A model expansion organization, Seattle was the best of the new teams even before the trade. The Sonics are so close-knit that virtually everyone on the payroll (including Hazzard) gave up cigarettes at once. Wilkens' toughest job will be to make himself dominant on the court but only a comfortable member of the group off it. The Sonics have already shown court poise, a rare expansion quality; Wilkens brings more.
In the backcourt Wilkens rejoins two of his old Hawk mates, Ron Thorn and Tommy Kron. Just as they did last year the Sonics again drafted two players who can step right in as regulars—Art Harris, a fourth guard from Stanford who reminds one of the young Sam Jones, and the burly forward, Bob Kauffman, from little Guilford College, who teams on the front line with Tom Meschery, Bob Rule, Al Tucker and Dorie Murrey. They all work at defense and getting the ball out for the fast break. Rule may miss Hazzard the most. By prodding Rule, Hazzard seemed to inspire the young center to his best performances against bigger centers.
Like Seattle, Chicago has been whipped into excellent shape by the new coach, Dick Motta, who was plucked out of Weber State in Utah. His pro experience? He has seen one NBA game. If the front office, which drove Johnny Kerr to Phoenix, lets Motta run things his way the Bulls could get back on the right track. "After last season this club was way down," says Guard Jerry Sloan, "but the whole team believes that little man is going to make us better."
Motta found the No. 1 draft choice, 7' Tom Boerwinkle of Tennessee, at 300 pounds and out of breath. A nine-week conditioning program brought Boerwinkle into the exhibition opener sleek enough to play 36 minutes and score 21 points. Dave Newmark skipped his senior year at Columbia to back up Boerwinkle, and if Motta can get one good game in the middle out of his two rookies the Bulls will contend with Seattle. Forwards Bob Boozer and Jim Washington then could concentrate more on shooting, and former Bull Center Erwin Mueller could stay in the corner, where he may be the best passer in anybody's frontcourt. Sloan, who played in pain for much of last season, can make the team go if he regains his form of two years ago. Flynn Robinson and Clem Haskins can shoot.
San Diego does not even have the hopes for a reconditioned playmaker, which is a special irony since Coach Jack McMahon was just the sort of player his team needs. The backcourt starters, Jim Barnett and Pat Riley, are both strictly "second" (shooting) guards.
The front line, though, is top drawer, with John Block, Don Kojis, Henry Finkel, Toby Kimball and the rookie who doesn't wear his name on his uniform—just E. Elvin Hayes has already declared himself the fourth-best center in the league, and if he has not hidden his light under a bushel, neither has he failed to shine. His offense comes as no surprise, nor does his spectacular shot blocking, but he has also shown an understanding of the good pro defensive tactic of sagging and helping out on the shooter. Despite Hayes's unflagging confidence, there are nuances of the game at both ends that still elude him, and his apprenticeship and that of the whole team is slowed for lack of a backcourt leader. If some of Wilkens' or Hazzard's ability could somehow be obtained for Kimball, the Rockets would move ahead of Seattle and Chicago.
Phoenix, the newest outpost in big-league sport, is headed by Kerr and Jerry Colangelo, 28, the young general manager, who also left Chicago. The only person with more experience in expansion ventures is George Wilson, the center, who holds the record. He has moved with every expansion three years in a row: from Cincinnati to Chicago to Seattle to the Valley of the Sun. At 6'8" Wilson will be hard put keeping up with the league's giants in the pivot. Outsized, he will have to scramble—and scrambling he must foul. When he goes, the replacement is Davidson rookie Rodney Knowles. McCoy Mc-Lemore, a 6'7" starting forward, will be moving into the pivot regularly.
Kerr's Suns will have to scratch and scuffle and make up for their lack of size with youth and aggression. McLemore, Dick Van Arsdale and No. 1 choice Gary Gregor of South Carolina give Phoenix strength in the corners. Dave Lattin broke a hand fighting with Kauffman of Seattle, but he is 20 pounds lighter and is better for it. Dick Snyder and Gail Goodrich are a pair of starting guards, but there is not much on the bench to support them. While the Suns are not as deep as their Milwaukee confreres, like them they will trade for future choices and while away the long desert winter practicing coin flips.