The division championship hinges more on the condition of Willis Reed's left knee than on the talent of all the other teams. Boston has plenty of talent. So does Buffalo. Philadelphia has a little—but New York ought to be the team to beat once again if Reed returns to form after an operation to repair a severe case of tendinitis. He managed, painfully, to appear in only 11 games last year, forcing Coach Red Holzman to adopt an offense that allowed Jerry Lucas to roam free while Walt Frazier did the penetrating, and the smart, veteran Knicks adjusted. Now they should be able to revert to a closer-range offense built around a sound Reed. That would make the team as potent as it was in 1969-70. All this plus a healthy-looking Earl Monroe, slim and agile again. The Pearl has had a year to adapt to the Knick style and concede he must often play without the ball. The rookies—Henry Bibby, a well-schooled, accurate and quick-shooting guard from UCLA; Forward Tom Riker; and promising back-up Center John Gianelli—are less important in this year's title bid. If the Knicks do it again, it will be the old men who do it.
In Boston, one newcomer will have a lot to say about the Celtics' defense of the division title. Paul Silas, acquired in the Charlie Scott deal, gives Boston the power and offensive rebounding missing last year. "We already had quickness," says Coach Tommy Heinsohn, "but some of our opponents tried to outmuscle us." Paul's presence has given the other forwards a bad case of Silasitis. Steve Kuberski's starting job is threatened and Don Nelson started hustling so hard that he got a standing ovation from his teammates as he rushed down the court at full speed during a practice. Another addition to the squad, rookie Guard Paul Westphal from USC, suffered torn ligaments in his left knee last winter, underwent surgery and was questionable at draft time. But now he is progressing well enough to justify General Manager Red Auerbach's enthusiasm, and will spell the aging Hambone Williams as first replacement. John Havlicek, recently signed to a new contract making him the highest-paid Celtic in history, may see more time in the backcourt than usual, along with snapshooting Jo Jo White and Don Chaney. Collectively, Heinsohn couldn't ask for much more to complement Center Dave Cowens, who does as well against the league's giants as anyone 6'9" could.
The Buffalo Braves are not likely to finish higher than third, but may be the team of the future. Coach Jack Ramsay brings stability and teaching expertise to a club that has had three coaches, two owners, two publicity men, two trainers and two controllers in less than three years. Ramsay arrived with the assignment of building a champion around the defensive talents of 7' sophomore Center Elmore Smith, and he started early, scheduling 20 "voluntary" practices over the summer. Each Thursday Ramsay abandoned his beloved surfboard and flew to Buffalo from his summer home on the Jersey shore. "Last season I didn't know if I was a forward, guard or center," Smith says. "We've got a system now. My job is to help other people score." Among the other people is impressive 6'9" rookie Bob McAdoo from North Carolina. Add 6'8" Bob Kauffman, and the Braves have one of the tallest front lines in the game. At guard is Abdul Rahman (a/k/a Walt Hazzard), always an able floor leader who was often accused of lacking stamina. This summer he tried a distance-running program at UCLA—the same program that helped Laker Gail Goodrich last year. Under the new playoff system the Braves could go far, fulfilling their promise as the best expansion team three years ago.
As for expansion teams, the established Philadelphia 76ers look just like one. Having lost Billy Cunningham to the ABA, the best thing rookie Coach Roy Rubin can say is that "adversity brings guys together." And he says it over and over. The next best thing he can do is to endure and hope that the draft will serve the 76ers better next year than it has in the recent past. "I have to play this year with what I have this year," Rubin says. That includes Dennis Awtrey, Bill Bridges, John Block, Fred (Mad Dog) Carter and elderly Hal Greer, to name a few of the crew. Coach Rubin adds, cheerfully, that he has enjoyed every job that he's ever had. That record is in jeopardy.