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In the first years of this decade, the Central Division championship seemed to be decided as soon as the Bullets' Wes Unseld cut loose with his first outlet pass. Houston and Atlanta and New Orleans would limp in behind and Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch would tell a lot of jokes. But in 1975-76 Fitch's Cavaliers turned serious and toppled Washington, and last year that much-traveled infant Moses Malone led the children of Houston to the top. This year the rejuvenated Bullets should be back, but they will have to outduel the other guys, plus San Antonio. Atlanta? No longer limping. Crawling.
Blame for the Bullets' near-hits the past two years has been laid on Unseld's troubled knees, Phil Chenier's troubling cold spells and Elvin Hayes' trouble. Or all of them. The fact is that Washington could never seem to find the right man for the small forward spot, a weakness that contributed mightily to its embarrassing washout against Golden State in the championship series of 1975 and its six-game loss to Houston in the conference semifinals last year. The answer to that problem is Bobby Dandridge, cast off at age 29 by youthful Milwaukee, but still a first-rate scorer who will fit in well opposite Hayes in Dick Motta's running game. In fact Motta states unabashedly that " Dandridge is the key to our championship hopes." Says Dandridge, "Here there's a beautiful mixture of youth and experience."
The experience part of the equation is clear enough. Chenier at 27 can still shoot the picture jumper, though he is troubled by a chronic back problem; Unseld, now 31, is slimmed down, moving better and working harder than he has in years. The youth on the Bullets is what will stir things up. Mitch Kupchak, listed at 6'9" as a rookie out of North Carolina a year ago, played all three frontcourt positions—including Unseld's center spot—with furious intensity, leading the team in floor burns and making a strong bid for Rookie of the Year. When Kupchak-at-center forced Unseld to play small forward, Wes fumed, "It's tough to rebound from 20 feet away." This year the Bullets list Kupchak as two inches taller and claim he is stronger, and center is his best position. "I don't care about starting," he says, "but I want to play 40 minutes a game." Says Unseld, "Whatever they do it's their business, but I'm not going to be happy losing any minutes." Motta, of course, loves the competition.
Even when Chenier is fit, there is competition in the backcourt as well. Tom Henderson, the other starter, finished fifth in the NBA in assists after arriving from Atlanta in the Truck Robinson trade. And second-year man Larry Wright, starting for a spell in January, led the Bullets on a 12-4 tear. The draft yielded another shooter, Phil Walker, from Millersville (Pa.) State.
That leaves the enigma of Hayes, who always scores (23.7 last year) but fades at crucial times in the playoffs. Said one Bullet, "We just don't know when he's going to go to sleep." That isn't the happiest sort of attitude to start a season with, but Motta insists on optimism. The young bloods on the team will energize Elvin, he thinks, especially Kupchak, who could steal anyone's job. "We've got the horses," Motta gloats, "and we're going to use them."
Motta will need horses, and so will everyone else, if Houston is to be dethroned. The Rockets not only won their first division title but also had their first winning season (49-33) since they entered the league. They went all the way to the conference finals, against Philadelphia, before losing, four games to two. "Winning tastes so good to us, we intend to do it again." says Calvin Murphy.
Tom Nissalke, voted Coach of the Year in his first season with Houston, modestly claims that the element of surprise was largely responsible for the team's success. "We went for 10 or 15 games where no one scouted us," he says. "We snuck up on a lot of people because no one was prepared for a lineup with our big guys." Maybe no one had a lineup that could stop the big guys: 6'8" Rudy Tomjanovich, 7' Center Kevin Kunnert and 6'10" Moses Malone. The big guys are why the Rockets were outrebounded only 12 times during the 82-game regular season.
The indispensable man in that combination is Malone. Embraced by Nissalke after first Portland then Buffalo dumped him last season, Malone responded by setting an NBA record with 437 offensive rebounds, averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots per game. And Malone's work at forward gave new confidence to fifth-year man Kunnert, who had wept openly after being booed by the Houston fans early in the season. Nissalke had thrown the two big men into a fight for the center job.
But Nissalke is concerned that his tall lineup may also be too slow, so he will use the 6'5" Kamikaze character Mike Newlin, at small forward to split open defenses, not to mention a few skulls. This leaves the back-court in the capable hands of Murphy and lefty John Lucas, the only second-year lead guard in the league who is treated with seven-year man respect. They are backed up by third-year man Rudy White when he recovers from a broken toe.