When they counted up the victories just before the playoffs last season, all four Midwest teams were in the NBA's top seven. But only two clubs, Milwaukee and Chicago, were allowed to push on to the finals under the rule that limits the action to first-and second-place teams in each division. And while a league conference in November will review that rule, the likelihood of change seems small, which means just one thing: the race for the second playoff spot will again be tight. In fact, it will be so close that the outcome might well be determined by the unpredictable rather than talent—such things as injuries, team morale and luck.
First playoff position is something else: talent in the towering form of Kareem Abdul Jabbar will keep that honor—and subsequently the league championship—firmly in the hands of the Bucks. Simply because the competitive fire of a first title-winning season can rarely be sustained the second time around, Milwaukee likely will lose more than the 16 games it lost a year ago. But not many, because Jabbar is still reaching for his full potential as a player, and Oscar is still running the show. In exhibitions Jabbar hit 65% of his own shots, blocked opponents' shots more frequently than ever and looked stronger. He is five pounds heavier (237 pounds on that towering frame) and the extra weight has broadened his chest and shoulders, just the thing to help the Bucks' rebounding. That was the team's only basic weakness last season, but the situation should also improve with the introduction of 6'9" John Block from Houston. Block replaces retired Bob Boozer as the substitute for small starting Forwards Greg Smith and Bob Dandridge, giving Milwaukee added strength, speed and shooting range.
One thing that could slow the Bucks' getaway is a bad case of preseason exhaustion. The team's popular road show stormed the circuit to big crowds but ran everybody ragged.
This situation offers hope to Phoenix, which lost only two exhibition games. The Suns played with regular-season fervor and might be hyped up enough to put a firm early grasp on that other playoff spot. In fact, all three of the Midwest's also-rans hope that added strength at forward will keep them in the race. The Suns' new punch comes wrapped in a couple of familiar old packages, Paul Silas and Connie Hawkins.
In the off season Silas joined his wife on the Weight Watchers' diet and dropped 30 pounds. His game has changed almost as much as his looks. He used to be a tough rebounding and defending forward; now he is a tough rebounder and defender who also runs the fast break beautifully. The break has not been a Phoenix specialty in the past, largely because good-shooting Guards Dick Van Arsdale and Clem Haskins are not notably quick. But rookie Dennis Layton, a surprising third-round draftee from USC who runs fast and handles the ball deftly, should complete the change in style. Further, Hawkins will alter the opinions of those who felt he lost superstar status last year with his very ordinary play. During the exhibitions the Hawk was soaring higher than ever for those good old one-handed rebounds and also doing some low-level work as the man most frequently sprinting back on defense to harass fast breaks.
Meanwhile, Chicago's high-scoring cornermen, Bob Love and Chet Walker, do not particularly care for the fast break. They would rather grind it out in the efficient, forward-oriented pattern offense favored by Coach Dick Motta (page 46) which allowed them to average 47.2 points a game between them. The Bulls' problem was that Love and Walker could not rebound well enough to provide themselves all the shooting opportunities they needed. Guard Jerry Sloan was Chicago's second-best rebounder behind Center Tom Boerwinkle, so this fall Motta has imported a herd of beefy young forwards to fatten up the Bulls. The two best are rookies Howard Porter of Villanova and Eastern Michigan's Kennedy McIntosh. Porter received the far bigger bonus, but McIntosh, a strong 6'7" leaper who also can shoot, may get more playing time. Additionally, Chicago has unexpected rebounding potential in third-round draftee Clifford Ray of Oklahoma. He might well become a hefty backup for Boerwinkle.
"We played forward roulette all last year," says Detroit Coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who may have wanted to try the real Russian version after it was all over. Frustration about who to play in the corners helped push VBK to a new personal record in technical fouls (over 40 at $25)—and also prompted him to bring eight forwards to the training camp. One of them, last year's starter Terry Dischinger, is still slowed by a leg injury, putting added pressure on rookies Willie Norwood and Curtis Rowe of UCLA. And as if that were not bad enough, a preseason eye injury suffered by star Guard Dave Bing turned out to be a torn retina. Result: surgery will sideline him for at least two months. Although the Pistons still have standouts in Jimmy Walker and Center Bob Lanier, Bing's importance to the team was demonstrated in the season opener in which he scored 24 points, blurred vision and all, to help beat New York.