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MIDWEST Division

Had it not been for Coach Doug Moe's wife, the DENVER NUGGETS might not have survived the summer. Last June the franchise was ailing—"We even owed the paper boy," says one former partner—when Jane Moe suggested Red McCombs, a friend and former part owner of the San Antonio Spurs (for whom Moe had coached), as a buyer. "I was pacing the floor wondering what to do," the coach says. "Then Jane just sat up in bed and said, 'What's Red McCombs doing now?' " Before you could say "Chapter 11," McCombs had bought the Nuggets and re-signed free agents Kiki Vandeweghe, Dan Issel and T.R. Dunn, all essential to Moe's run-shoot-and-rotate offense. It's a style that suits the top draft pick, Guard Rob Williams of the University of Houston. David Thompson is gone to Seattle, but there are no regrets. "He was hurt the first half of last year, and we developed as a unit while he was out," Moe says. To improve its matchups defensively, Denver welcomes Forward James Ray and Frontcourt Man Dave Robisch (back after knee and Achilles tendon injuries, respectively), Center Rich Kelley (from Phoenix) and Guard Bill Hanzlik (from Seattle in the Thompson deal). All four are fitting into the Denver offensive "system," such as it is. Less is Moe, and given the Nuggets' depth and personnel, that philosophy should be more than enough to win the division.

The SAN ANTONIO SPURS also added by subtracting, trading two frontline front-court men to Chicago for 7'2" Artis Gilmore. "Artis will make all the difference in the world," says Guard George Gervin. "He's big and strong and we're gonna go to him." Gilmore figures to spark the Spurs' fast break. Coach Stan Albeck feels Gervin will get the 25 shots a game he averaged last season as the league's leading scorer (32.3 ppg), and Gilmore and Forward Mike Mitchell will split another 40 between them.

However, the rebounding of Dave Corzine and Mark Olberding will be missed, and so will the shot blocking of 6'11" George Johnson, who was sent to Atlanta for rookie Center Jim Johnstone. Albeck worries about the club's depth, but he believes the trades were essential if San Antonio is to make a run at L.A., which handed the Spurs a four-straight loss in the Western Conference finals. "For us to reach the next plateau we have to beat the Lakers," Albeck says. "To do that we need Artis." Moe agrees: "A lot of people forget Gilmore might be the second-best center in the league, and he's given Kareem fits." Wispy Ed Rains played in only 49 games as a rookie last season, but he'll start at small forward in place of the 6'7½" Mitchell, who moves to power forward. Point Guard Johnny Moore, who feeds Gervin, re-signed late in camp. New faces are Guard Mike Dunleavy and Center Bill (Poodles) Willoughby, both from Houston.

"Our biggest problem will be getting everyone time on the floor," says Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons of the KANSAS CITY KINGS. You'd expect expressions of graver concern from a coach who won only 30 games the previous season and whose team remains virtually unchanged. But the Kings have an arboretum of power forwards and centers, including—if he signs—6'10" rookie LaSalle Thompson, the nation's leading rebounder at Texas. Then there's 6'10" Steve Johnson, who shot 61% as a rookie; 6'10" Joe C. Meriweather, back after missing two-thirds of last season with knee surgery; 6'7" Reggie Johnson; and 6'6" Reggie King, who worked himself so hard over the summer that he was admitted to a hospital with dehydration. "There's no way King can have as bad a season as he did last year," says one opposing coach. Ray Williams comes from New Jersey to create the break and make the big basket. Fitzsimmons and all of Missouri hope he'll rekindle memories of Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong (both in Jersey). Mike Woodson, the club's leading returning scorer (15.7 ppg), and Point Man Larry Drew will join the guard rotation. Fitzsimmons is looking at second-year players Kevin Loder (6'6") and Eddie Johnson (6'7") as possible small forwards. "I think we need a scorer there," he says, "but if neither steps forward, we may just go with big people. We'd still push it up—our big people can run the floor."

With its two prettiest practitioners, Moses Malone and Robert Reid, no longer on hand, the HOUSTON ROCKETS' walk-it-up-and-dump-it-into-Moses offense is getting a face-lift. "[New Center] Caldwell Jones's strength is defense and shot blocking," Coach Del Harris says. "We'll look to do more running, pressing and trapping." Harris also pledges to spread the scoring around. "We had to run such a tight game last season, so disciplined, and I was always there harping" he says. "The players want to run and get some of the payoff by scoring." Adds Guard Allen Leavell, the quarterback, "We had a lot of turmoil last year, but adversity has a way of bringing us closer together. Nothing can really take us by surprise." But Reid's decision on Sept. 30 to retire to take an active part in his mother's Pentecostal sect in Florida shocked the entire organization. Wally Walker, late of Seattle, will start at small forward in his stead, and rookie Terry Teagle should get plenty of time at guard. Elvin Hayes and Calvin Murphy will have their pride and aging skills tested. "This won't be Moses Malone's team," says Forward Major Jones, Caldwell's brother. "It'll be the Houston Rockets." And perhaps this season's NBA surprise.

To paraphrase that great Irish hoop maven, Willie B. Yeats, things can fall apart if your center's no good. That summarizes the prospects of the DALLAS MAVERICKS in their third season. "I don't think the organization sees our centers as the kind you win championships with," says Guard Kelvin Ransey, who was acquired from Portland and will most likely start at the point. The Mavs do have plenty of young talent outside the middle, though: Sophs Jay Vincent, Rolando Blackman, Elston Turner and Mark Aguirre, who's 16 pounds lighter after a summer of aerobic dancing, all figured in the club's surprisingly good 28-54 record last season. Coach Dick Motta considers 6'11" Kurt Nimphius and 6'10" Scott Lloyd his two top centers, but look for 6'9" Forward Pat Cummings, picked up from the Bucks' bench during the off-season, to play the pivot before too long. "Pat adds a different dimension because he can contribute offensively," says Motta, who's also high on 6'9" Power Forward Bill Garnett, the club's top draft choice. "No one will outwork me," says Garnett, who majored in elementary education at Wyoming. Alas, the Mavs are too good to win the Ralph Sampson sweepstakes.

When someone asked Coach Frank Layden of the UTAH JAZZ how he could have sent unsigned No. 1 draft choice Dominique Wilkins to Atlanta for John Drew, Freeman Williams and cash, Layden said, in mock shock, "Dominique? It was supposed to have been Jeff." Oh, if it only had been backup Center Jeff Wilkins. Instead, Dominique became the seventh top pick in the franchise's eight-year history never to play a minute for the Jazz.

Without the Human Highlight Film, Utah fans will have to watch another season of cinéma vérité. Center Dan Schayes is a good passer, but who's there to pass to, aside from Forward Adrian Dantley and Guard Darrell Griffith, who'll continue to share an outsized scoring load? Speaking of outsized loads, Utah has signed 7'4" Mark Eaton, who sat a lot at UCLA, to five years of guaranteed money. "You can't teach height," Layden says. While hoping their man-child can be taught something else, the Jazz would do well to feed Dantley power layups. Most of the rest of the roster should be impounded.


After being traded from New York to New Jersey, Williams has landed in Kansas City.