It looked like Murph's fine breeding might be wasted on the Nets when they slipped into a virtual replay of last season in November. After winning four of its first five games, New York dropped nine in a row, fell into last place, eight games from the lead, and called another team meeting. It was then that the mood which Loughery credits Erving with setting held fast. The meeting passed without incident and two days later the Nets broke their losing streak. Shortly thereafter they won nine straight. Since halting its run of losses, New York has taken 21 of 28 and has been in or just out of first place for the past month.
"The reputation of the Nets last year was that if you got up on them early they'd start squabbling among themselves," says Erving. "They were losers. From the minute I knew I was coming here I was preparing myself to stop that from happening again. I knew I'd have leadership responsibilities, not as the designated leader—that's the role of the team captain, Bill Melchionni—but on a different basis.
"There has to be criticism among players on a team, but I guess what I've tried to do is make it constructive and cut down on the meaningless griping at each other. I don't think you should cuss at a guy for missing a pass. You should boost him up by saying something like, 'It's all right. We'll get it next time.'
"And when something goes wrong in a game or there's a flare-up at practice I know it's easier for me to be the one who apologizes. A guy who the public doesn't consider such a big star might feel, 'Damn, I'm not gonna bow down to the blankety-blank just because he's the big shot around here.' But for me it's no problem to go over and say I'm sorry."
Something the Nets are not sorry about is two tactical moves Loughery made in the game that ended the losing streak. He junked the pressing defense he had used to good effect with the 76ers. He felt it was wearing down the Nets' slender guards—Taylor, Melchionni and John Roche—often causing the team to blow big leads in the second half. And to beef up the backcourt, he replaced Melchionni in the starting lineup with Williamson, who is built like a cornerback. A high-scoring gunner in college, Williamson has played with a discipline on offense and concentration on defense unusual in one so young.
And since the losing streak the rest of the Nets have been showing only the most casual deference to Erving's offensive prowess. In half of New York's last 12 games Dr. J. has not been the team's high scorer and his average is dropping toward the 25-point figure he thinks would be best for offensive balance. Kenon, an unabashed shooter, has averaged 16 points a game, but it is Paultz, a 6'11" mound of a man, who has developed into the Nets' second best offensive threat with a 17-point average.
Even though Loughery can still safely describe Paultz' physique as "lacking definition," the Net center no longer looks quite as much like Baby Huey as he did when he came into the pros three seasons ago as an indifferent player. One thing definite about Paultz is that his talents are now as well rounded as his midsection. Except for his fine outside shooting touch, he is not extraordinary in any phase of pivot play; rather he has become so thoroughly adequate at all that he now ranks no worse than third best among ABA centers.
All five Net starters were in double figures in their three games last week. After the win against Carolina, Erving broke loose for one of his increasingly rare big bursts (34 points) in a 109-92 home triumph over Denver. But the next night at Hampton, Va., New York showed why it still faces a stern test trying to overcome its two experienced rivals, Kentucky and Carolina (both the Cougars' starting forwards, ailing Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell, have played more pro seasons individually than the entire Net starting lineup). In losing to the Squires 112-109, the Nets were prone to two failings common to young teams. Unable to fast break, they had to rely on their set offense, an element of the game which demands more consistent teamwork than they have developed. And the defeat was their 13th in 24 road games—they are a sizzling 14-4 at home—which is just another example of a young club not traveling well. Still, New York's schedule from here in is heavily weighted in favor of home games, which could be just enough advantage for everything to work out very nicely-nicely for all the Nets.