Jackson is the bench forward, with Cazzie Russell and Willis Reed scheduled to start up front, flanking Center Walter Bellamy. The big center receives opprobrium less only than Komives, and his work is uneven, but it is also true that his most recent performance, in the playoffs, was positively gallant. Reed and Russell are both players of heart and spirit, nagged only, perhaps, by their feelings that they are out of position. Russell began as a guard, Reed as a center. Bradley, greatly improved after a tough summer of playground ball, will also shift up front some of the time. The Knicks are so deep Holzman has to be accommodating in order to find playing time for all.
The team is also young; only Barnett and Bellamy have been in the league for more than four years. At some point the Knicks' curve of advancement, which has been established under Holzman, Will bisect the Celtics' downward graph. The only real question is when, specifically, this year or next?
If the Boston-New York equation is to be upset, Philadelphia is the most likely team to do it. Jack Ramsay, the general manager, will coach the 76ers this year. He had to leave college coaching because he was so intense that the emotional strain was producing a threat to his eyesight. He has reportedly recovered, but it took only one close exhibition loss to deprive him of a good sleep. Ramsay is a well-loved man, and some of his friends are privately distressed that he is coaching again. Hopefully, their concern is only an affectionate overreaction.
Ramsay is asking a great deal of his charges, who will again play their home games at the Spectrum if the roof doesn't blow off a third time. He will go to the fast break, to a half-court press from a man-to-man defense and a full-court press off a 3-1-1 zone—a gambling, scrambling defense that requires a collegiate dedication. The team has responded to such typically Ramsay candor as: "I want you to be the best physically conditioned team in the league. When you're playing four nights in a row in four cities that may span the country you have to learn to play with fatigue and still play well."
The 76ers' backcourt—Hal Greer, Archie Clark, Wally Jones and Swingman Matt Guokas—is among the very best offensively and will have to scratch for steals, too, because the 76ers will no longer always get the ball off the boards. The forwards lack muscle. Luke Jackson has returned to center in place of Chamberlain, and none of the other cornermen—Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Guokas or Johnny Green—has the strength to handle the big forwards.
Darrall Imhoff came from Los Angeles in the Chamberlain deal, and he will not only spell Jackson in the pivot, but will probably start there against some teams so that Jackson can be freed to muscle somebody else in the corner. Another center, rookie Craig Raymond, does not figure to see much action; neither, for now, does Shaler Halimon, the potentially outstanding swingman from Utah State.
Jackson tends to put on weight. He came in at 272 when Ramsay had been hoping for 240, but the extra pounds may serve big Luke well in the middle. He is no novice there, anyway. In pre-Chamberlain days the 76ers twice beat the Celtics, with Jackson battling Russell underneath. He has a good outside shot, too, and both he and Imhoff can play the high post. Shooters like Greer and Walker know how to use a good postman, having worked with the best, Johnny Kerr, when they were at Syracuse. Greer prefers to go off a pick anyway, and this should be his greatest scoring year. It is rebounding, though, that will probably keep the 76ers from matching Boston or New York.
Behind the big three comes a second-echelon trio of Baltimore, Detroit and Cincinnati. Detroit won the spare playoff berth last year and is a coming team. It was not hurt by expansion and will play more games than ever before at home in Cobo Arena—and with real people there to root the team on. The Pistons set attendance records last year as Donnis Butcher gave the team its best coaching in years.
Immediate improvement is not assured, however, because Forward Dave DeBusschere suffered a seriously twisted ankle that has been slow to heal and because, as ever, the team is weak in the middle. Joe Strawder's career may have been ended by a back injury. Never happy at Detroit, he was traded to Phoenix and then returned by the Suns after a physical examination. Rookie Otto Moore and Jim Fox now fall heir to the pivot spot. While both are hardworking young men, neither is quite up to the task yet, and Moore, possessor of a much better heart than pair of hands, needs to put on weight more than any other player in the league.
Though Butcher has helped the Pistons reduce their stress on outside shooting, the lack of a good offensive big man to go to the inside will continue to force too much play on the backcourt. Considering that the backcourt includes Eddie Miles, Jimmy Walker and Dave Bing, the brilliant scoring champion, this is certainly not a disturbing alternative, but the greater dependence on outside shooting might cost the Pistons a few extra wins when they come up cold-against expansion clubs they should beat. Since strength is more of a constant than marksmanship, it is the muscle teams that can be expected to be most consistent against expansion clubs.