Wise and noble men have come to bury the Boston Celtics for years now, only to end up in praise of them. At present it is fashionable to assume that they will be replaced by the latest pretender—the New York Knickerbockers, a young team with quickness and thew. Philadelphia, though cast in a whole new post-Chamberlain image, also cannot be dismissed. The three teams, in fact, appear sufficiently close in ability to suggest that there will be another imperfect finish, where one team wins the regular season and another the divisional playoffs. This will continue to happen as long as the NBA persists in its illogical and discriminatory playoff policy, one that penalizes the season champion by making it play the third-place team in the first round, while the runner-up gets in easier against the fourth-place finisher.
Expansion has not been equitable either, and some of the best of the established teams have given up the least talent to the new clubs. The Knicks, for instance, had only the sixth-best record last year, but they suffered the most, losing two important defensive operatives, Dick Van Arsdale and Emmette Bryant, to Phoenix. The loss was then compounded when the Suns sent Bryant to Boston. Nevertheless, New York enters the season facing fewer problems in this year of transition than do either Philadelphia, going from its walk-it-up, set-it-up style of the Wilt Chamberlain years to a running, pressing game, or Boston, where the troubles are more subtle, but real nonetheless.
Coach and perennial Boston star Bill Russell reported to camp 15 pounds overweight after spending virtually the whole summer in Hollywood. He had never before come in more than five pounds heavy. But he was light in one respect, not that he cared to lose the weight: his valuable backup man, Wayne Embry, was lost in the expansion. Finally, because it appears that for the sixth straight year the Celtics will receive only minimal help from their college draft, Coach Russell will start four men who are 30 or over.
This would all sound like a death knell, except that the same reasons, more or less, have been offered for years now to prove that Boston was through. At last glance, though, the Celtics were still listed as World Champions, Russell was still in the middle and John Havlicek was giving every indication of going another year without breaking a sweat. And what is old? asks General Manager Red Auerbach, who himself is now called venerable by none other than TV Announcer Tommy Heinsohn, who retired something like 54 titles ago. Auerbach may be beginning to push into Connie Mack or Amos Alonzo Stagg country, but it would be hard to prove that by the Bryant deal, which was very much in the tradition of this canny champion trader. Though no shooter, Bryant is an excellent defensive player and a diehard scuffler. He fits so neatly into the Celtic lineup that it seems he has always been there, providing balance to the special skills of the regular holdover backcourt men, Havlicek, Sam Jones and Larry Siegfried—all shooters—and permitting Havlicek to move into the forecourt more often. The combined ages of the starting front line of Russell, Bailey Howell and Satch Sanders add up almost to equal, well, Sam Jones's age.
This is to be Jones's last dance. It should be a good one, because he and all the old men (except the one the player-coach calls "my fat center") came into camp in top shape. A rejuvenated Sanders not only appears to be whole again after two lugubrious and injury-filled seasons, but he seems at last to understand Coach Russell. "I think he finally adjusted to my coaching," Russell says. "Every coach has his weaknesses, and one of mine is that I can't yell at my guys like Red used to do. But I think Satch now knows what I expect of him—to participate actively on offense as well as defense."
With Sanders hurt and ineffective much of last year, Don Nelson came into prominence and for much of the exhibition season was even being asked-at only 6'6"—to succeed Embry as the pivot reserve. Auerbach tried desperately to get another big man and finally picked up Bud Olsen from Milwaukee to back up Russell.
Three years of major expansion have greatly unbalanced team rosters, which are often loaded at one position and thin at another. Because teams have been less reluctant to protect backcourt men, the expansion clubs particularly have ended up with great depth in guards. It is likely that once the season starts and the disparate parts start costing games, the trading logjam will break and Auerbach will come up with another veteran reserve or two.
Providentially (and traditionally, too), Boston's early schedule is a lollipop. The Celtics play half of their first month's 14 games against expansion teams, while New York and Philadelphia will be facing a richer menu made up more of the better of the Western teams. If Boston is not in front after a month of play, it is a good indication that the jig finally is up.
New York, the people's choice at last, is surviving its serious losses in the expansion draft because it was so deep in talent to begin with. Everybody, in fact, wants to trade with the Knicks, but New York will not deal unless it gets an edge in the bargain. The Knicks have, for instance, a tremendously versatile and exciting backcourt that stars Dick Barnett, and second-year men Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley, whose potentials are vast. The fourth guard is Howie Komives. He would start on many teams, and should be traded, if for no other reason than to save him from the vicious booing, coarse and pitiless, that is rained down on him when he stands up to come into a game in New York. It is not pretty what these fans—or so these social criminals generously describe themselves—do every night to this man. But it is a time of public hate, open and undisguised, and sport appears to need its targets too.
