The Atlantic Division is the only division in pro anything to feature, simultaneously, two defending world champions. Interesting—an accident of history that won't happen again. Unhappily for the Celtics and the Nets, no championship of any kind—not even one—is likely to come their way again this year. Too bad, Dave. Tough luck, Doctor. The problem is Philadelphia.
The 76ers have the kind of team that keeps general managers off Gelusil: five good guards! Four good forwards! Three centers! The joy of it all widens Coach Gene Shue's smile every day, and when asked about things he says, "Fan-tas-tic!" Actually, all he will concede publicly is that this team is better than the one he inherited three years ago. Then his word was "Fabulous!" Shue never has been known to be pessimistic.
Last year Philadelphia was blessed by the arrival of George McGinnis. This time the newcomer is Caldwell Jones, the 7'1" ABA survivor who was headed from St. Louis to the 76ers eventually anyway but has now arrived a year earlier than expected. There are ABA coaches who will tell you that Jones was the best center in the league—some nights. "I don't put none of these NBA guys on pedestals," Jones says. "I'm motivated." If he isn't, he can listen for the footsteps of two-year veteran Harvey Catchings, the league's fourth-best shotblocker, and 19-year-old Darryl Dawkins, whose strength from a massive 6'11�", 245-pound frame has been compared, if somewhat optimistically, to Wilt Chamberlain's.
The strength of Jones, particularly in the low post, will afford McGinnis a chance to operate near the basket, where he is close to unstoppable. The other cornerman is burly Steve Mix, who can run, score, rebound and intimidate. Billy Cunningham, at 33, tried gamely but failed to come back from a devastating knee injury. Backup strength is there: 6'10" Joe Bryant, rookie Terry Furlow and ex-Virginia Squire Mel Bennett.
The backcourt is young and experienced, a rare combination. The old man, Fred Carter, is 31 with seven NBA years behind him and, apparently, a new attitude; Doug Collins, despite his new Little Orphan Annie hairstyle, is one of the best running guards around; and there is quick Henry Bibby, ex-New York, ex- New Orleans.
The Celtics approached the new season like bears coming out of hibernation, still feeling the strain of winning last year's NBA final over Phoenix. But when their General Manager Red Auerbach thumbed his nose at the Celtic "family" tradition and treated John Havlicek and Paul Silas like a couple of ingrates during contract negotiations, they became ill-tempered. Growled one Celtic, "John could have taken a million four years ago and gone to the ABA." Said another, of Silas, "All he did was win us two championships in three years."
Then, with Hondo signed but Silas still out, Auerbach landed 6'9" Sidney Wicks, the All-Star forward-center from Portland, and the Celtics felt better. Wicks had bounced from Portland to New Orleans and back again, refusing to sign because he wanted "to play with a winner. Like Los Angeles." Los Angeles?
Now Wicks could have his winner. Boston starts Silas, Havlicek and Dave Cowens up front, Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott in the backcourt, the same five that played nearly every minute of last year's championship series. Wicks comes in, joining Silas and Cowens on a front line that could move out the Minnesota Vikings, and Havlicek moves to guard, where he preserves his precious legs, and allows Scott to sit down before his ninth personal foul. Then Cowens sits down and luxuriates while Wicks, the best backup he's ever had, moves to center.
The only questions are whether Silas will do his part by signing and how far Boston can go with six players, even six this good. Steve Kuberski can play some forward, but Glenn McDonald, at times brilliant, is mostly inconsistent. In the backcourt the problem is thorny even with Havlicek putting in more time. Kevin Stacom has tried to help for three years, but the Celtics haven't had a good off-the-bench guard since they traded Paul Westphal.
"The Knicks will be back by hook or by crook." So prophesied one NBA general manager. The crook method cost them a first-round draft choice (for trying to steal McGinnis last year), and so far the hook has only caught them a small forward, not the big center they need. Buffalo sold them Forward Jim McMillian, a quintessential Red Holzman player who is an updated version of Bill Bradley: smart, quick, good defense, and he'll hit a million in a row from the corner. The backcourt will be no problem if Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Butch Beard stay healthy. Frazier had an abysmal year, missing 23 games with one malady or another, prompting some to suggest that Clyde was shot. "Maybe I am," he said in straightface. "I'm olllld. I'm tired." Monroe, who simply gets better as he gets older, just laughed. "This year we make the playoffs. I can assure you." Not without a center, though. Well, the Knicks think they have found the new Willis Reed. At 6'8", 240, rookie Lonnie Shelton of Oregon State looks enough like the old captain. The question is, can he play like him? And if so, when? Until Shelton proves himself, Holzman is determined to convert 6'8" Spencer Haywood to the center position he has always abhorred. Which means that Haywood must take a crash course in passing, picking and boarding, skills heretofore absent from his repertoire, and Holzman must come up with another forward. Phil Jackson and Bradley are now strictly backups. If Haywood doesn't work out and Shelton is no miracle man, Eddie Donovan will be back at the telephone—mostly calling dial-a-prayer.