Now that Wilt Chamberlain has decided not to acquire the Los Angeles franchise in the ABA or become a split end for the Jets or the heavyweight champion of the world but instead to play basketball for a salary approaching $250,000, the 76ers must be favored to win again. With the exception of Forward Dave Gambee, who hardly played down the stretch, the entire team that went 68-13 last year is back, reporting a little fat but very happy with the new contracts they earned as world champions. In turn, the 76ers management raised ticket prices to $6 tops (up 50%), but season-ticket sales still rose by 400%. The team is moving to the beautiful new Spectrum. This $12-million arena seats 15,000, some 4,000 more than could be sandwiched into Convention Hall, a ghastly old facility where Philadelphia's finest would lounge under the No Smoking signs and enjoy a cigarette or two while debris rained out of the stands upon the visitors. It will not seem quite like Philadelphia basketball in the clear, clean Spectrum, but the fans will at least appreciate the ample parking space. During the summer Coach Alex Hannum married the former Marcia Schmid, who is the administrative assistant to General Manager Jack Ramsey, and who, before that, worked in the front offices at both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Hannums could run a pro franchise better than most top-heavy Parkinsoned organizations do. By themselves they may be the next pro basketball dynasty, wherever they coach, manage or assist. Hannum is adept at every phase of the operation. He is alone at the top; even such a comparable multitalent as Vince Lombardi of the Packers reveals a flaw (public relations), but Hannum has shown none. He has reached a preeminent position in professional coaching. His team will have no substantial changes at all. The three forwards—Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Billy Cunningham—supply all required corner talents. Wilt plays the full 48. The backcourt is so crowded that Matty Guokas, who had a key role in the team's playoff success, will have difficulty getting on the court, because Bill Melchionni is back from the Army and Larry Costello, at 36, has made an amazing recovery from knee surgery. Wally Jones became a star in Costello's absence and must play, too. Hal Greer is aging (31) and has arthritis in his right, or shooting, shoulder, but he still can find the picks and the basket. The 76ers lost their first draft choice, Craig Raymond, to the Italian pro league, but any rookie help would be minimal and none is needed. Cunningham and Jones, coming into their prime, can be expected to score more. Otherwise, with Wilt setting up his teammates and dominating the opposition, the machine should run just about as it did last year.
Obviously mindful of the skyrocket bonuses achieved by football's young profiteers, NBA rookies this year entered negotiations equipped with lawyers, agents and package deals, and with a new league just around the corner. The bargaining power plays worked in football and some places in the NBA, but in Boston the lawyers and agents met Red Auerbach. Come on in, Mr. Sharp-and-Cunning, said Red. Hello. Goodby. Slam. Auerbach spent much of the summer throwing ten-percenters out of his office and into the streets. With like dispatch, Bill Russell handled the rookies. "At least I knew their names," says Auerbach. " Russell calls them by number." The coach is not much easier on the veterans, for this is A.D.—After Dynasty—and Boston must get its old bones in shape to win back the glory. The Celtics won more games last season than in all but two of their championship years, but still lost the division by eight. It was a difficult year for Coach Russell, whose concentration on scoring and rebounding suffered, perhaps in proportion to the time he had to spend thinking about time-outs, substitutions and minutes left. It is interesting, though foolhardy, to speculate whether Auerbach coaching, and Russell playing full time, would have produced any different result. But the thought is there. Russell works his men hard, but no harder than he works Russell. He practiced during the off season for the first time in 10 years and expects to play a lot more offense. This will come in short bursts, enabling coach to get the most out of himself, then catch his breath while Wayne Embry performs in his place. The Celtics finally lost K.C. Jones (to the Brandeis coaching job) but have picked up Tom Thacker, who sat out last year after wilting on the Cincinnati bench. Thacker is known in the trade as a "diver." He dives for loose balls, a style of play Boston fans love, and he should supply, along with rookie Rick Weitzman, adequate defense and ball handling in K.C.'s old spot. Boston still has Sam Jones and Larry Siegfried to score from backcourt, Bailey Howell to score up front and John Havlicek to score from anywhere, including the MBTA tracks. Tom Sanders, ready to recover from bad knees and a bad year, is the defensive forward, and Don Nelson is also available. The league has been waiting a long time for this team to disintegrate, and it is conceivable that if the aged became infirm at the same time, the Celtics would collapse. But one of the casualties would have to be the coach because he makes up for lapses by everyone else, and Bill Russell is too prideful and still too hungry to permit such a thing.
