This divisional championship depends, among other things, on Bob Lanier's memory. After endless seasons in the abyss of mediocrity, the Pistons made a bold move on the Bucks last year and now if Lanier can only remember just how good a center he is, which is awfully good, Detroit may be able to leap over both Milwaukee and Chicago, perhaps to the very top of the league. The Bucks, of course, still operate with a long ton of talent, but they open the season in a depleted state while waiting for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's right hand to heal. Chicago has added Nate Thurmond, which is like giving an additional set of muscles to a mugger, and all the Bulls need now is inner peace, which may be somewhat harder to come by. Kansas City-Omaha is nicknamed the Kings, but of what?
After using up 13 coaches since 1948, the Pistons came upon Ray Scott almost two years ago and suddenly, instead of a bunch of people playing one-on-one, there was cohesion. Instead of individual stars, the Pistons became a galaxy. Just as important, Scott convinced Lanier not only that he was a premier center but that anyone who is 6'11" and weighs in at 260 pounds just naturally ought to be an assassin. "More elbows," ordered Scott. By nature a gentle man, Lanier became an enforcer, and the Pistons, a team at last, began to win. Only a two-point loss to Chicago kept them from the Western Conference final against Milwaukee. The defeat seems to have made the Pistons meaner and hungrier. "It's in the back of our minds," says Lanier.
He leads a talented and deep front line that could earn the Pistons an even better mark than their 52-30 (fourth-best in the NBA) of a year ago. For openers there are Curtis Rowe, Don Adams, George Trapp and Willie Norwood, and the Pistons drafted Missouri University's Al Eberhard, who may be the best small forward to come into the league since Jim McMillian in 1970. In the equally strong backcourt, Dave Bing will play alongside either John Mengelt, an improved Chris Ford or rookie Eric Money from Arizona.
In Milwaukee, before Abdul-Jabbar's hand became Topic A, everyone was wondering if the Bucks could win without the retired Oscar Robertson. "I think so," drily offered Kareem, who will miss at least three and perhaps four weeks of the season. "When he wasn't out there last season, our whole game changed. Now we'll be able to do things we weren't able to do with Oscar, to the extent that we either won't need him or we can compensate for his absence. We'll have more flexibility. We now have more people who can come off the bench and get the job done. Most definitely, we'll have a new look."
Without Robertson, the Bucks' new look will be the fast break, especially if rookie Gary Brokaw of Notre Dame plays opposite a healthy Lucius Allen at guard. That will make a difference. "I don't know if you know anything about chess," said Abdul-Jabbar, who does, "but last year we played black. This year we'll be able to attack." Brokaw is in the Dave Bing mold, but without the Piston's super-quickness. Although not a play-maker, he can score, run and handle the ball. Another plus is the acquisition of Guard George Thompson, who was with the Memphis Tarns last year and averaged 20.1 in 364 ABA games over the last five years. He scores on drives and on the fouls he often picks up en route to the basket.
With Thurmond arriving in the trade that sent Clifford Ray to Golden State, Chicago will be bigger and tougher than last season. But the Bulls will be much older as well. Thurmond is 33 and coming off a poor year on the Coast, and he'll be starting with Forwards Bob Love and Chet Walker and Guards Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier; all but Van Lier are over 30. That is the lineup provided the Bulls can persuade Love and Van Lier to end their holdouts. There is little love lost between Coach Dick Motta, he of the biting tongue, and some of his stars. Still, Motta usually gets what he demands, which is a rugged defense some critics of the sport have suggested was originally designed for the Chicago Bears. The Bulls gave up only 98.7 points a game last season (second-best in the NBA) and more than one opponent came away convinced that Motta drills his defenders in dark alleys.
The protracted money squabble with Love and Van Lier is critical for the Bulls. Between them, they averaged 36.1 points last season, and Van Lier, who together with Sloan sets the pace of the Chicago assault, was sixth in the NBA in assists with 548. Until these two are in camp, Chicago cannot go anywhere but down.
No matter which way Chicago goes, Kansas City-Omaha will finish last in the division, but at least the Kings will be exciting on offense, courtesy of Tiny Archibald and Jimmy Walker. Archibald returns after a bad season in which he was hampered by an injury to his Achilles' tendon and personal problems, and Coach Phil Johnson is not asking him to duplicate his stunning 1972-73 performance (34 points a game, 910 assists), just to come close. Johnson is also asking that the Kings play defense, a notion they rarely considered until he took over at midseason last year.