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CENTRAL DIVISION
Curry Kirkpatrick
October 25, 1976
As the Dick Motta, Dick Motta show opens the fall season for the first time in Washington, can the pampered Bullets find happiness with a tough guy? If Cleveland is for real, will the Cavaliers survive the Fitch-Mileti feud? Will the wedding of Pistol Pete and Gatling Gail breed a bouncing winner in New Orleans? Can Tom Nissalke turn those nice young men from Houston into a bunch of muggers? Even with San Antonio unleashing all that new ABA talent, will the Central Division become another Alamo? Is Atlanta still in Georgia?
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October 25, 1976

Central Division

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As the Dick Motta, Dick Motta show opens the fall season for the first time in Washington, can the pampered Bullets find happiness with a tough guy? If Cleveland is for real, will the Cavaliers survive the Fitch-Mileti feud? Will the wedding of Pistol Pete and Gatling Gail breed a bouncing winner in New Orleans? Can Tom Nissalke turn those nice young men from Houston into a bunch of muggers? Even with San Antonio unleashing all that new ABA talent, will the Central Division become another Alamo? Is Atlanta still in Georgia?

In Scene 1 Motta arrives in the capital as part of the shuttle that brought nine coaching changes to the league, four of them to this geographically ungainly division, which now spans the 1,559 miles between the banks of the Potomac and South Texas. Fired after a dismal 24-58 season with the Chicago Bulls, the fiery Motta replaces K. C. Jones, a quiet and gentle man with a three-year record of 155-91. Jones' sin: finishing second to less talented Cleveland last season in the division and then losing to them in the first round of the playoffs.

It will be Motta's chore to awaken the talented Bullets from the complacency that lulled them to eight defeats in their last 12 regular-season games. Washington's springtime slide carried over into the playoffs, reduced the Bullets' dreaded fast break to a crawl and allowed Cleveland to win—four games to three—though scoring fewer than 90 points in three-quarters of their victories. Exit the taciturn tactician K. C. Jones.

"I'm not going in with my six-guns drawn," says Motta, who has never been known to own a pair of velvet gloves. "I'm not going to pound my chest and say this is the way we are going to do things. There is a lot I have to learn about these players, and there is a lot they have to learn about me. But they are no strangers to me. I've seen them play. I've competed against them. I've hated them."

Those whom Motta once hated are very much still there: Elvin Hayes and Len (Truck) Robinson, the forwards; Wes Unseld, solid and stoic at center; Dave Bing and Phil Chenier, the sharp-shooting guards. It is a team that lives and dies with the fast break. In contrast Motta is a coach who lived and died at Chicago with the slow, patterned offense.

Motta, who has shown unexpected adaptability, says, "I love to fast-break. I always did it in college. But at Chicago, how could I? The Bullets will run. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of Unseld's great outlet passing. I look at the Bullets like I would a 73 golfer. All the Bullets need is a little improvement to win four, five, six more games."

At the moment the battle between Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch and Owner Nick Mileti has cooled, mainly because there is nothing like winning to repair ruptured egos. Should the Cavs pick up where they left off last season—taking the heavily favored Boston Celtics to six games in the NBA Eastern finals—Mileti may even forgive Fitch's attempted desertion to Los Angeles in the final weeks of the season.

Defense was the spur to Cleveland's sudden and unexpected success. While finishing next to last in the league in scoring (101.7 per game), the Cavs were second only to Chicago in points allowed (99.2).

Strangely, the one area in which the Cavs are strongest is in the backcourt, where Jim Cleamons, the team quarterback, is just reaching his peak at 27, and Dick Snyder continues to be one of the best pure shooting guards in the league. And Fitch lost little when he went to Austin Carr (his comeback successful after two knee operations), and Foots Walker, who supplied the spark and speed from the bench. And so, of course, the Cavs' first-draft choices were guards: Chuckie Williams of Kansas State and Mo Howard of Maryland.

Thanks to the unselfish tutelage of Nate Thurmond, ABA castoff Jimmy Chones has emerged as a solid center. And with Thurmond still around to add maturity and leavening to the Cavs, Fitch can be assured that there will be no dropoff in intensity of play when Chones repairs to the sideline. "Thurmond made this ball club," says Fitch simply.

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