The West Coast teams in the NBA played a more civilized exhibition schedule than did the East, with doubleheaders in large arenas, and the Seattle SuperSonics were at home in one nightcap against their 1967 expansion brethren, the San Diego Rockets. Eight of the 14 Sonics wear beards or mustaches, the most hirsute squad since the House of David or F. Castro's diamond All-Stars. The Sonics are also easily distinguishable for their style of play; in a league where virtually every team wants to run more Seattle plans mostly on a set game, with Lennie Wilkens, the new coach and the playmaker, helping his plodding frontline get baskets—the same way he did for the slow but steady old St. Louis Hawks. The Sonics have outstanding speed in the backcourt, however, and sometimes—as they did against the Rockets—they will run despite themselves. The hero of the game, as he had been the night before against L.A., turned out to be Lucius Allen, much the best new guard in the league. Wilkens took himself out and watched Allen score eight of the Sonics' last 13 points, make steals, play defense and run the team like, well, not unlike Lennie Wilkens. Seattle won 128-126. The third player selected in last May's draft—after Alcindor and Neal Walk—Allen shows no effect from having missed his senior season at UCLA. He plays with the assurance of a three-year veteran, and surely would start if it were not for Wilkens and second-year-man Art Harris, who is almost as quick as, and a bit taller than, Lucius and a better shooter from far outside. Allen's optimum range is from 12 to 18 feet, and his touch is as good as it was in college. Even if Rod Thorn must be rested a lot because of his leg injury, Seattle's backcourt will be top drawer, but the ultimate edge in the sport is in rebounding, and here San Diego is clearly superior. Elvin Hayes, Don Kojis and John Block lead a frontline that works the boards well at both ends. Most of the Rockets can hit also, and one opposing scout thinks they got the two best shooters—Bobby Smith and Bernie Williams—in the draft. The Rockets work hard to set up the right one-on-one situations for their drivers and shooters, and since playmaker Rick Adelman, a seventh-round draft choice in 1968, has shown enough improvement to be entrusted with guiding the team, the Rockets should move up exactly as fast as the Big E matures. Though he led the league in scoring last year, Hayes seldom gave up the ball and had a tendency to personalize team problems. He pouted childishly when Wes Unseld beat him out for Rookie of the Year. He returned home in a huff this summer from a Hawaiian NBA All-Star tour when a P.A. announcer inadvertently failed to introduce him. Against Seattle, however, Hayes twice passed off to undefended teammates as he maneuvered into shooting position himself. Last year he would have taken the shots. Hayes also battled to a rebounding standoff with Bob Rule, the Sonics' hard-working lefty center, and when Forward John Tresvant kept scoring, Hayes asked for and got permission from Coach Jack McMahon to play him for a while. He cooled Tresvant off, too. Tresvant is one of three frontline Sonics still unsigned, a fact that could make Wilkens' rookie coaching season even more difficult. Seattle got Bob Boozer from Chicago because it lacked a good shooting cornerman, and if Boozer can resist a tendency to inch in and clog the middle, opponents will not be able to slough off him and collapse on Rule underneath. More than they need shooting or even rebounding, however, the Sonics require a sharper defense—the kind of defense Wilkens alone plays. "Coaching hasn't affected Lennie's hands," observed McMahon, after Wilkens made another steal.
Why waste words? Lew Alcindor can take Milwaukee from the cellar to the championship of the world; Connie Hawkins can lead Phoenix, a .195 team last year, to the Western Division title. Whatever happens, these two players will transform the balance of power in the NBA as nothing has since Bill Russell came back from the Melbourne Olympics and with his defensive genius forced a change in the style of every team in the league. Alcindor's value to Milwaukee is almost beyond reckoning. As he did at UCLA, he makes every man on his team a more effective player, not only through inspiration, but because his presence preoccupies rivals. He is—in no particular order—quick, agile, huge, smart, a good shooter, a team player, a winner. No, he is not as strong as Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond and some other centers—and he also cannot carry a tune as well as Mahalia Jackson or ride a horse like Braulio Baeza. But he comes as close as one man can to dominating a game played by 10 men.
