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Original Issue

Atlantic Division

Plus ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºa change, plus c'est la m‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢me chose, a Frenchman is rumored to have muttered. Could it have been Arnold (Rouge) Auerbach on observing the opening-night lineups in the all-new, no-clue Atlantic Division? The upheaval in the East began before last season when the New York Knicks changed coaches. Eighteen days into the season the Philadelphia 76ers changed coaches, too. Then the Boston Celtics did. Following the season, the Buffalo Braves changed owners, not to mention names, divisions, cities, states, foreign borders and heating bills. Then, under cover of summer the Knicks changed centers, the 76ers changed forwards, the Nets changed owners and guards and the Celtics changed forwards and guards. So how, one might ask the Frenchman, can anything stay the same? Well, Washington. Washington? Sorry. Yes, the Washington Bullets moved over from the Central into the Atlantic with precisely the same lineup that won the NBA championship last spring.

"They didn't dare break up our winning combination. There would be questions to answer," says Bullet reserve Mitch Kupchak, the man who picked up the elusive title after it rolled through various Seattle legs and deposited it in the basket with 90 seconds left in the seventh game of the final series.

As it happened, the contributions of Kupchak, Charlie Johnson and the rest of the Washington bench warmers provided the sliver of difference between the Bullets and the Sonics, and it will be Washington's depth and versatility that Coach Dick Motta will count on again this season. "We can give opponents so many different looks," Motta says. "I can play the power game or the quick game. I can scramble. I can win on defense. Or I can shoot you to death."

The Bullets can do these things all right, as long as their fearsome forecourt holds up. But Elvin Hayes is 32 and Wes Unseld's knees are approximately 62. During the Bullets' trip to Israel in September playoff MVP Unseld defied reality by floating his 240 pounds on the Dead Sea. He didn't sink. Now he is returning for his 11th season. The Bullets should stay afloat too.

Forward Bob Dandridge didn't do much for all that championship harmony of last spring by missing the exhibition season, reportedly because he was upset that other members of the Bullets were pulling down higher salaries. So it will be three weeks, perhaps longer, before he's at peak playing strength.

Tom Henderson leads the backcourt defense, and lefthander Kevin Grevey fills it up at the other end just as he did last season when he replaced the injured Phil Chenier. Chenier's return, following back surgery, is not imminent, which gives rookie Roger Phegley of Bradley a chance to stick. Perhaps weighed down by their championship rings, the Bullets lost their first five exhibition games. "It's a long season," sighed an unruffled Motta. "We'll probably only be picked third in our division, anyway."

Some say fourth, assuming that Marvin Webster and Marvin Barnes can prevent their respective new clients, the Knicks and Celtics, from collapsing. The division title already has been awarded to—all together now—the Philadelphia 76ers, who looked nothing short of sensational after breaking camp at tiny Lancaster, Pa. in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. If you can imagine the big-city Sixers coexisting peacefully with the bearded, behatted denizens of that Amish wonderland, you can believe anything.

To wit: Darryl Dawkins "low-profiling it" and refusing to adorn his jam baskets with such immortal descriptions as The Dunk You Very Much Dunk. Or Lloyd Free admitting his play last year deserved only "World" ranking instead of "All-world."

Do the 76ers owe Philadelphia two? After the team was upset in the playoffs for the second year, owner Fitz Dixon probably owed it to McGinnis to get him out of a town where he had become the scapegoat for everybody. Off to Denver went McGinnis, and Bobby Jones, he of the immaculate hands, passes and defensive moves, arrived to complement Julius Erving in the corners. "Bobby will be our defensive coordinator," says Erving. "We can learn and absorb from him." Meanwhile, the Doctor has been named captain and has positively taken charge of the 76ers. "The physical talent is here," he says. "Something just has to come from within to make us a champion. What we've done is change the chemistry and the makeup of the team, created a new set of circumstances and started there rather than taking a piece out of the puzzle and then sticking another in its place. On paper, we should have the ideally compatible team. It should work if we take up the slack re-bounding-wise with our centers."