Coach Red Holzman took over in the middle of last season. He somehow made a plus of the team's weakness—defense—by introducing a full-court zone press that picked up the team tempo and gave him the excuse to use more players. Holzman, who had been the team scout, started giving his own draft picks a chance to show why he wanted them. Frazier and Phil (Head-and-Shoulders) Jackson began to come into their own, Jackson playing windmill on the point of the press. The Knicks really are not a fast team—despite their quickness—and the press can be embarrassed by speedy guards. But it was so effective that this year almost every team will try it. For the Knicks, what is most important about the press is that it got the team interested in defense for the first time.
Jackson is the bench forward, with Cazzie Russell and Willis Reed scheduled to start up front, flanking Center Walter Bellamy. The big center receives opprobrium less only than Komives, and his work is uneven, but it is also true that his most recent performance, in the playoffs, was positively gallant. Reed and Russell are both players of heart and spirit, nagged only, perhaps, by their feelings that they are out of position. Russell began as a guard, Reed as a center. Bradley, greatly improved after a tough summer of playground ball, will also shift up front some of the time. The Knicks are so deep Holzman has to be accommodating in order to find playing time for all.
The team is also young; only Barnett and Bellamy have been in the league for more than four years. At some point the Knicks' curve of advancement, which has been established under Holzman, Will bisect the Celtics' downward graph. The only real question is when, specifically, this year or next?
If the Boston-New York equation is to be upset, Philadelphia is the most likely team to do it. Jack Ramsay, the general manager, will coach the 76ers this year. He had to leave college coaching because he was so intense that the emotional strain was producing a threat to his eyesight. He has reportedly recovered, but it took only one close exhibition loss to deprive him of a good sleep. Ramsay is a well-loved man, and some of his friends are privately distressed that he is coaching again. Hopefully, their concern is only an affectionate overreaction.
Ramsay is asking a great deal of his charges, who will again play their home games at the Spectrum if the roof doesn't blow off a third time. He will go to the fast break, to a half-court press from a man-to-man defense and a full-court press off a 3-1-1 zone—a gambling, scrambling defense that requires a collegiate dedication. The team has responded to such typically Ramsay candor as: "I want you to be the best physically conditioned team in the league. When you're playing four nights in a row in four cities that may span the country you have to learn to play with fatigue and still play well."
The 76ers' backcourt—Hal Greer, Archie Clark, Wally Jones and Swingman Matt Guokas—is among the very best offensively and will have to scratch for steals, too, because the 76ers will no longer always get the ball off the boards. The forwards lack muscle. Luke Jackson has returned to center in place of Chamberlain, and none of the other cornermen—Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Guokas or Johnny Green—has the strength to handle the big forwards.
Darrall Imhoff came from Los Angeles in the Chamberlain deal, and he will not only spell Jackson in the pivot, but will probably start there against some teams so that Jackson can be freed to muscle somebody else in the corner. Another center, rookie Craig Raymond, does not figure to see much action; neither, for now, does Shaler Halimon, the potentially outstanding swingman from Utah State.
Jackson tends to put on weight. He came in at 272 when Ramsay had been hoping for 240, but the extra pounds may serve big Luke well in the middle. He is no novice there, anyway. In pre-Chamberlain days the 76ers twice beat the Celtics, with Jackson battling Russell underneath. He has a good outside shot, too, and both he and Imhoff can play the high post. Shooters like Greer and Walker know how to use a good postman, having worked with the best, Johnny Kerr, when they were at Syracuse. Greer prefers to go off a pick anyway, and this should be his greatest scoring year. It is rebounding, though, that will probably keep the 76ers from matching Boston or New York.
Behind the big three comes a second-echelon trio of Baltimore, Detroit and Cincinnati. Detroit won the spare playoff berth last year and is a coming team. It was not hurt by expansion and will play more games than ever before at home in Cobo Arena—and with real people there to root the team on. The Pistons set attendance records last year as Donnis Butcher gave the team its best coaching in years.
Immediate improvement is not assured, however, because Forward Dave DeBusschere suffered a seriously twisted ankle that has been slow to heal and because, as ever, the team is weak in the middle. Joe Strawder's career may have been ended by a back injury. Never happy at Detroit, he was traded to Phoenix and then returned by the Suns after a physical examination. Rookie Otto Moore and Jim Fox now fall heir to the pivot spot. While both are hardworking young men, neither is quite up to the task yet, and Moore, possessor of a much better heart than pair of hands, needs to put on weight more than any other player in the league.
Though Butcher has helped the Pistons reduce their stress on outside shooting, the lack of a good offensive big man to go to the inside will continue to force too much play on the backcourt. Considering that the backcourt includes Eddie Miles, Jimmy Walker and Dave Bing, the brilliant scoring champion, this is certainly not a disturbing alternative, but the greater dependence on outside shooting might cost the Pistons a few extra wins when they come up cold-against expansion clubs they should beat. Since strength is more of a constant than marksmanship, it is the muscle teams that can be expected to be most consistent against expansion clubs.
