At least things are moving in the right direction: the Central Division used to be known as the Land of the Invisible Teams. In its first two seasons, only Baltimore won more games than it lost. This season the improved Centralists should be easier to locate in the standings, but that does not mean the division has entirely lost its old aura. The out-of-sight teams have been supplanted by players who are hard to find. With only a few days remaining before their openings games, Atlanta, Baltimore and Cleveland all had important performers who might—or might not—be around when the race gets under way. The Central championship could be decided by which team's wandering star turns out to be the least invisible man.
Only Houston played its exhibition schedule with a full complement of personnel. That is understandable since the Rockets are competing in Central for the first time and they have yet to get the hang of how things are done in the Dingbat Division. The Rockets put together an impressive string of exhibition victories, including one by 46 points, and they seemed primed for a fast getaway in a slow-starting race.
A strong opening month would be a decided change for Houston, which began last season with a 3-17 record. "It didn't bother me too much," says Coach Tex Winter, now starting his second year. "Most of those losses were narrow ones and we were using a lot of young players and an unfamiliar offense."
The Rockets learned well. Excluding their first 20 games, their record was .500 and the tough incubation period turned four players, Guards Calvin Murphy and Mike Newlin and Forwards Rudy Tomjanovich and Cliff Meely, into solid pros. Trades have brought in a pair of All-Stars to lead them. After playing second fiddle to Dave Bing in Detroit, Jimmy Walker now has a team of his own to run. And run it he did in the exhibitions, with extraordinary passing on the fast break and vocal floor leadership. Most of Walker's passes went to Jack Marin, the 22-point scorer from Baltimore the Rockets received in exchange for Elvin Hayes.
The arrival of Haves in Baltimore caused almost as much speculation as the nonarrival of Guard Archie Clark, who more than replaced Earl Monroe with his 25-point average last year. Clark spent the exhibition season holding out for a paltry $200,000 raise. Without him, Baltimore will still contend for the division title; with him, the Bullets could be one of the finest NBA teams.
Just how fine will depend on the play of Hayes. Combining Elvin with Wes Unseld (they will line up in a double post on offense with Unseld usually playing center on defense) gives Coach Gene Shue the best rebounding in the league. He will take advantage of it by playing three guards with his two big men and fast-breaking quickly. Hayes' exhibition performances indicated the plan might work: he scrambled, defended and, most importantly, shot jumpers only from his most productive spots.
A different sort of problem has afflicted Atlanta for two seasons. The Hawks had talent—Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson, Herm Gilliam and Walter Bellamy—but very few wins. They should improve if for no other reason than that Maravich is not suffering from mononucleosis and its aftereffects as he did last season. But Atlanta's chances of reaching the playoffs rest with two new Hawks. One of them is Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who may have more success motivating Atlanta with his disciplined approach than Coach-turned-General Manager Richie Guerin did with his hellfire style.
The other unknown factor is Julius Erving, who showed up in Atlanta's training camp complete with his pizza-pie-sized hands and his reverse slam dunk—even though he was still under contract to the ABA's Squires. He then played spectacularly in several exhibitions despite a decision by the NBA board of governors that if Erving played in the NBA he had to do it for the Milwaukee Bucks, who had drafted him. A judge has since ordered him back to Virginia, but the Hawks are appealing.
The last of the Central Division's question-mark stars is Lenny Wilkens. The best left hand in basketball was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers from Seattle where he had been the player-coach as recently as four months ago. And if the reluctant Wilkens decides to play, Cleveland, the laugh sensation of two years ago, will be considerably less comic.