Coach Billy Cunningham's newly installed "continuity offense" and "merit system" make certain that the 76ers will emphasize passing and movement and not worry anymore about getting equal playing time. "No more spots or minutes guaranteed," says Erving. "We'll go with who is hot. You'll get a blow, but you won't sit there for 10 minutes. That's not a blow, that's a coma." Rookie Guard Maurice Cheeks should have enough cheek to earn a job with the star-heavy Philadelphians, but the biggest surprise may be the increased involvement in the offense of Centers Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. "This is a complete overhaul," says Cunningham. "This is my team now."

Speaking of overhauls, the Celtics didn't do badly in that department following a season in which they lost 50 games and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. When the dust had cleared from the Great Swap, not only did Barnes wind up in Boston Garden, but Billy Knight and Tiny Archibald did, too. "What we have here," said Celtic Trainer Frank Challant, "are a bunch of guys with a bunch of things to prove." Sure enough, both Knight (knee) and Archibald (Achilles tendon) are coming off injuries, as is veteran Jo Jo White (heel). Though White and Archibald are quarterback types, Coach Satch Sanders says they have exhibited "a commonality of respect close to Utopia." Celtic observers only hope cornerman Knight, a scoring machine during previous NBA stops at Indiana and Buffalo, can play close to the Utopian form of the retired John Havlicek.

Unfortunately, there is concern over Dave Cowens' back, which he re-injured on a weight machine last month. In Cowens' absence, Barnes has played erratically in the pivot and muscleman Earl Williams has been a revelation. The Celtics don't get all that many rebounds even with a sound Cowens; without him, the team may exhibit a commonality of despair. But Cowens said he was feeling better toward the end of the exhibition season, which was good news for Sanders—and Barnes.

Down the coast, there is nothing but jubilation now that Knick Coach Willis Reed has the rebounding, shot-blocking center he lusted after. Reed figured that last season his team lost 21 of 28 games to opponents with effective big centers. "It's not so much what Marvin Webster is going to do for us," says Reed. "It's what he's going to keep the other people from doing against us."

Which is all fine and good on the defensive end, where the Knicks were much the worst team in basketball last year. But how is Webster, who was effective in Seattle's slow, deliberate, walk-the-ball attack, going to react in the Big Apple when he looks around and finds McAdoo and the helter-skelter Knicks racing upcourt for those hurry-up jumpers and making foolhardy turnovers?

Reed didn't pay much attention to holdouts by veterans Jim McMillian and Earl Monroe, inasmuch as he wants to play sophomore Glen Gondrezick and rookie surprise Greg Bunch at small forward and get fewer shooters and more passers and handlers into the backcourt. Michael (Sugar) Ray Richardson, who is coming off a hairline fracture of his right ankle, is this year's Walt Frazier, hoping to succeed where Ray Williams, last year's Walt Frazier, failed. If they are not the answer, playmaker Jim Cleamons and shooter Mike Glenn might be an even better combination.

And keep an eye on the New Jersey Nets, who might be the most improved team in the league. Coach Kevin Loughery's self-described "total backcourt" can suddenly stand proud with other guard combinations because John Williamson and Eric Money can score. Fast Eddie Jordan can pass and smooth rookie Winford Boynes looks like a budding star who can do both. Money came over from Detroit in exchange for league assist leader Kevin Porter, whom he used to understudy in mal-contentedness in Motown. Williamson, of course, is that modest fellow who took a leave of absence from Indiana last season and then came back to lead the NBA in scoring over the second half. "I am one of the top players in this league," says Williamson. "The guys I play against tell me what kind of talent I have. That's why they call me Supe." (And you thought it was because he played defense like a vegetable.)

Last season's quick-striking rookie, Bernard King, balances the score sheets at forward, and when Williamson isn't wearing out his arm, King will be. From 12 feet in, he's an automatic two points. The same cannot be said for the other Nets, specifically Center George Johnson, who led the league in blocked shots. Considering his shooting percentage (.395), Johnson may have been better off blocking some of his own outrageous deliveries.

Last season, Wilson Washington typified the sad-sack Nets when he showed up for practice one day only to be told by a custodian there was no practice. The custodian failed to mention that instead of a practice there happened to be a game. Washington did not show up for that. This year the Nets need not be so embarrassed when they arrive at games. "This division has all the good teams in it," says Jordan. "That means we're one of the good teams." Not so fast. Fast Eddie. Back to, uh, practice.