It was 11 o'clock on a Saturday night and the last of the crowd was straggling out of the vomitories of the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum when the Hawks returned to the floor. Moments before, Atlanta had finished an exhibition against the Cougars, but Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose excellence as a coach after three NBA seasons is one of the league's best kept secrets, felt his players needed more work. The reason for the extra effort: the Hawks know they have a chance to move into the NBA's top stratum.
No division has more good rookies than the Central, and no team in the Central has more good ones than Atlanta. Moreover, the Hawks have them where they are most needed—up front pulling in rebounds and helping Center Walt Bellamy. Fitzsimmons may have to wait a little while for 6'10" Dwight Jones (Houston) to mature, but his patience will not be sorely tried because he also has John Brown, a 6'8" blond from Missouri who has showed 'em from the 25th minute of the first exhibition.
Last year Atlanta ranked third in offense but 12th in defense, partly because its weak board work gave opponents second and third shots. Brown should help put an end to that. The Hawks also averaged more than 20 turnovers a game, many of them by Pete Maravich. The Pistol, who teamed with Sweet Lou Hudson to make Atlanta the first club with two 2,000-point scorers since the 1964-65 Lakers (Jerry West and Elgin Baylor), is heavier and healthier this year, and he seems to have gotten control of his high-speed dribbling. He is far less often trapped in the corner, heading instead to the hoop for points and assists.
The Bullets, who have left Baltimore for suburban Washington and taken the surname Capital, may have a rookie equal to Brown in 6'7" Nick Weather-spoon (Illinois). But if 'Spoon has to be relied on to dish it out as a starter—and he may well—they will not retain their division-winning calibre. In the frontcourt Elvin Hayes, who says he spoke with Jesus during the off-season, and Mike Riordan, who undoubtedly talked with a number of bartenders, are back and beautiful, but Wes Unseld may not be. He missed almost the entire preseason with an arthritic left knee. If Unseld is unable to play, the new coach, K. C. Jones, will be forced to look to Weatherspoon or Dave Stallworth.
Jones, a mild man who enjoys singing, is expected to have harmony problems. Guards Phil Chenier and Archie Clark, an intense sort who does not like criticism but gives it freely, didn't always syncopate last season. Now Jones is singing the blues for other reasons too. Clark separated a shoulder in a playground game and should be sidelined until late November when the team's arena in Largo, Md. is scheduled to open. Until then the Caps will play nine of their first 14 games on the road, and the injuries and schedule could make them something less than capital.
Injuries are bothering Houston at center; they have plagued Don Smith throughout his five seasons and have given George Johnson 50-year-old knees to go with his 26-year-old body. But the only unscarred Rocket pivotman, Otto Moore, is the one requiring surgery the most. He needs a hand transplant to enable him to catch the ball. Without a top man in the middle, or many ardent defenders at other positions, the Rockets allowed 114.5 points a game, more than negating their league-leading 112.8-point offense, which was built around Forwards Rudy Tomjanovich and Jack Marin, and Guards Mike Newlin, Calvin Murphy and Jimmy Walker.
To strengthen his defense, Coach John Egan is trying to install a team-oriented system. "Our guys have to learn that we got to help each other on the D," says Egan. "We don't need 30-point scorers who won't play at the other end of the floor. We're going to go with guys who play 100% every night, not 80% one game and 30% the next." Egan named no names, but most likely he was thinking of Walker. He can afford to sit Walker down because he has 6'6" Long Beach State rookie Ed Ratleff on hand. Ratleff already has pro poise, prefers passing to shooting and even enjoys using his long arms on defense.
"I always thought Bill was good at coaching, but I didn't care for his general managing until he made that trade," says one rival of Cleveland's Bill Fitch. Other experts give decidedly less flattering assessments of the controversial deal that sent starters John Johnson and Rick Roberson to Portland for the draft rights to Center-Forward Jim Brewer of the University of Minnesota. Even Fitch was a mite sour on the trade when Brewer arrived for training with extra weight on his already massive 6'8", 225-pound frame. Still, it is almost certain that Brewer, a non-shooter who is quick enough to have played a little at guard in college and thrives on rebounding and defense, will be first rate. But when? Chances are not soon enough to prevent the Cavaliers, who ascended to mediocrity last season with 32 wins, from taking a few steps back before continuing their progress. However, the backcourt of Lenny Wilkens and Austin Carr, both 20-point scorers, will prevent the reversal from being too drastic.