The question isn't who will win here—only a nurd or a Cavalier fan would wager against the Bullets—but by how much? The margin will be determined by the mileage Wes Unseld can coax from his suspect knees. Not that Washington won't have to look back now and then at Cleveland, which is young and talented and extremely well-coached. The best of the rest, Houston, won't be a serious challenger until the Rockets find a serious starting center, although every so often Kevin Kunnert flashes promise that he could be it. New Orleans moves into its expensive new Super-dome, and while the Jazz isn't expected to drown out anyone, it should hit enough high notes and hot streaks to keep the big place respectably populated. Poor Atlanta. No one seems to want to play for the Hawks. No one wants to own the team. And what the city is really going ape for is ice hockey.
Hoping to end the annual assay of his knees quickly, Unseld has announced that they feel even better than last year, when they felt good enough to allow him to play 2,904 minutes, top the league in rebounds per game and lead the Bullets into the championships against the Warriors. With Unseld sound, the Bullets will be running their fast break, except that Dave Bing, not Kevin Porter, will be the guard who makes things happen. Before the trade with Detroit (Porter for Bing and a first-round draft choice next season) Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager, spent three hours talking to Bing. Said Ferry, "I wanted to be completely sure that Dave understood what his role would be."
A heavy scorer with the Pistons (19 per game vs. 11.6 for Porter), Bing's role with the Bullets will be to deal off to Phil Chenier, his backcourt running mate who prefers to move without the ball, and to Forward Elvin Hayes, or to anyone else who happens to have a hot hand. No problem, says Bing. "At Detroit I played for six different coaches. I was adjusting all the time." In the championship finals the Warriors double-teamed Chenier because they didn't consider Porter a scoring threat. No team will take that liberty with Bing. Jimmy Jones, whose playoff injury cost the Bullets dearly, will be back soon to provide superior backcourt relief. That suits Mike Riordan, who occasionally had to move back from forward last year to help out. Leonard Robinson, Nick Weatherspoon and Rookie Kevin Grevey will be assets up front.
Clobbered by injuries last season, the Cavaliers still came within a whisker of making the playoffs, and with their young forward line of Jim Chones, Campy Russell and Jim Brewer, should make them easily this time around. Maturing as the season progressed, ex-ABAer Chones became one of the NBA's better centers. He blocks shots, rebounds, throws the outlet pass and holds his own against the big post men.
Russell got a lot of playing time late in the season and scored well, but when he was paired with Brewer, the Cavalier defense had holes. Russell is quick enough to check the small forwards, but will be a liability until he gains more experience. Still, he can run, jump and shoot, and will score more points than he gives up. He'll be sharing time with Bobby (Bingo) Smith; all Bingo did was lead the club in scoring with a 15.9 average. Coach Bill Fitch compares Brewer, a fine rebounder, with Boston's Paul Silas, a lofty assessment for a youngster with only two years' experience.
In their only major off-season move, the Cavs got Guard Butch Beard from Golden State for Forward Dwight Davis and future draft choices. Beard is Fitch's kind of player, a five-year veteran who can give the young Cavaliers the leadership they need if they hope to stay close to the Bullets. Beard was the man who made the Warriors' championship offense churn. If Cleveland can keep Austin Carr healthy for most of the season, and if the other fine guards, Jim Cleamons and Dick Snyder, keep up the good work, Fitch's eternal optimism might be matched by success.
At Houston last year Coach Johnny Egan introduced his Rockets to something called defense, and by the end of the season they were playing it well enough to make the playoffs. This season he has introduced them to Joe Meriweather, a very quick center out of Southern Illinois. He'll be tried in the pivot, behind the less-than-mobile Kunnert, and at forward behind two-time All-Star Rudy Tomjanovich and Ed Ratleff, the Rockets' best defender. For certain, with Calvin Murphy and tough Mike Newlin also in the lineup, the Rockets will score a ton of points. How many they will give up is the other side of the coin.
On the day of the draft, Atlanta looked like a sure winner, and then failed to sign either of its two first-round picks—Marvin Webster and David Thompson, both of whom went to the ABA. The Hawks finally managed to get aging Connie Hawkins from the Lakers and 6'8" Bill (Poodle) Willoughby from his high school in New Jersey. If that is all the Hawks are going to do in an attempt to shore up a team that has no center and whose two best players, John Drew and Lou Hudson, play the same position, small forward, Atlanta fans just might invite Sherman back.
In New Orleans, where Pete Maravich has become the complete ballplayer, Butch van Breda Kolff has added dependable Ron Behagen (from Kansas City) and 7-foot rookie Center Rich Kelley to his cast of Cinderellas. The Jazz may not wind up with the worst record in pro basketball this year. After last season when they started out five up and 42 down, nothing should surprise the fans in the Superdome.