The Boston Celtics and the New York Knickerbockers have a lot in common. To begin, either team could win the NBA championship and one very probably will. The Knicks took the title last May for the second time in four years, and it could be argued that they know how to win the big ones. The Celts compiled the best regular-season record in the NBA before losing to New York in the semifinal playoff round, and it could be argued just as cogently that they are hungrier.
Both teams retired aging players. The Knicks' Dick Barnett became an assistant to Coach Red Holzman and the Celtics' Satch Sanders is now head basketball coach at Harvard. Both teams have possible soft spots. New York has lost Earl Monroe until at least Nov. 1 following surgery for bone spurs in his left foot. Dean Meminger, who claims he fired thousands of jumpers over the summer in an attempt to find the range, will take his place. But when the Pearl can return, and how the Knicks fare until he does, are key questions. Boston must find a way to rest John Havlicek, who averaged 42 relentless minutes a game last season, to keep him in top form to play ring-around-a-rosy with Bill Bradley in the playoffs. At forward, it is hoped that an improved Steve Kuberski will be able to spell Hondo more. But at guard, Paul Westphal must show greater ability than he has to date. The other reserve guard, Hambone Williams, is listed as 34 years old, but he is probably a good deal more. "Nobody knows," Coach Tom Heinsohn says, "and the courthouse in Texas where his records were, burned down."
Both clubs are strong at center, though Boston has the edge with 24-year-old Dave Cowens, who was the league's MVP last season and can only get valuabler and valuabler. New York's 31-year-old Willis Reed is better than he was in the '73 playoffs: decisive, sure-handed, mobile and with the good soft touch from 15 feet. He is backed up by Jerry Lucas and gawky John Gianelli, last season's surprise. With High Henry Finkel, Boston is weaker behind Cowens, but Cowens is willing and preeminently able to play 48 minutes. Celtic rookie Steve Downing, a center at Indiana, will be used at forward.
In Dave DeBusschere and Paul Silas, New York and Boston have the best defensive forwards in the game, with Silas being stronger off the offensive board and DeBusschere a far better outside shooter. In the backcourt, Walt Frazier is, simply, Walt Frazier and, by the same token, Jo Jo White is Jo Jo White, which is almost as good. Don Chaney, the other Boston guard, showed more offense last season.
If the Knicks and Boston have a familiar look, Buffalo certainly does not. The Braves have come up with three fine rookies, two classy veterans acquired by trade last month and a new-old face at center. The Braves signed their No. 1 draft pick, Ernie DiGregorio of Providence ($1.5 million for five years) and their No. 3, Ken Charles of Fordham. Then, in an attempt to mold a team that could play Ernie D's running game, they traded Forward John Hummer and a future No. 2 to Chicago for Forward Gar Heard and rookie Center Kevin Kunnert, the Bulls' No. 1 pick. Next they sent Center Elmore Smith and his $2.1 million contract to Los Angeles for Forward Jim McMillian and moved 6'8" strongman Bob Kauffman to the high post.
Kauffman is an able center, good enough to make the All-Star team at that position in 1971. He can shoot from the outside, sets picks better than Smith and plays fair defense. Smith never lived up to expectations, and when agent Al Ross looked to renegotiate his contract in the middle of last season, the Braves started looking to unload. Kunnert is raw, but he led the Big Ten in rebounding and field-goal percentage and is catching on quickly. McMillian and Bob McAdoo, for whom defense is one of life's bitter mysteries, will start at forward, with Heard coming off the bench. All three can shoot and work well on the boards. Coach Jack Ramsay is, of course, counting on DiGregorio to run The Buffalo Ernie Wild East Show. DiGregorio's defensive deficiencies will be more obvious without a big center to pick up the drivers that get by him and he has a lamentable tendency to collect early fouls, but he is one of the finest ball-handling, playmaking guards to come into the league in a long time. Randy Smith will probably start alongside him, with Dave Wohl and Charles in reserve. The Braves are improved, and if either of the top teams in the Central Division falters, they could back into the playoffs.
Philadelphia can only get better but, alas, not by much. No. 1 draft choice Doug Collins ( Illinois State) missed most of the preseason with a broken foot, but will be available for the opener. The proven talent, such as it is, belongs to Guards Fred Boyd and Fred Carter and Forward Tom Van Arsdale. New Coach Gene Shue's biggest task so far has been keeping his ear to the ground and bringing in everyone else's discards, the best of whom is ABA Guard Larry Jones. Shue is without a decent center and has few forwards. So far he is smiling, which shows he has the good attitude, if little else.