Detroit's cornermen are valued more for their agility than their size, and if DeBusschere is really late in returning to form, it is his rebounding that will be most missed. Without him, Happy Hairston and Terry Dischinger will start. Last year's rookie bust, Sonny Dove, has matured and will play regularly this year. If Moore develops, the Pistons will become more serious contenders, but they are probably a year or so away. Six of the nine principals were not there two years ago, and everybody is still learning to get along together.
Baltimore has all but bottled and sold front-office disorder since the franchise came to town. The latest owner is Abe Pollin, who bought out his partners and fired his general manager, the popular Buddy Jeannette. At least the coach, Gene Shue, is returning, which is a novel concept for the Bullets. Shue desperately needs experienced guards, particularly someone who can bring the ball up and can play defense. If he does not get them, his fatigued backcourt is going to wonder if the games will ever end. Baltimore thought it could get Keith Erickson from Chicago, but a deal fell through when the Bulls preferred Los Angeles' dollar diplomacy. Only Earl Monroe and Kevin Loughery remain in the backcourt, while up front there are eight assorted forwards, centers, center forwards and center assistant coaches. This team may be the first team in the league forced into a trade.
The surprisingly fine, mature play of rookie Westley Unseld has only served to complicate the crowded forecourt picture more. Unseld whipped Otto Moore for nine straight baskets in one exhibition. He is strong, and Shue also thinks he is quick enough to play middleman in the press. His apparent contribution might even make it more likely that the Bullets would give up lively Gus Johnson in a deal. Jack Marin—who is playing out his option—would be another trade candidate, except that he is being converted into a guard (a 6'7" guard) and must be kept for now to back up Monroe and Loughery.
Earl the Pearl is the best bet to succeed Bing as scoring champion. He probably is the most exciting player to come into the league in almost a decade, a genuine drawing card. He is also aware that many other guards, who are neither as good nor as marketable as he is, are making much more money. Unless Baltimore begins to realize his value and pays him accordingly, the team may lose him. Monroe is quite aware that there is another league. The Bullets were 21-21 in their stretch run last year after The Pearl got settled in his new surroundings and almost doubled his average. The team is now more disposed to play defense, and try to work the ball inside on offense. If Unseld maintains his exhibition promise and the Bullets make an even-up trade for a guard, Monroe could bring them ahead of Detroit.
Like Baltimore, Cincinnati just missed the playoffs last year. The team rang up a dismal 5-20 record in the games that Oscar Robertson either missed or played in at less-than-full strength. It was 34-23 with Robertson, and he is healthy going into this season. The Royals are a year older, though, and shallower than ever after Robertson and Jerry Lucas take their positions.
Adrian Smith, 32, teams with Robertson at guard. Center Connie Dierking, also 32. suddenly came up with confidence and a fine scoring season last year and Tom Van Arsdale, a swing-man, adds defense and scrap. The rest are journeymen, though four rookies may catch on with the club. The best, Don Smith of Iowa State, is an outstanding corner prospect, but he is unpolished and needs time. In recent years the Royals' record for drafting players who stuck has been the league's best. Sadly, though, their choices usually have turned out to be merely tenacious fringe players.
Coach Ed Jucker learned a great deal last year in his rookie season with the pros. He was surprised that the players were not as mature or as self-disciplined as he had anticipated, and the lack of dedication on the part of some simply astounded him. The players liked Jucker, laughing at his absentmindedness, and they respected his knowledge and dedication. The year's experience will make him more astute this season, but in the end the Royals will go only so far as Robertson and Lucas can take them.
Milwaukee, the only expansion team in the East, is a cinch for the cellar. This prospect does have its compensation, namely that the Bucks stand only a coin flip away from the draft rights to Lew Alcindor. If the Western Division's last-place team wins the flip and takes Alcindor, the second likely draft choice is Neal Walk of Florida, another outstanding pivot prospect. If not quite this year, major league sports should at least return to Milwaukee next year.
Larry Costello, the last of the set shooters, is the coach, just one more in the long line of coaches who prepped with the old Syracuse Nationals. Costello does have enough depth to press and fast break—and to trade for the future. He sent Guard Johnny Egan to Los Angeles and Forward Dave Gambee is the kind of dependable reserve contenders might also trade a high draft choice for. With Alcindor or Walk the incumbent center the Bucks could be tempted to unload Wayne Embry late in the season if it is a sellers' market then. Embry might even end up replacing Embry at Boston.
For now, the presence of the rugged center in the middle makes Milwaukee a physical threat against anyone. Len Chappell and rookie Dick Cunningham will spell Embry, who is 31. Fred Hetzel, who had a 19.0 average with San Francisco but was put on the draft list because he was not on the boards enough, will be in one corner. Bobby Love will start in the other ahead of Gambee, Jay Miller and Charlie Paulk, the rookie from Northeastern State, Oklahoma who is rated in some quarters as a possible Rookie of the Year.
Guy Rodgers and Bob Warlick are the backcourt starters, with Jon McGlocklin, Bob Weiss and rookie Sam Williams of Iowa in reserve. Coach Costello says he is definitely retired as a player, thereby carrying the set shot to its reward. R.I.P.