is better as a forward, with unimpressive Darrall Imhoff in reserve. Ray Scott, another forward, may be moved to center if DeBusschere takes Scott's spot at forward. All-Star Bailey Howell (22.7) leads the team scoring at the other frontline post. Gunner Don Ohl (19.3) will open at guard with Willie Jones or John Egan. Only Egan is a playmaker. Rookie Eddie Miles, from Seattle University, can shoot and does—all the time. But he has looked good on occasion. If he eventually teams with Ohl the fellows up front may need hatchets to get the ball. Detroit has such depth that Wolf feels no one will have to play more than 32 minutes. The Pistons can go fast for all 48, but they won't go far without a center.
If prospects win championships, the Royals are in. They have, in Jerry Lucas, the game's most sought-after rookie. Preseason ticket sales have set a record. Sell-out crowds are waiting. The team has a new coach, Jack McMahon, who brought in some good new ideas and found an important old roommate waiting for him. The ex-roomie is Jack Twyman, the respected sharpshooter (19.8) and local favorite who was disgruntled all last season under Coach Charley Wolf. McMahon takes over a team that perennially sets shooting records (.459 last year), only to cancel this advantage by making excessive mistakes. He is teaching it a number of set plays in order to limit the dribbling and free-lancing that leads to such errors. The Royals also had a tendency to lose too many close games. When the seconds dwindled down to a precious few, everybody knew the ball was going to wondrous Oscar Robertson. New plays will now break other men open for a clutch basket. Lucas will relieve Oscar of considerable rebounding responsibilities and help him on the fast break with that crucial first pass. Lucas also should serve as the defensive stopper that Forwards Twyman, Tom Hawkins and Bob Boozer have not been, and McMahon will get further use of him in the pivot, where he can spell Team Captain Wayne Embry (18.6), one of the NBA's most underrated players. Another rookie, Jay Arnette, is fast and can jump. He may move ahead of Adrian Smith and Arlen Bockhorn in the backcourt. This adds up to just enough talent for the Royals to upset the Celtics in the East. Look for the Celtics to start fast, for the Royals to be stronger late in the season and, above all, look for a very close race.
On the first day of fall practice the newest Celtic, Willie Naulls, collapsed from exhaustion. "I'm loaded with hustle scars," he said last week. Coach Red Auerbach always starts his teams hard, but this year the regimen was tougher than ever. The Celtics want to get off to a fast start to show that they can win without Bob Cousy and that they can still run and play both ends of the court in spite of an average age of 29, highest in the league. In Boston the name the players give their game is "big D," the D for defense. The man who spells the whole word out is Bill Russell, still magnificent and even more determined. His major cohorts are Tom Sanders, an excellent defensive corner man, and K. C. Jones, a guard who is such a master of harassment that he often keeps opponents from even getting the ball. K. C. is Cousy's replacement, but it is Naulls (12.9) who should make up the scoring lost when Cousy (13.2) retired. Bought from San Francisco, Naulls is the latest of the veteran replacements that the Celtics always seem to come up with. The only other Celtic newcomers are also experienced. They are Guards Johnny McCarthy (ex-St. Louis) and Larry Siegfried (ex-ABL). Sam Jones (19.7) and Tommy Heinsohn (18.7) will continue to lead the scoring, though Heinsohn is slowed for now because of shingles. John Havlicek, last year's fine rookie, is now more of an outside shooting threat than he was. Havlicek is another Auerbach swing man. He and Frank Ramsey can play both forward and guard, providing a versatility that makes Boston even deeper. The Celtics will need depth for their fight with the Royals. "Cincinnati is a helluva team," Auerbach says. But everybody knows Boston is, too.
In the NBA game of musical franchises, Philadelphia—having gone to San Francisco last year—is now Syracuse disguised. The new name is 76ers, but the team is vintage Syracuse, and an aging vintage at that. There is not a rookie on the squad, unless you count Player-Coach Dolph Schayes, who now must discipline the same men he has been playing with for up to nine years. This rarely works. The team has an effective run-and-shoot attack led by the league's smoothest pair of guards, Larry Costello and Hal Greer. Both must keep up the pace, and likely will. Costello's defense is still tops, while Greer is moving and shooting even better than last season, when he averaged 19.5. The primary weakness is rebounding. None of the younger men up front can scrap as well as their coach, and Center Red Kerr, at 31, is adequate but not overpowering. He will get help from Connie Dierking, who is back from retirement. The 76ers have a good young corner man in Lee Shaffer (18.6), though he sometimes loses his confidence. In the other corner is Chet Walker, who had a good rookie year and should now be better. The bench is not too deep—Ben Warley and Dave Gambee. And Dolph Schayes, who already fears he will play more than he initially planned. But the backcourt reserves are strong. Paul Neumann is a good young guard, Al Bianchi a sound old one. The 76ers, who were 23-5 at home last season, are going to miss the small but ever-so-friendly Syracuse crowds and all the camaraderie that came with being the NBA's version of Green Bay. It takes time to get settled in a new home, and that as much as anything is likely to keep the 76ers from improving over last season.
Though last again last year the Knickerbockers were first in attendance—which only shows how many basketball fanatics there are in New York, and how many tourists are determined to spend money. A winner in New York would be a gold mine for the NBA, but as sure as Madison Square Garden seats 18,000 and charges $5 tops, there can be no winner this year. There may never be a winner if the club management continues to mishandle and then sell top talent, as it sold Richie Guerin last week. The Knicks cannot win until they find an adequate center. The inadequate incumbents are Bob Nordmann, Gene Conley, Paul Hogue and Tom Hoover. They are equally bad. The Knicks did get one thing to boast about in the player draft, last year's top college star, Art Heyman. A back-court man, he is already the team's most interesting player. Another pleasant surprise is the improvement of second-year man John Rudometkin, who has finally adjusted to the shift from college pivot man to pro forward. Only 6 feet 6, Rudometkin still has a tough time underneath the basket, however. Johnny Green (18.1) is 6 feet 5 but a fabled jumper and should do better with more rest. Dave Budd is the reserve forward, while Tom Gola will see action in both the frontcourt and back-court. Heyman's partner at guard will be Al Butler, another improved player. The Knicks play a fluid, shifting game around the anonymous man in the middle. Coach Eddie Donovan would like them to run, but they do not get enough rebounds for that. The best that can be said for them is that with Heyman and Rudometkin on hand and Barry Kramer of NYU a possibility for next season, this losing year may be a building losing year.