Burdened by one of pro basketball's biggest payrolls—the price of dissuading such veterans as Luke Jackson and Billy Cunningham from jumping at various times to the ABA—the Philadelphia 76ers have lately been economizing in an odd way. They keep coming up with first-round draft choices unlikely to ever replace the high-salaried oldtimers. Creaky with age in consequence, Philadelphia nonetheless gave New York a run for the division title last season, and Coach Jack Ramsay gamely, if unconvincingly, insists, "I honestly think we can win the NBA championship this year."
As if to inspire his old crew, Ramsay did a lot of surfing, a recreation not usually associated with baldish, 46-year-old coaches, while the 76ers trained at Fort Pierce, Fla. for what shapes up as a closely bunched divisional race. And while the Knicks ought to win again, they might have to invoke the Spirit of '76 themselves, what with Dick Barnett being a ripe old 35 and Willis Reed recovering from knee surgery. As insurance for Reed, New York has acquired Jerry Lucas, who should help Dave DeBusschere get the ball off the defensive boards and out to Walt Frazier to trigger the Knick fast break. To back up Barnett, there is Marquette's Dean Meminger, a little rookie who already has started drawing big applause. Still, Lucas lacks Reed's quickness and defensive gifts, and Coach Red Holzman was being understandably solicitous toward his injury-prone center when, taking the Knicks into Indianapolis for a preseason game against the ABA Pacers, he cautioned, "Better not go in the dressing room, Willis—it's crowded in there." Reed, venturing into still heavier traffic, promptly scored 22 points in a 98-96 Knick victory.
The other playoff berth could quite possibly go to the upstart Buffalo Braves, whose coach, Dolph Schayes, lasted just one game. Buffalo lost that one by 33 points and in came John McCarthy. Still, the team's improved prospects are suggested by the fate of last year's two 20-point scorers, Don May and Bob Kauffman. May was traded to Atlanta in a deal that brings to the young Braves the steady hand at guard of Walt Hazzard. Kauffman, a one-year wonder at the high post, will return to forward to make way for Elmore Smith, the 7'1" rookie from Kentucky State whom Buffalo signed for a reported $2 million and then put through four days of hospital tests to make sure he was in working order. Smith needs experience, especially on offense, but his shot-blocking and rebounding potential is such that one brave Buffalo official says, "We don't care if Elmore scores only five points a game. We really don't." Of course, that raises the question of where the points will come from, since Kauffman will not be quite as effective against more mobile cornermen.
Another team on the upswing is Boston, though the Celtics still must develop something resembling team defense. As a start, they have finally stopped dreaming of Bill Russell's apocalyptic presence, and when Jo Jo White, that sweet-shooting guard, needed a jersey for an exhibition game with the 76ers at Hazleton, Pa., he thought nothing of donning Russell's sacred (but not yet formally retired) No. 6 for the evening. The bench is weak, a problem for a club that likes to run, but Coach Tom Heinsohn gets solid rebounding from old reliables John Havlicek, who does everything, and Don Nelson and, above all, Russell's successor at center, scrappy Dave Cowens.
All of which dooms Philadelphia to last place, right? Well, the 76ers have made the playoffs eight straight years, and they still have Cunningham and Archie Clark, one-on-one standouts adept at finding the free man when double-teamed. Then there is the tireless Hal Greer, who needs just 57 more games to surpass Schayes' NBA career record of 1,059. Greer now doubles as Ramsay's assistant coach, but he says, "The important thing is how I produce as a player." The NBA's second-oldest guard after the Knicks' Barnett, Greet last season averaged a remarkable 37-plus minutes and 18.6 points a game.