That other division is really tough," says Nets' Assistant Coach Rod Thorn, happy not to be in it. "Out there, teams are going to have to win 47 or 48 games to make the playoffs." San Antonio Coach Tom Nissalke's analysis is more succinct than most such pronouncements: "Any team can finish first or last." Last year his Spurs finished smack in the middle. They should do considerably better this time, up to a bona fide shot at the divisional title.
The principal reason is Rookie of the Year Swen Nater. In last year's All-Star Game, Nater's play at center so impressed veteran Mel Daniels, his teammate for the evening, that Daniels took himself out of the game. The two faced off in the exhibition season, and Nater overwhelmed Daniels, as he did the strong Southern California summer league. "We knew he could score and rebound," says Nissalke, "but now he's going to be one of the keys to our defensive improvement."
Nissalke also looks for better defense from All-Star Forward George Gervin, who was the ABA's fourth best scorer last year but something of a liability at the other end of the floor. The Spurs' backcourt will be steadier, with George Karl, 1973 Rookie of The Year James Silas and Donnie Freeman, picked up from Indiana. Freeman was unhappy at Indiana and fits into Nissalke's controlled, patterned game.
Utah, last year's divisional champ, came through the summer without having to abandon Salt Lake City, but appears to have been abandoned by Willie Wise and Jimmy Jones. The Stars do have a pleasant surfeit of centers. After unloading Zelmo Beaty, they picked up Jim Eakins from Virginia, Randy Denton from Memphis (in "exchange" for Coach Joe Mullaney) and Moses Malone from the clutches of Maryland's Lefty Driesell. Moses has already earned a nickname (Sweet Mo) and the dubious honor of carrying the equipment bag. He even shows signs of earning his salary. He is poised, graceful and strong off the boards. Sweet Mo also hit on better than 50 percent of his shots in preseason.
Eakins and Denton are journeymen performers who will allow Coach Bucky Buckwalter to bring Malone around slowly. Willie Wise, one of the ABA's premier forwards, ended his holdout, but then went AWOL again. Until Jones ends his—or if he doesn't—Ron Boone can man the backcourt ably. But, without Wise, the Stars are the weakest guns in the West.
At Indiana, Freeman was not the only unhappy veteran sent packing; Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis and Roger Brown are now in Memphis. The new Pacer look is explained by General Manager John Weissert. "Like the automakers, we want to put out a streamlined and modernized product—at a reduced cost." Coach Slick Leonard agrees that his team was not hungry last year. "There wasn't that need to win a title anymore." One consequence of losing the salaries of Daniels and Lewis was that Indiana could offer enough to keep George McGinnis in town.
McGinnis, with whom the Knicks had a serious summertime flirtation, is the nucleus of the suddenly young Indiana club. Make it two nuclei, with original Pacer Bob Netolicky back from San Antonio at center. Prize rookie Center Len Elmore has been a disappointment—he is slow, overweight and timid. However, Forward Billy Knight of Pittsburgh shows excellent promise, perhaps enough to leap over leapin' Darnell Hillman into the starting lineup. The Pacers have three quality guards, too: defensive expert Don Buse, rebounder and scorer Kevin Joyce, and newly mustachioed sparkplug Billy Keller.
The Denver Nuggets are another revamped contender. General Manager Carl Scheer, Coach Larry Brown and Assistant Doug Moe migrated to the mile-high city when their Carolina franchise seemed about to go under, and the team has enough incentive after missing the playoffs last year.
Dave Robisch continues at center, with Mike Green and Bobby Jones in the corners. Jones, from North Carolina, is an early candidate for Rookie of the Year. The pressing, hustling defense is spearheaded by Mack Calvin and Fatty Taylor (from Carolina and Virginia). Ralph Simpson must adjust to Brown's style and his new role as swingman.
After the first preseason win, Brown expressed his gratitude. "Why are you thanking us?" Calvin asked. "Because you worked hard and won," Brown answered. "Then you'll be thanking us a lot this year," Calvin said, his smile a mile wide.