The New York Nets did the ABA—and pro basketball in general—an immense service by bringing Julius Erving up from Virginia and thereby bringing the league title to the Big Apple. The Nets were so impressive last season that the NBA Celtics, Bucks and Knicks all found reasons not to play them in exhibitions this year. They were well advised. The young and gifted Nets are one year older and more gifted.
Dr. J. gave the fans a scare when his sore knees drove him to seven orthopedic specialists and kept him off the playgrounds all summer. Now sporting $150 worth of knee braces, Erving seems as mobile as ever, soaring up for his dazzling stuffs and bringing down the house. Larry Kenon—Mr. K.—was sixth in the league in rebounding last season and third off the offensive boards. The third forward spot is the Nets' biggest problem. Wendell Ladner, second only to the Doctor in receipt of fan mail, is out at least until December and possibly for the entire season following knee surgery.
At guard, Coach Kevin Loughery has a wealth of talent. Until John Williamson returns from his knee operation, Billy Melchionni will start alongside Brian Taylor. Melchionni, who lost his job to Williamson last year, spent the summer working into top condition. Behind them are Mike Gale and rookie Al Skinner, touted highly by Erving who played with him in Long Island schoolyards.
The challenge to the Nets in their own division will come from Kentucky, a very different team from the one New York trounced 4-0 in the Eastern finals. Coach Hubie Brown brings to his new job personal charm, basketball expertise and a thorough knowledge of the Milwaukee Bucks' style of patterned offense that he acquired as Larry Costello's assistant. Brown also has brought in playbooks, charts, drills and a magnetic board to demonstrate plays.
For Center Artis Gilmore, heretofore the undisputed big man in Kentucky, Brown's system constitutes a radical change, one to which he may have difficulty adjusting. Gilmore will be depended on less defensively, and will have to learn to participate in offensive patterns.
Brown's style is a help-out, pressure defense and a continuity offense, ideally with 30 to 35 fast breaks a game. When the break fails to materialize—both Gilmore and rebounder Jim Bradley are slow with the outlet pass—Kentucky will set up and try to get the ball to the open man farthest from the basket.
Brown will use his cornermen in the NBA-style, pairing a large forward with a small—Dan Issel or Bradley opposite Wilbert Jones or Marv Roberts. The guards, too, come in pairs—Ted McClain with perennial All-Star Louie Dampier, Bird Averitt with Joe Hamilton. Issel also has been doubling as backup center. Because of Gilmore's limitations, the breaks in Brown's offense often work better with Issel in the pivot.
Memphis has a lot of new faces. Also a new coach, Joe Mullaney, a new owner, Mike Storen, a new general manager. Bob Bass, a new name—the Sounds—and new uniforms. All of which adds up, hopefully, to a new uncancelable lease on life, plus a shot at finishing third in the East and making the playoffs. "We may be new," observes Mullaney. "But we're not rookies." Indeed not. The Sounds' starters have three things in common. They are old, experienced and have been acquired from other clubs: George Carter (30, six pro years, Virginia), Julius Keye (28, five, Denver), Freddie Lewis (31, eight, Indiana), Chuck Williams (28, four, Kentucky). The fifth, and the rock upon which the refranchised franchise rests, is Mel Daniels (30, seven, Indiana). Because of Daniels, the Sounds will at least be competitive, a new experience for Memphis.
At the bottom of the division, the Virginia Squires and the Spirits of St. Louis are also liberally using the adjective new. It will get them nowhere. Virginia Coach Al Bianchi has been around for a long time, but none of his players has. Former Owner Earl Foreman, who set a world record for unloading talent, finally unloaded his team to a group that says it will change the Squires' image.
The preseason roster included seven rookies, the most prominent being David Vaughn of Oral Roberts and Roscoe Pondexter of Long Beach State. Bianchi will lean heavily on Johnny Neumann, now at forward, who has skills but has seldom used them.
The Spirits used to be the Carolina Cougars, most of whose front office and coaching staff are now in Denver. Among the ex-Cougar Spirits is Forward Joe Caldwell, who is expensive, aging and troublesome. A court ruling will decide whether the Spirits get Billy Cunningham, who decamped for Philadelphia in the NBA with a year to go on a disputed contract. The Spirits will get Don Chaney in 1975, after he plays out his option with the Celtics. Meanwhile, they are scrambling for competent guards. They do have three No. 1 draft picks in uniform—Marvin Barnes, Maurice Lucas and Fly Williams—all of whom carry big price tags and pose potential discipline problems for Coach Bob MacKinnon. Their most promising rookie is Gus Gerard, a 6'8" cornerman from Virginia. It will be all MacKinnon can do to keep his own spirits up.