Expansion and the new league have robbed nearly every NBA roster of depth and trading material, and the supply of returning academicians has not been sufficient to fill all the vacancies. The Knicks, of course, are the exception to this. They and the Supreme Court are the only squads with All-America Rhodes Scholars, and the Court is only eight deep. The Knicks possess an overkill of talent—12 good men—and Coach Dick McGuire is well aware that this could lead to a lot of fidgeting on the bench, particularly after Bill Bradley returns from the Air Force (no later than January). "I have an idea," McGuire says, "that the management didn't spend all that money to have him sit next to me." The Knicks would like to trade, but who else can? With Willis Reed playing out of his natural position at forward, the logical key man in any trade would be Center Walt Bellamy, huge and talented but moody and inconsistent. But the Knicks are not about to hand Bellamy to any passing stranger for a handful of beans. They would like to get a top forward in return, and it is no secret that they have coveted Jerry Lucas of Cincinnati and Dave DeBusschere of Detroit. Unless a trade develops, Bellamy will remain in the pivot. Captain Reed, a diligent, willing worker, has adjusted a bit more each season to the corner, but he appears to be just too big ever to deal with quick forwards. Possibly to spare himself the embarrassment of getting passed in his tracks on a drive. Reed tends to play back from his man and give away the easy outside shot instead. Dick Van Arsdale, on the other hand, is hardly 6'4", but a strong, smart, defensive bulwark in the other corner. The plethora of guards has allowed McGuire to switch Cazzie Russell to forward, and although Cazzie still overplays on defense, the move is beneficial to both team and player. His offense, anywhere on the court, is brilliant and versatile. Phil Jackson, an outstanding rookie, and Neil Johnson could be regulars elsewhere. The backcourt is jammed. Butch Komives, who does not have the temperament to sit, must be traded if he cannot play regularly. Emmette Bryant understands he will have to be content with special, spot play, but Fred Crawford moved way up with a superb exhibition season. Dick Barnett must be rated the No. 1 guard now, but it is not inconceivable that the Knicks will open the playoffs with Rookie Walt Frazier—a flawless, poised leader—and Bradley as the starting backcourt. There is no guarantee that Bradley will be an overnight sensation. Compared to players in this league, he is not fast and springy and, like Cazzie, he is an in-between size. But if he can step right in after almost three years' absence from top-level competition, there is no reason why New York cannot move into Boston's class this year and, by next fall, be the team to beat in the NBA.
Like the three monkeys on the log, Donnis Butcher, Dave DeBusschere and Paul Seymour see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil—at least, of each other. It's just what they're thinking that has Piston fans curious. The whole Detroit coaching situation has fallen right past curious all the way down to ludicrous. When the Pistons had a shot at a playoff berth last March, Owner Fred Zollner made Player-coach DeBusschere a player and Assistant Coach Butcher a head coach. With DeBusschere concentrating on playing and Butcher on coaching, the Pistons made a sparkling finish, losing six of their last eight games and missing the playoffs. After the season General Manager Ed Coil retained Butcher as head coach and kept DeBusschere as key player. Zollner, however, announced he was hiring Seymour, former head coach at Syracuse and Baltimore, as "assistant coach and head scout." Seymour, normally discreet, did not keep it a secret that Zollner had asked him to coach Detroit a long time ago, saying, "If things go wrong this year, I suppose they'll be looking around to me." With that stirring vote of confidence, Butcher signed a one-year contract and everyone went skipping off to training camp. Contrary to more recent pronouncements, all this amounted to Michigan's first adventure in brainwashing. It is a quirk of fate that, at a time when Detroit probably has its best team in years, this zaniness around the coaching position should arise along with the shift of the Pistons from the West to the East. In the West, Detroit probably would be in contention for the championship; in the East, the Pistons may not make the playoffs. Along the front line, Detroit lacks size but not scoring. Terry Dischinger returns from a two-year hitch in the Army, slower by a step and with sore feet, but he has been an All-Star three times and, all alone, will make the Pistons better. This year DeBusschere, who is Detroit's best rebounder, will not have to worry about rapping a teammate with a fine and then asking him to pass the ball. John Tresvant is a veteran bench forward while skinny rookie Sonny Dove has a fine touch in close. Center is the problem. Joe Strawder is inconsistent and no respecter of training rules, and Tresvant is the only backup man. But there are lots of guards, led by last season's Rookie of the Year, Dave Bing. Bing averaged 20 points a game, working well with Tom Van Arsdale and Eddie (The Golden Arm) Miles. After holding out for more gold, Miles finally signed, but this season's hotshot rookie, Jimmy Walker, probably will get his job. Walker will get somebody's job; it's just a matter of time.