Hawkins' talent, though not so overwhelming, is often more enjoyable to watch and, since he has played in exile for so long, he has the same effect upon the observer that a lost Rembrandt discovered in an attic has upon an art hunter. His trademark—like a Baylor corkscrew drive or a Russell block—is his "hesitation hook," delivered with an elegance that no man his size (6'8", 219 pounds) should possess. Hawkins sweeps toward the basket with long strides, veers to the right, leaps high, holds the ball outstretched away from the basket, hangs suspended for two heartbeats and at last flips the ball through the rim.
When Phoenix played Milwaukee, Coach John Kerr kept his center—Jim Fox or Neal Walk—on a high post to give Connie room to start something in the corner. Both centers are good outside shooters and, in Paul Silas, the Suns have a superb rebounder opposite Hawkins. Gail Goodrich's slick style has not been disturbed by Hawkins' presence, as some surmised it would be, and he will start in the backcourt with Dick Van Arsdale, Kerr's "wild card," who gives the team defense wherever he plays.
Milwaukee was weak defensively last year, but with Alcindor they can gamble and overplay. Similarly, the forwards—notably Don Smith—are now better rebounders, as the opposition worries about where Lew is. Smith was a steal in a trade with Cincy, and Bobby Dandridge, the baby-faced shooting forward, was a good fourth-round draft pick. In the backcourt little Flynn Robinson, though undisciplined and poor on defense, has become a better driver. Both he and Jon McGlocklin can hit from far out, and when the Bucks need a ball handler there is Guy Rodgers. Early in his pro career Guy was setting up Wilt, but he won't go out doing that for Lew, because Coach Larry Costello seeks a balanced attack.
As the Lakers evened their preseason record with a 117-100 victory over a characteristically depleted Warrior team, it was apparent again what a startling effect the new L.A. coach, Joe Mullaney, has had on his charges. Low key, inconspicuous and uncommonly bright, Mullaney enjoys playing at self-deprecation. "Is Elgin still the captain?" the referee asked him before the game. "I believe so," Mullaney said, grinning. "They haven't told me otherwise." The new coach's personality and insight have been perfect for what was the NBA's most talented, and most divided, team. Mullaney professed no preconceived notions about how the Lakers should play, and he has worked hard to keep an open mind. Though his theories are not that dissimilar to those of the departed Butch van Breda Kolff, Mullaney has not asked Wilt Chamberlain to make major revisions in his traditional style of play the way V.B.K. did. Mullaney, for instance, has put Wilt back in the low post, but he has also informed him that he doesn't want him holding up the show there—waving the ball around and faking hand-offs. Instead, Mullaney wants quick shots right off Wilt's picks, and he has worked at making Elgin Baylor come hard out of the corner—which he didn't do last year—using Wilt's bulk to get open for mid range pops, the way Luke Jackson and Chet Walker used to work it in Philadelphia. Known at Providence College for his original thinking on defense, Mullaney is introducing four new defenses of varying pressures that he expects the Lakers to use as the occasion requires. In the main he wants to utilize Wilt's strength and reach. With Wilt behind them, Mullaney is asking the others to overplay more, forcing rivals outside or to the baseline. With faster, younger players—notably Bill Hewitt, in his second year, and rookie Dick Garrett—Mullaney also hopes to get the Lakers running again, the way they did before Wilt arrived. L.A. got a lot of good fast breaks in their exhibition against the Warriors, filling the lanes well, and with Jerry West leading the way and avoiding injury for a record fourth straight game, the Lakers overwhelmed a San Francisco team that is going nowhere except to court or the hospital. The Warrior injuries started on schedule this year when Clyde Lee tore ligaments in an ankle 35 minutes after training camp started. Then Al Attles pulled a hamstring, and Nate Thurmond injured a thigh muscle. Rudy LaRusso retired, John Law said Rick Barry was still in the ABA and the best thing the Warriors got in the draft was named Denise Long and is only permitted to play in the preliminary girls' games. The Warriors have little frontline depth, and the forwards still display inability to penetrate, shooting from far out. The guards, headed by Jeff Mullins, can hit, but, except for Attles, they are weak in ball handling and on defense. The whole team is snakebit, anyway. An earthquake will never hit California when the Warriors are on the road. By contrast, the Lakers are far ahead of last year's pace, since all players actually talk to each other and the coach.