In the division of the power—Philadelphia, Boston, New York and New Jersey—and the gory—Washington, of course—every team should qualify for the playoffs. So much for the suspense of the 82-game regular season.
Come spring, the PHILADELPHIA 76ERS will attempt to become the first team in 14 years to repeat as NBA champions; the Celtics won the title in 1968 and 1969. True, Julius Erving will be 34 before the season ends, and on some nights league MVP Moses Malone will no doubt display the effect of that pounding he takes at center, but Philly is improved. Howard Wood, a 6'7", 235-pound banger from the Continental Basketball Association, adds depth to the frontcourt, and splendidly named Sedale Threatt, a 6'2" rookie from West Virginia Tech, joins the already overstacked backcourt of Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Clint Richardson and Franklin Edwards.
"We're not coming back this year with a cocky attitude," says Coach Billy Cunningham. "We're approaching this season as if we hadn't accomplished anything yet."
If Robert Parish had made good on his threat to sit out the season, the BOSTON CELTICS probably could have mailed in their game results. When Forward Kevin McHale, the Celtics' sixth man, signed a four-year, $4 million contract in July, Parish had an instant snit fit. "It's an insult to me," said Parish, whose $650,000-per-year contract as the Celtics' No. 1—and, in fact, only—center still had three years to run. Parish threatened to sit out the season, then reported to camp but later bolted the team without so much as a phone call. New owner Donald Gaston subsequently pacified Parish by sweetening the Chiefs pot, but Parish endeared himself to no one and may have opened a wound that even his return won't heal.
Bill Fitch's departure as head coach, however, is bound to have a healing effect. It was as if "a fog had lifted," one Celtics insider said of Fitch's departure. The word in Boston is that the team fell apart on Fitch late in the season—the Celtics won only 56 games and were swept by Milwaukee in the Eastern semis—because the players disliked him so intensely. Former Celtic K.C. Jones, once Fitch's assistant and now his successor, has a considerably lighter touch.
With the acquisition of Guard Dennis Johnson from Phoenix, Boston now has five players who have been on the NBA's All-Defensive team—forwards Larry Bird and McHale, guards Quinn Buckner, M.L. Carr and Johnson. "D.J. gives us the big stopper defensively," says Buckner. With D.J., Gerald Henderson, Buckner and Danny Ainge in the backcourt, Jones intends to use lots of pressure defenses. Those guards also will try to get the ball into Bird's hands occasionally, Bird having signed a $15 million contract.
The NEW YORK KNICKS won 44 games despite a horrible start last season (at one point they were 14-26), and with the return of Ray Williams and the addition of rookie Darrell Walker to the backcourt to go along with holdover Rory Sparrow, they now have the quickness necessary to make Coach Hubie Brown's meat-grinder defense work. With the speed of those players and the sensational running game of Forward Bernard King, Brown, whose team seemed to play in lead shoes last season, has visions of fast breaks this year. But to run the Knicks will have to hit the boards, which means that Forward Len Robinson must play like a Truck and not a rollercoaster and that Center Bill Cartwright has to show some grit to go with his newly bulked-up frame.
The key is Williams, who was acquired from Kansas City in the off-season. The Knicks are convinced that bringing him back to New York, where he played from 1977 through 1981, will sharpen his shooting eye; after averaging 17.5 points per game for his first five seasons, Williams dipped to 15.4 last year. However, Williams' legendary lack of discipline will test Brown's coaching skills, as well as his patience. "He has the total athletic talent to be a star basketball player," Brown says. "Why hasn't he been that year in and year out at the All-Star level? I don't know. That's what we're going to find out."
The NEW JERSEY NETS learned a lot about themselves in training camp. New Coach Stan Albeck ran the Nets through a battery of physical tests and discovered that Forward Albert King (17 ppg last year) had been using only his right eye to focus on the basket (he was fitted with a soft contact lens for his left eye) and that backup Center Mike Gminski has a depth-perception problem. "So many people said Mike had bad hands," says Albeck. "Well, he doesn't." Great. Now when balls ricochet off Gminski's face, he'll know it's because he can't see, not because he has bad hands.
Albeck also had a nutritionist talk to the players, and learned that Center Darryl Dawkins "was raised on hot dogs." Well, it just goes to show, you are what you eat. In his eight pro seasons, Dawkins has been more wiener than winner. "Dawkins is the key guy," Albeck says. "We hope that jump shot of his is an antique now. If it is, he's going to be a force for us."
Albeck acquired Point Guard Kelvin Ransey to be a backup to Michael Ray Richardson, but then waived Richardson during training camp when he failed to report to the NBA-related Life Extension Institute for drug counseling. There is still some question about Ransey's ability to handle an offense, but he can run and shoot, and with guards Darwin Cook and Otis Birdsong on the wings, those are two things Albeck hopes to do a lot of.
The WASHINGTON BULLETS should get some much-needed scoring punch from the best rookie crop in the league: 6'4" Guard Jeff Malone from Mississippi State and forwards Michael Britt (University of District of Columbia) and Guy Williams (Washington State). And Coach Gene Shue was pleasantly surprised by the summer-league play of 6'8" Forward Darren Daye of UCLA. "Malone is going to be great, not good," says New York's Brown. With 6'10", 240-pound Jeff Ruland now the starter at very big forward, Rick Mahorn in the middle, Ricky Sobers at off-guard and veteran Tom McMillen coming off the bench, the Bullets will continue to molest teams defensively. They'll be good, not great.
The Knicks hope Walker will bring their backcourt up to speed.