Frustrated for so long in their pursuit of Boston and Philadelphia, the Royals developed some sloppy habits, especially on defense. They have a new coach, Ed Jucker, who appears intent on correcting those habits, but this is essentially the same team as last year's, while Detroit and New York have strengthened themselves immensely. If Jerry Lucas has another so-so year—his knees were very bad during the exhibitions—and the caliber of play at center doesn't improve, Cincy may well be chasing five Eastern teams instead of two. The middle will continue to be a headache no matter who coaches. Connie Dierking, a six-year veteran, is as good as he ever will be, which is decently competent but not in a class with the supercenters. Walt Wesley has a tendency, to use Jucker's kind word, to play "spasmodically." Others say he is simply indifferent. Something of a surprise in the Royal camp is Jim Fox, who played center at South Carolina and spent two years in Europe's pro leagues. He is 6'10" and fast for his size, and Jucker used him in a corner during exhibitions. But he may well end up in the pivot. Opposite Lucas up front, Happy Hairston seemed a changed man for a while, but he is back to sulking and may never realize his potential. Defense is Jucker's specialty, of course. He won two NCAA championships at the University of Cincinnati chiefly with his defense and with a deliberate, cautious offense to complement it. In the pros the offense will have to be scrapped in favor of a running game, which is fine with Jucker. "If I had had Oscar," he says, referring to his college-coaching days, "we would have run then, too." For a while, it looked as if the Royals would not have Oscar Robertson this season, either. He held out for more than 5100,000 and probably got it, despite the fact that no one believed Oscar would try to jump to the ABA. His strong bargaining position stemmed simply from his immense talent. As his backcourt partner Adrian Smith said, "Oscar doesn't pick up a ball all summer, and then he comes in and kills you." Jucker hopes to relieve Oscar of some of the ball-handling responsibility he has assumed over the years. "I'd rather he finished a play than started it," Jucker says, but then he would have to find someone else to do the starting. He won't find his man on the bench; as a matter of fact, he won't find much help there at any position.
Here come the Baltimore Bullets. Bang, bang, bang. Lose, lose, lose. The Bullets are appropriately named; every man is a gun. This contributes greatly to the mass confusion that has been the hallmark of the NBA's first expansion team. The Bullets outdid even themselves in the change-for-the-better department last season by upping their average of one coach a year. The Bullets had three—practically within a month. Change-for-the-better-No. 3 was Gene Shue, the former All-NBA guard. But Gene didn't have a chance. Baltimore went from the dark into the dungeon, gave up more points then anybody else and lost 61 games, banging away to the end, Shue, a soft-voiced, pleasant man with conservative suits and a triangle crew cut, deserves better. But with the material at hand, it is difficult to see how even a fresh start and admirable optimism can change the situation. "This gunning complaint is a bad rap," he says. " Boston used to win with a whole stable of shooters. If we were winning, this thing wouldn't even come up." Perhaps in an effort to get the ball to change hands once it passes midcourt, Shue has installed a somewhat new offense. Revolutionary, in fact, for the Bullets. Everything revolves around the post man, with guards and forwards cutting and screening and rolling and weaving, looking for the close-in, open shot. This maneuvering, however, will only follow a breakdown of the fast break, which is what Shue is really eager for his Bullets to have a go at. He is very high on preparation and conditioning and thinks he can steal a few games early in the year. Baltimore has one of basketball's most exciting players in Cornerman Gus (Honeycomb) Johnson, when he gets the ball. As a means to that end, Gus has become one of the NBA's best defensive forwards. Leroy Ellis is the center with Bob Ferry and Ray Scott adding muscle up front. The shooters in the backcourt are Don Ohl and Kevin Loughery with little Johnny Egan coming off the bench. Jack Marin had a good rookie year and a better preseason. But the man expected to make the biggest change is rookie Earl Monroe, last year's college scoring champion from Winston-Salem. He is full of flash, may get the whole team running and maybe, just maybe, Baltimore will go lose, win, lose a few times.