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Original Issue

WEST: Rocky Mountain high


The textbook case on How to Revitalize a Franchise evolved in Denver last season when the entire city contracted a serious epidemic of the Rocky Mountain Highs. The Nuggets won more games (65) than anyone in pro basketball before being upset by Indiana in the playoffs. The team was a year away. Or a month. But no sooner had Coach Larry Brown and General Manager Carl Scheer lost than they won—namely, the two top college draft choices, David Thompson and Marvin Webster.

Though Webster will be on sick leave when the Nuggets open their grand new 17,500-seat McNichols arena, Thompson, the incredible soaring machine, will show why he is worth the $37 trillion Denver is paying him. After Brown-Scheer cut the heart out of their team to get the youngsters, the only quality players left were Forward Bobby Jones and Guard Ralph Simpson, so another trip to the mint produced Dan Issel from Baltimore. Issel will switch back to his old center position and the Nuggets figure to be quicksilver as well as golden underneath. In backcourt, Simpson is a stylish offensive player and Fatty Taylor returns to contribute defensive steals, but neither is the leader Brown would prefer. Free agent Steve Jones may be the answer. Or second-year-man Jimmy Foster. Or rookie Monte Towe.

The Spurs and the Nets used a nifty sagebrush subway to shuttle eight different players between San Antonio and New York in the off-season. As a result the Spurs have just as much firepower as before without sacrificing their terrible defense; if Coach Bob Bass' crew had defended the Alamo, the Mexicans would have concluded the struggle within 24 seconds. Last year Coach Tom Nissalke installed a slow-down power attack with the emphasis on burly Center Swen Nater, but when Bass took over early last year he wanted to run, and Swen went into a swoon. His replacement, Billy Paultz, is a good shooter-rebounder who plugs the middle on defense, but he may run less than Nater, a feat previously believed impossible. Which leaves it up to skinny Cornermen George Gervin and Larry Kenon. Gervin is quick, strong and nearly unstoppable in close; Kenon, out from Dr. J's long shadow on Long Island, brings with him superior rebounding skills. Mike Gale, the third former Net, adds class to a backcourt that includes James Silas and George Karl, two punishing types who can score and direct the 1-4 offense.

Nissalke, one of the game's classic survivors, turned up in Salt Lake City where he took the Utah Stars to the playoffs using three 6'11" starters. Inasmuch as Utah had no forwards to speak of, Nissalke got by on the "slow break," which is exactly what it sounds like, plus kid power in the person of 19-year-old Moses Malone. Moses led the team to the unpromised land of 38-46, or fourth place, but he did show enough skill and learning ability to justify some predictions that he will become the best offensive rebounder in history.

Leaper Ron Boone, who has played in 588 straight regular-season games, is the Stars' other star. His backcourt mate will be John Roche or AI Smith or Rick Mount. Rookie Steve Green, an uncanny shooter at Indiana University, will be at forward alongside Randy Denton, allowing Malone to play pivot again. Jim Eakins will back up Malone, who will miss the first two weeks recovering from a broken foot.

The Indiana Pacers' new ownership refused to match Philadelphia's offer to George McGinnis and refused to pay Kevin Joyce what he thought he was worth, thus losing about 40% of the team's 112-point-per-game offense. Consequently, Coach Bob Leonard, armed with a new five-year contract, must work hard for a whole season rather than enjoy his accustomed part-time duty in the playoffs. This is Leonard's type of team—young, tough and willing—but the post-McGinnis Pacers will suffer from Present Shock. Forward Billy Knight, an explosive scorer as a rookie when McGinnis demanded double coverage, must show he can do it without George. So, too, must underrated Darnell Hillman, who rebounds, blocks shots and contributes strong D. Second-year Center Len Elmore looked like the most improved player around during the preseason. A sleeper rookie, Mike Flynn, may start in backcourt alongside Don Buse, and ahead of bombs-away Bill Keller.

The once-mighty Pacers will be back—probably back of everybody but Bill Musselman's San Diego Sails. Musselman is the defensive specialist who was rescued from Minnesota just before the NCAA hangman tied the noose. His reputation for discipline is matched only by his inability to get along with players, and a pool already has been formed on how long Musselman will last in San Diego.

The Sail guards, especially the exciting Bo Lamar, shoot first and ask questions later. Warren Jabali doesn't even ask questions; his repartee with Musselman ought to be marvelous. Up front things should go more smoothly if only because Caldwell Jones is one of the best centers in the sport; he is devastating when he wants to be. Musselman brought the Big Ten's best freshman, 6'9" Mark Olberding, along with him from the Minnesota campus to hurt people and, not incidentally, to become the next Dave DeBusschere. But the club traded away its other forward, shooter Travis Grant, for money. How many points money will score is uncertain, but the betting is that money will be around long after Musselman has gone.