In its three years, despite blowing a lot of smoke, the ABA has been unsuccessful in signing top college players. It remains far below the NBA in quality of personnel, and a 20-year-old rookie, recently shifted from center to forward, is the best big man in the league. Spencer Haywood won the MVP in the All-Star Game and is likely to win it for the season—as is Willis Reed of the NBA. In general the ABA also has smaller guards and slower forwards.
Few competent observers are in a position to compare the two leagues' personnel accurately, because it is difficult to shuttle regularly between the two worlds. Three men—a former player, a front-office official and a writer—who are qualified in this regard, were polled to name the ABA players who could play as regulars in the NBA. Only eight were named on all three lists: Haywood and Larry Jones of Denver, James Jones of New Orleans, Rick Barry and Warren Armstrong of Washington, Doug Moe of Carolina (despite his atrocious All-Star performance), Donnie Freeman of Miami and Roger Brown of Indiana. The most notable omission is Mel Daniels, last year's MVP, who was left off one list because it was felt he lacked the ability to score from inside.
Because of the 25-foot, three-point circle—which is the best innovation in basketball since the 24-second clock—there is more guard play in the ABA. Also, the 30-second clock, as opposed to the NBA's 24-second limit, leads to the development of more patterns on offense. New Orleans even uses the old Auburn shuffle. Without the good, big centers, however, ABA teams do not move the ball inside as frequently, and they do not fast-break as readily. But there are many similarities in the two games, and in both leagues a particularly interesting trend continues, as the forwards figure in the scoring totals less and less. Since the backcourt men are shooting better and getting their shots off more quickly, this can only become more pronounced. It has been a slow, almost imperceptible change from the '40s and '50s, when the play went to the big scorers in the corners—Fulks, then Arizin, Schayes, Yardley, Pettit, Twyman and Baylor. Picking a year at random—in 1958, six of the eight NBA teams were led in scoring by a forward. The seven top scorers and nine of the best 15 were forwards. This season, only three of the 14 NBA teams and two of the 11 ABA teams are led by a forward. Only two of the top 16 in the NBA and two of the top 14 in the ABA are cornermen.
The shape of the forwards has changed, too. The prototype today is lean and fast and, in the NBA, only slightly taller than the average guard. "We were like a high school team," Jerry West said of the NBA West's All-Stars. "Everybody was the same size." The vogue for bigger and brawnier cornermen peaked in 1964 when San Francisco often started 6'11" Nate Thurmond and 6'9" Wayne Hightower at the forwards. Dave DeBusschere, 6'6", was being tried out as a guard; now he is considered a big forward.
Next year, assuming the courts permit it, one of the best NBA forwards, Billy Cunningham, and two other former All-Stars, Zelmo Beaty and Dave Bing, will suit up for the game in Greensboro, N. C.—not the one at San Diego. Jerry West has said he will play only one more season. Other NBA superstars are growing old. Wilt, Thurmond and Baylor are hurt. Things can change quickly, as you know if you took Minnesota and gave 13. But the NBA may have an even graver problem—an internal threat. The specter of Lew Alcindor looms larger with each game and, when the evenings grew late in Philadelphia and the singing stopped, there were the first whispers that perhaps by All-Star time next year it would not be a matter of saving the business. It would be a matter of saving the game.