For the Detroit Pistons all was normal early last week, which meant there weren't enough healthy bodies to make up two practice teams. Coach Ray Scott had called for drills on Monday and Tuesday, but without his two All-Stars, Center Bob Lanier (wounded knee) and Guard Dave Bing (attending a funeral). And the wife of reserve Forward Howard Porter was seriously ill, and so he was spending the two days with her in New York. They were all back on Wednesday when Milwaukee came to town, but the visiting Bucks added some speed to an attack that has been less than quick and stopped the Pistons 102-92.
When it was over, Scott was saddened and you might have imagined from the way he spoke that this team was in dire trouble. "This isn't a YMCA league," he said softly. "You just don't show up one night a week and expect to win. You've got to work at it. And, for one reason or another—travel, injuries, personal problems—we haven't been able to do that. Not for the last eight days. And in this league that's a long time."
Scott might have added: especially when you reside in the NBA's Midwest Division, where Detroit and Milwaukee, and Chicago and Kansas City- Omaha make their homes. That foursome spends so much time assaulting each other they have hardly enough muscle left to go out and mug the rest of the league. Scott might also have mentioned that his Pistons were on top of the division. Through last Sunday's games, they led with a 24-18 record, with the Bulls, the Bucks and the Kings in hot pursuit. Just four games separated Detroit from last-place Kansas City- Omaha.
"Last year proved that it's the toughest division in the NBA," says Chicago Coach Dick Motta. "And I think a lot of teams in the other divisions are looking at our schedule and the way we are killing each other—and then come in and pick up the pieces. Sometimes."
This season, for example, Chicago plays Milwaukee eight times, Detroit nine times and Kansas City- Omaha nine times. That's 26 games within a division that leads the NBA in defense. And bruises. Kansas City- Omaha, which is the only one of the four to remain relatively healthy, leads the intradivisional play with a 10-6 record. Milwaukee is 8-6, Detroit 5-5 and Chicago 4-10.
"This is the toughest division I've ever played in," says Chicago Center Nate Thurmond, who came to the Bulls from Golden State and is not having one of his better seasons. "With Abdul-Jabbar and Lanier, the Midwest has two of the three best centers in the NBA, and all those games against that pair makes life a lot tougher than it was on the West Coast."
And the division keeps getting tougher. After a sluggish start, Detroit has won eight of its last nine games, and 13 of 21 since Dec. 4. With Abdul-Jabbar operating at full bore once again, the Bucks are overcoming their horrendous start and by last Sunday were almost at the .500 mark. And Chicago has shown signs of emerging from its offensive lethargy. Since losing twice to Detroit at the end of December, the Bulls have won five of six. And only once did they fail to score at least 100 points.
Only Kansas City- Omaha, which had a surprisingly strong start, has shown signs of flagging as the season moves into its second half. The Kings have dropped six of their last seven.
"It's been a weird year," said Ray Scott. "For a while there I thought we were going to end up in a four-way tie." Then he grinned, partly because by now it was Friday. After Wednesday's loss to the Bucks, his Pistons had gone to Milwaukee and that night had been superb in winning 89-81. "We've finally got it together," said Scott.
When the season opened the consensus was that Detroit would sprint ahead of its Midwest rivals. Why not? With Abdul-Jabbar out with a broken hand, no one expected much from Milwaukee—and got it. Chicago was opening with Bob Love and Norm Van Lier holding out, which is like sending Patton into battle without his tanks. And even with Sam Lacey blossoming into a first-rate NBA center, plus Nate Archibald healthy once more, little was expected from the Kings.