Last season was an ironic one for the Indiana Pacers. They had a center weakened by illness. There was dissension. They had rookies who played too often to suit the veterans. There were tall guards who were too slow and fast guards who were too short. All year long Coach Slick Leonard bubbled away at a rapid boil. Still, the Pacers came from out of nowhere to become the first team to win two American Basketball Association championships.
This year Indiana has removed the causes of discontent while remarkably improving its guard corps. The rookies have matured rapidly and Pivotman Mel Daniels is healthy again and full of the special competitive energy that has twice made him the ABA's Most Valuable Player. Yet irony could catch up with the Pacers again. Their added strength makes them the favorite for another title—but only if they can outlast the Utah Stars to win the Western Division.
Former Pacer Forward Bob Netolicky and Guard Rick Mount are gone. They took the bulk of Indiana's unhappiness with them and in exchange for Neto the Pacers received 6'3" All-League backcourt man Donnie Freeman. In other times in other cities, Freeman has been rapped as a malingerer, but he may have erased that reputation for good last year in Dallas when he shot the Chaparrals into the playoffs and finished with a 24-point average. This year, Freeman says, "I'll be doing a lot of other things." Hopefully one of the other things will be passing to the Pacers' other good shooters: Daniels and Roger Brown, who returns to forward after last year's unfortunate experiment at guard; scooting backcourt men Freddie Lewis and Bill Keller; and second-year frontliners George McGinnis and Darnell Hillman. College dropout McGinnis this fall seems ready to graduate to the all-ABA team, while Hillman has improved his shooting and will play both forward and center.
The Stars will have to learn to run again before they go jumping with the Pacers. Center Zelmo Beaty underwent knee surgery during the off-season, but still suffers from arthritis in both knees. Willie Wise, the ABA's best all-round forward, also has all manner of spurs, lumps, bumps and bruises in both legs. "The top half of my body is 25," he says, "but I've got the bottom half of an 80-year-old." Wise added a 23.2 scoring average to his already impeccable defensive play last year. If Beaty or Wise is at less than full effectiveness, the Stars will not be able to stay with Indiana. A fit Utah, however, should be better than it was a year ago when it led the Pacers by 13 games during the regular season before losing to them in a seven-game playoff. Often-injured Merv Jackson came to the Stars' camp healthy and heavier. He gives Utah another accomplished ball handler and superior defensive guard to go along with smooth Jimmy Jones.
The Western Division's three other teams should finish well behind the two title contenders. In Denver, tough General Manager-Coach Alex Hannum needed only one season to return the Rockets to the playoffs. This progress will continue, slowly but steadily, largely because of the maturing of young Guard Ralph Simpson. When the Floridian and Pittsburgh franchises were dropped, the players were redistributed to the remaining clubs through a special draft and Denver picked the plum of the Floridians in rugged Warren Jabali (a/k/a Warren Armstrong). With Jabali to feed him, Simpson could become the league's top scorer.
Last season Dallas pulled a shocker by finishing fast to earn third place and a .500 record. Unfortunately for Chaparral fans a reoccurrence is not likely. Netolicky, who will play center, joins good old Chaps Rich and Steve Jones. Unhappily, Dallas Vice-President Joe Geary stirred racial tension by asserting the team needs more whites. The embers of that remark may smolder all season.
This situation may give San Diego's expansion Conquistadors (nicknamed Q's at the behest of newspaper headline writers) a shot at a playoff spot in their first season. Coach K.C. Jones has a former and the current holder of the league single-game scoring record on his roster: Forward Stew Johnson once pumped in 62 points for Pittsburgh, and last season Guard Larry Miller scored 67 for Carolina. Even with that kind of firepower, ex-Celtic Jones' concentration predictably will be on defense. If the Conquistadors learn their cues properly, they could win as many as 30 games.