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Detroit's cornermen are valued more for their agility than their size, and if DeBusschere is really late in returning to form, it is his rebounding that will be most missed. Without him, Happy Hairston and Terry Dischinger will start. Last year's rookie bust, Sonny Dove, has matured and will play regularly this year. If Moore develops, the Pistons will become more serious contenders, but they are probably a year or so away. Six of the nine principals were not there two years ago, and everybody is still learning to get along together.
Baltimore has all but bottled and sold front-office disorder since the franchise came to town. The latest owner is Abe Pollin, who bought out his partners and fired his general manager, the popular Buddy Jeannette. At least the coach, Gene Shue, is returning, which is a novel concept for the Bullets. Shue desperately needs experienced guards, particularly someone who can bring the ball up and can play defense. If he does not get them, his fatigued backcourt is going to wonder if the games will ever end. Baltimore thought it could get Keith Erickson from Chicago, but a deal fell through when the Bulls preferred Los Angeles' dollar diplomacy. Only Earl Monroe and Kevin Loughery remain in the backcourt, while up front there are eight assorted forwards, centers, center forwards and center assistant coaches. This team may be the first team in the league forced into a trade.
The surprisingly fine, mature play of rookie Westley Unseld has only served to complicate the crowded forecourt picture more. Unseld whipped Otto Moore for nine straight baskets in one exhibition. He is strong, and Shue also thinks he is quick enough to play middleman in the press. His apparent contribution might even make it more likely that the Bullets would give up lively Gus Johnson in a deal. Jack Marin—who is playing out his option—would be another trade candidate, except that he is being converted into a guard (a 6'7" guard) and must be kept for now to back up Monroe and Loughery.
Earl the Pearl is the best bet to succeed Bing as scoring champion. He probably is the most exciting player to come into the league in almost a decade, a genuine drawing card. He is also aware that many other guards, who are neither as good nor as marketable as he is, are making much more money. Unless Baltimore begins to realize his value and pays him accordingly, the team may lose him. Monroe is quite aware that there is another league. The Bullets were 21-21 in their stretch run last year after The Pearl got settled in his new surroundings and almost doubled his average. The team is now more disposed to play defense, and try to work the ball inside on offense. If Unseld maintains his exhibition promise and the Bullets make an even-up trade for a guard, Monroe could bring them ahead of Detroit.
Like Baltimore, Cincinnati just missed the playoffs last year. The team rang up a dismal 5-20 record in the games that Oscar Robertson either missed or played in at less-than-full strength. It was 34-23 with Robertson, and he is healthy going into this season. The Royals are a year older, though, and shallower than ever after Robertson and Jerry Lucas take their positions.
Adrian Smith, 32, teams with Robertson at guard. Center Connie Dierking, also 32. suddenly came up with confidence and a fine scoring season last year and Tom Van Arsdale, a swing-man, adds defense and scrap. The rest are journeymen, though four rookies may catch on with the club. The best, Don Smith of Iowa State, is an outstanding corner prospect, but he is unpolished and needs time. In recent years the Royals' record for drafting players who stuck has been the league's best. Sadly, though, their choices usually have turned out to be merely tenacious fringe players.
Coach Ed Jucker learned a great deal last year in his rookie season with the pros. He was surprised that the players were not as mature or as self-disciplined as he had anticipated, and the lack of dedication on the part of some simply astounded him. The players liked Jucker, laughing at his absentmindedness, and they respected his knowledge and dedication. The year's experience will make him more astute this season, but in the end the Royals will go only so far as Robertson and Lucas can take them.
Milwaukee, the only expansion team in the East, is a cinch for the cellar. This prospect does have its compensation, namely that the Bucks stand only a coin flip away from the draft rights to Lew Alcindor. If the Western Division's last-place team wins the flip and takes Alcindor, the second likely draft choice is Neal Walk of Florida, another outstanding pivot prospect. If not quite this year, major league sports should at least return to Milwaukee next year.
Larry Costello, the last of the set shooters, is the coach, just one more in the long line of coaches who prepped with the old Syracuse Nationals. Costello does have enough depth to press and fast break—and to trade for the future. He sent Guard Johnny Egan to Los Angeles and Forward Dave Gambee is the kind of dependable reserve contenders might also trade a high draft choice for. With Alcindor or Walk the incumbent center the Bucks could be tempted to unload Wayne Embry late in the season if it is a sellers' market then. Embry might even end up replacing Embry at Boston.
For now, the presence of the rugged center in the middle makes Milwaukee a physical threat against anyone. Len Chappell and rookie Dick Cunningham will spell Embry, who is 31. Fred Hetzel, who had a 19.0 average with San Francisco but was put on the draft list because he was not on the boards enough, will be in one corner. Bobby Love will start in the other ahead of Gambee, Jay Miller and Charlie Paulk, the rookie from Northeastern State, Oklahoma who is rated in some quarters as a possible Rookie of the Year.