"We used to be the Mid-Least; now we're the Mid-Best." The line belongs to Frank Layden, which is as good a reason as any to put his UTAH JAZZ on top. Anybody could finish first here except the Kings and the Spurs.
The absence of Darrell Griffith for at least two months is the Jazz's big problem. The erstwhile Dr. Dunkenstein has been Dr. In-a-Funkenstein about his contract and was unsigned at this writing. No need to rush for pen and paper. Griffith's left foot is now in a cast—he fractured it in a pickup game during the holdout.
A fit-looking Adrian Dantley must be salivating at the prospect of picking up Griffith's scoring load. Thurl Bailey is a rare 6'11" guy who's more comfortable at small forward, which is fine because rookie Karl Malone has been impressive at power forward.
"We'll be good again. Teams will forget about us and we'll be good." So spoke Doug Moe, whose DENVER NUGGETS sneaked into the Final Four last season. Moe did a good coaching job in molding a team that frequently had three new faces in the starting lineup—ex-Trail Blazers Calvin Natt, Fat Lever and Wayne Cooper—and he placed a new emphasis on defense.
But Natt is still hurting after delaying knee surgery until after the playoff's; first-round draft choice Blair Rasmussen won't help that much and—go ahead and laugh—the Nugs will find that they'll miss old war-horse Dan Issel.
By now, everyone west of Harrisonburg, Va. knows that Ralph Sampson and coach Bill Fitch do not send each other valentines. By Feb. 14 we should know if their catfight has seriously damaged the HOUSTON ROCKETS. It just might. If one of Houston's Twin Towers should sway a little, the depth-poor Rocks just don't have the tools to right it. The bad vibes between Sampson and Fitch could detract from the performance of Tower Two, Akeem Olajuwon, who last season averaged 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds. This team could go all the way, or collapse under its own height.
The drafting of two 7-footers back to back gave the DALLAS MAVERICKS four, instead of just two, centers with whom they cannot win an NBA title—Kurt Nimphius, Wallace Bryant and newcomers Uwe Blab and Bill Wennington. Are there any guards on this team? Sam Perkins, Mark Aguirre, Jay Vincent, Dale Ellis, Detlef Schrempf and the injured Charlie Sitton are all frontcourt people.
The SACRAMENTO KINGS may be the most annoying team in the league, what with their "applause meter" ready to operate in brand new Arco Arena—named for the oil company which paid anywhere from $7 million to $14 million for the privilege. Joe Kleine, the hustling former Razorback, is not a franchise center, but his work ethic will inspire the team.
Guard Alvin Robertson guest-conducted the San Antonio Symphony once last summer, producing more sweet music than the Spurs will make this season. In what is probably the end of the Ice (Man) Age in SAN ANTONIO—33-year-old George Gervin's $831,000-a-year contract expires at the end of the season—the Spurs would appear to be less a symphony than a collection of individual woodwinds.
Houston's Olajuwon (left) and Sampson make up the NBA's most imposing skyline.