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The toughest thing about this division is not picking the eventual champion, but trying to remember under what alias it will be operating. Two years ago it was Baltimore. Last season it was Capital. This year it will be Washington. All three, of course, were and arc the Bullets, who play now out of Largo, Md., which really is Landover, Md., because that is the post office address. In any case, the Bullets again will dominate their division if only because they have most of the talent as well as Coach K.C. Jones. K.C. could teach a frog to dunk, dribble and drive. Not that he has any frogs.
Atlanta should improve on last year's 35-47 record, primarily because the Hawks unloaded Pete Maravich and Walt Bellamy on New Orleans in return for the Russian army, the keys to the U.S. Mint and all the mineral rights in South Africa. Expansionist New Orleans will draw a lot of fans, but probably will lose almost as many games. Houston will be better, but not enough. Cleveland is still in Ohio and next to last in the division.
Just how far Washington goes beyond the division will depend upon the left knee of Wes Unseld, the granitic 245-pound foundation of the Bullets' fast break and defense. Actually both of Unseld's knees are bad, but the left is (or was) worse and was operated on this summer. If the exhibition tour was an indication of things to come, the Brahman Bullet will be operating at full bore.
Inspired by Unseld's apparent health, the Bullets' promotion office came up with a new nickname, The Sure Shots, which will fit only if the Bullets improve upon their 44.1% field goal mark, poorer last season than all but two NBA teams. When Unseld plays, he adds two dimensions—rebounding and picking—to the Bullet offense. Without him, as they were for much of last season, Washington relies almost solely on one-on-one efforts by either Elvin Hayes or Phil Chenier, the slick young guard who has signed a seven-year contract calling for something like $2.5 million. In just his third season Chenier led the team in scoring with a 21.9 average. He and flashy Kevin Porter give the Bullets a solid backcourt. But sharpshooters have their off-nights and when Hayes and Chenier found their one-on-one assaults flagging, the Bullets were often in trouble. Now, with Unseld, they can go to the fast break. And when that does not work, running your man into the big guy when he sets a pick is a pleasant prospect.
Unseld also gives the Bullets a more flexible defense. Jones prefers to use his muscle against strong centers like Abdul-Jabbar or Bob Lanier, but will switch Hayes to the position against quicker pivotmen. In the latter case, Unseld becomes a power forward in tandem with Mike Riordan, a smooth operator cast, modestly, along the lines of John Havlicek.
After the sacking of New Orleans, Atlanta will be stronger, but at best a year away from becoming one of the league's powers. In return for Maravich, the Hawks made New Orleans agree to take Bellamy (since put on waivers) from them as their first expansion choice. The Jazz's next two "choices" were then consigned to Atlanta: Bob Kauffman, a veteran 6'8" forward from Buffalo, and defensive specialist Dean Meminger, from New York, who is also a playmaker and penetrator. Both will help the Hawks this year. Then there is New Orleans' No. 1 draft choice, which Atlanta used to pick Utah's Mike Sojourner as another part of the package. AM that plus New Orleans' top draft pick next season, its second-round picks in 1975 and 1976, as well as the option to trade draft choices in 1976 and 1977, which Atlanta most certainly will want to do. Atlanta did not ask for any money.
Up front, Atlanta has sweet-shooting Lou Hudson, John Brown, Clyde Lee, long a dependable rebounder for Golden State, and John Drew, a rookie who may make a lot of people forget most of the 24 players drafted ahead of him.
This summer the Houston Rockets sent out their eight reserves and a coach to compete in a Los Angeles pro summer league. They also practiced three days a week, and have been dubbed The Boys of Summer. In the Rockets' first two exhibition games, The Boys went 24 for 27 from the field, and this kind of accuracy could enable Houston to become the Bullets' strongest challenger, at least until their tans wear off. With Cabin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich among the starters, Houston is going to score a lot of points. On the other hand, so will its opponents.
They have tried something new at Cleveland, an exhibition schedule consisting of just two games. "Eighty-two regular games a year is enough," says Coach and General Manager Bill Fitch. In the 1970-71 season, Cleveland won only 15 while losing 67. Last year the Cavaliers were 29 and 53. This season they will not be a whole lot better.
As an expansion team New Orleans is not expected to win too many games, and it won't. But the fans will have fun watching Maravich pumping in his 40 or so points a night, and what other team could find itself, even in an exhibition game, with four of its five centers—Neal Walk (injury), Mel Counts (injury), Walt Bellamy (injury) and Toby Kimball (sick father)—unavailable for duty?