Last season the Kansas City Kings finished only two games behind Milwaukee in the Midwest Division. Now, with the Bucks reassigned to the Central Division, the Kings should easily regain the title they won in 1979. Leading K.C. are Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong, the best pair of guards in the NBA. Ford is a quick, fluid and controlled penetrator who had 7.4 assists a game. He likes to go in low and dish the ball off to Birdsong, who scored 22.7 points a game.
Up front the forwards are 225-pound Reggie King, whose skills are abundant but often misplaced, and 6'7" swingman Scott Wedman, a radar (51.2%) perimeter shooter.
The Kings' regular center is Sam Lacey, a good passer and an occasional big scorer. But Lacey is 32 and slow, and he couldn't intimidate on defense with a chair and whip. Realizing this, the Kings gave up $100,000 and a No. 1 draft pick to obtain 6'10" Leon Douglas from Detroit, and they got a 6'10" Joe C. Meriweather in a three-way deal with Cleveland and New York. Neither will make anyone forget Bill Russell, but even without superior center play, the Kings will dominate the NBA's weakest division.
San Antonio may be the only team capable of giving the Kings a strong challenge. The Spurs have a new coach, Stan Albeck, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and pretty much a new team. This is not the same band of running and gunning outlaws who led the NBA in offense with a whopping 119.4 points per game last year and trailed everyone on defense by giving up an equally whopping 119.7. To be sure, the Spurs are still running, but now the fast break is more disciplined. There is also a greater emphasis on team play, and Albeck spent the preseason stressing defense with evangelical fervor. He may have made some progress, too; in one exhibition game George Gervin was actually seen bent over and moving his hands and feet when the other team had the ball.
Of course, offense remains Gervin's game. The Ice Man won his third consecutive scoring title last season (33.1 ppg), and his running mate is James Silas, who also possesses a quick trigger and an arsenal of offensive moves. Silas used to spend a lot of time last season arguing with now-deposed Coach Doug Moe, but his relationship with Albeck is so much better that his spirit and game seem rejuvenated.
Last season's third big gun, Forward Larry Kenon, has moved on to Chicago. John Shumate will replace him, while massive Mark Oldberding will be at the other forward spot. The center is former Net George Johnson, who can't throw a ball through a Hula-Hoop but can certainly block shots.
Houston Coach Del Harris thinks a lot of the Rockets' problems of 1979-80 may have been solved by the process of elimination. For one thing, perennial All-Star Rick Barry, a brooding liability last season, has finally traded in his sweat bands for an occasional seat next to Brent Musburger and Hot Rod Hundley. For another thing, Guard Tom Henderson seems to have a much better relationship with Harris this season than he had last. So, as the season began, Harris was optimistic. "We had a great training camp. I think we're ready."
Center Moses Malone, who appeared in all 82 games last season, is always ready. Malone, who averaged 14.5 rebounds a game, second in the league, may be the finest offensive board man in history. Flanking Malone are underrated Robert Reid and veteran Rudy Tomjanovich. Rudy T. has always managed to score around 17 points a game, but he must improve his average of five rebounds. Houston's depth at forward is young and inexperienced. John Stroud and Lee Johnson are both rookies, though Johnson, the Rockets' No. 1 pick in 1979, could be something of a sleeper. Johnson spent last year in Italy and, according to Harris, he had "a great summer-league performance and an equally great preseason." Backing Malone is 6'11" Billy Paultz, the Whopper, whose main job will be seeing to it that Malone doesn't burn out before the playoffs.
With Henderson back in stride, Houston will once again have the offensive direction it had when winning the Central in 1976-77 but lacked last season. Henderson's running mate, 5'9" Calvin Murphy, had 20 points a game in 1979-80.
The Denver Nuggets last year had a 30-52 record and missed the NBA playoffs for the first time since entering the NBA in 1976-77. This season could be worse. Especially if anything bad happens to Center Dan Issel. Without Issel, the Nuggets were humiliated 122-98 in the preseason by the expansion Dallas Marvericks, of all teams. "If we lose Dan, we're in for a long, a very long season," says Coach Donnie Walsh. Perhaps to insure himself against injury, the 32-year-old Issel reported to camp at the lowest weight (230 pounds) he has been in years. That should mean another season of 20 or more points and eight or nine rebounds a game. But Issel is still only 6'9", and that's a problem for the Nuggets against the big boys. Walsh would like to start 6'8", 215-pound rookie James Ray at power forward, but Ray is recovering from a knee injury. Ray was drafted strictly for his rebounding capabilities, but, says Walsh, "If there's one thing about him that's consistent, it's his shooting. He's a great shooter with great range." Ray can't play until Oct. 21; meanwhile mobile Alex English and Kim Hughes will attempt to take up the slack in the front court.
Guard David Thompson, who missed the final 43 games last season with strained ligaments in his left foot, spent the summer recuperating and rededicating himself to basketball. He was fully recovered and playing brilliantly in the preseason when a bruised left heel put him back on the injured list. But then, with the aid of a specially padded shoe, he returned to action and scored 96 points in Denver's last three exhibition games. Joining Thompson at the other guard will be Ken Higgs.
Because of rookie Darrell Griffith, the hapless Jazz will have a little more pizzazz this season. The 6'3" Griffith may not dunk as often as he did while leading Louisville to the national championship last spring, but he will have plenty of opportunities to show off his blurring speed and exceptional long-range shooting. "We're counting heavily on Darrell to score points for us," says Coach Tom Nissalke, whose Jazz finished last in offense last year (102.4 ppg). "But beyond that Darrell gives the franchise some credibility. In past years the club gave away too many top draft choices for players like Pete Maravich and Gail Goodrich. It's time now to start building."
Griffith should take some pressure off Adrian Dantley, who scored 28 points a game last season. Dantley has a zillion moves inside, and his outside shot has improved considerably. He is also the best rebounder on the worst board team in the league. Billy McKinney gets the guard spot next to Griffith because Terry Furlow, the team's third leading scorer last season, was killed in an automobile accident this summer. The center is Ben Poquette, a 6'9" battler, who, says Nissalke, is really a power forward.
Down in Dallas, Coach Dick Motta of the expansion Mavericks says he only wants to be "respectable," which is another way of saying, "I don't want to get blown out every night." Adds Motta, "I'm not as concerned about the number of games we win as I am with how we hustle and execute." Motta has the Mavericks executing a simple passing game with a variety of screens and movement away from the ball. Nothing innovative, just basic pattern basketball. "It's nice to coach players who are eager to play and who run the offense," says Motta, tweaking his former team, the Washington Bullets.
The Mavericks are young, and their talent is only so-so. Any number of them could start, except at center, where 6'11" Tom LaGarde, formerly of Seattle, owns sole rights. LaGarde does everything well—run, rebound, score, defend and pass. Unfortunately, he won't do anything if his bad knees act up. "We're hoping he stays healthy," says Motta. This concern is understandable since LaGarde's backup is 7'4" Ralph Drollinger, who got pushed around during the exhibition season. Before the year ends he may be praying to rejoin his former team, Athletes in Action.
Since first-round draft choice Kiki Vandeweghe decided to study prose instead of joining the pros, the Maverick forwards will be 6'8" Jerome Whitehead and Abdul Jeelani. The starting guards are Geoff Huston and Winford Boynes. Sounds like blow-out time.
With Griffith, hoops may be a new gig in Utah.