Just before the Buffalo Braves, the most promising of the NBA's three new expansion teams, broke training camp in Niagara Falls, Coach Dolph Schayes decided to take in that city's most famous tourist attraction. Surrounded by the inevitable honeymooners, he set out aboard the Maid of the Mist into the frothy waters beneath the falls. "Think of it," marveled Schayes, his long frame draped in a black raincoat. "Those falls help produce electricity for the whole Northeast." Schayes had reason to be awed by the area's power situation, for realignment puts his Braves in the Atlantic Division with three teams that together have won the last 12 NBA titles—Boston 10 of them, Philadelphia one and New York one.
The NBA's power grids are interdependent, too; Buffalo is stocked with half a dozen ex-Knicks, three of them fresh off last year's championship team. Despite the drain, New York should be improved—and it will need every last kilowatt to fend off the Milwaukee Bucks. The Knicks will be strengthened most by the return of Phil Jackson after a spinal fusion. The gangly Jackson will back up Willis Reed, still recovering from the hip injury he suffered in the playoffs, and he also will deliver welcome rebounding help. Last year the Knicks compensated for their lack of size up front—Reed, at 6'10", is not tall as NBA centers go, while Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley are almost Lilliputian—with superb shooting, plus the wiles of Walt Frazier, whose ball hawking obscured the fact that he led all NBA guards in rebounding. Then, too, the Knicks' aggressive team defense forced so many turnovers that, as Reed says, "It didn't matter if we failed to get the rebound. We'd get the ball anyway."
New York's formula—more mobility than muscle—is also followed by Boston and Philadelphia, but each lacks a take-charge center of Reed's caliber. The 76ers are seasoned but aging, the Celtics young but improving. When Boston took the court for a preseason game in Tallahassee, Fla., veteran Referee Jack Madden turned to John Havlicek and asked, "Who are those guys with you, anyway?" Well, those guys can run like no Boston team in years, much of the impetus coming from such youngsters as Jo Jo White, suddenly the consummate offensive guard, and long-striding Don Chaney, a defensive expert who has now learned to shoot, too. The ones who will get them the ball, and do some running themselves, are the irrepressible Havlicek, a one-man gang on last year's demoralized team, Don Nelson and red-haired Dave Cowens, the first-round draft choice from Florida State and a high-flying forward whom Coach Tom Heinsohn also plans to use at center.
The 76ers drafted poorly a year ago, turned to a computer for help, then drafted poorly again. Although Hal Greer will need more rest, the 76ers have ABA-bound Billy Cunningham for another year, which means they should continue to score well. But so should the opposition. Philly gave up more points than eight other teams in the league last year, and the man who could be most helpful in improving that record, Luke Jackson, is still recovering from old ailments.
It might even be that Schayes' new Buffalo club will play better defense than the 76ers, this because of a flock of quick guards led by stylish ex-Laker Dick Garrett. Offense is something else, and the Braves will probably resort to the one-on-one thrusts of Baltimore castoff Mike Davis, who likes to play ball with a toothpick in his mouth, and ex-Knick Don May. The team's progress could depend on that of John Hummer, the rookie from Princeton who is shaped like Davis' toothpick but shows poise and is learning to shoot from outside. Although they should fatten up on the other expansion teams, an omen of how the Braves are likely to fare overall came after their first game ever, the preseason opener in Wooster, Ohio, which they won over Cleveland 97-95. On the way home the team bus ran out of fuel at 2:30 a.m., forcing all hands to seek shelter in a nearby motel. You might call it the division's first power failure.
Dave Cowens, clutching a rebound Buffalo's John Hummer misses, helps bring Boston back.