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Of course, as soon as the baby Bucks grow up—the average age is 23.6—the rest of the division can step aside. The trifecta that should pay off so handsomely in Milwaukee is made up of first-round draftees—6'11" Kent Benson of Indiana, 6'7" Marques Johnson of UCLA and 6'6" Ernie Grunfeld of Tennessee. Johnson is a small forward who plays big, and he began dazzling the NBA in preseason play. Grunfeld, a 53% shooter last year, plays forward behind Johnson and 6'8" David Meyers, who is still fighting injuries—this time he has tendinitis in his right ankle. Kevin Restani and 6'7" Alex English provide further support. The guards are shooter Brian Winters and playmaker Quinn Buckner, backed up by versatile 6'5" Junior Bridgeman. How good this team is and how soon depends on Benson, whose strength and talent at center are not questioned, though his stamina and intensity are. Coach Don Nelson was miffed when Benson forsook summer league ball for fishing and water skiing. While he develops, his backup is journeyman John Gianelli, who should work well into Milwaukee's system. It is beginning to look like Celtics West, what with Nelson running the offense and Tommy Heinsohn's ex-assistant, John Killilea, in charge of the pressure defense.
Finally we come to Indiana, which nearly went down the tubes this summer, ran a telethon to sell season tickets and raise money, then traded away Billy Knight and Don Buse, its two best players. General Manager-Coach Slick Leonard claims he was being "held up" by their respective agents. But Slick—who did not get his name for being dim-witted—minimized his losses. He sent Knight to Buffalo for Mike Bantom, who fills a pressing need for a strong forward, and Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley. "I checked the record books," says Dantley. "I believe I'm the only Rookie of the Year ever traded in any sport." Buse went to Phoenix for Ricky Sobers, a quick, good-shooting guard also known for quick fists. Next to him will be John Williamson, another hard man. Center Len Elmore returns from knee surgery and teams with Dave (Robo) Robisch in the middle, and superjumper Dan Roundfield moves back to forward. The best Leonard can hope for is a last-place finish and a decent draft choice. This year's top pick, Alonzo Bradley from Texas Southern, didn't like the offer Leonard made him and decided he'd spend the year playing for Athletes in Action. Who can blame him?
This is the division of a million surprises. If Golden State isn't roaring out of nowhere to win the NBA championship (1975), Phoenix is sneaking out of nowhere to come close (1976). If Los Angeles isn't Jabbaring its way to the best record in the league without any other players (1977), Portland is red-bearding everybody in the course of bringing still another shocking championship (also 1977) to the West Coast. In recent years only Seattle, among Pacific Division teams, has failed to make a strong run for the title. Then again, who needs victory when you can watch your own coach, the famous TV shill, Bill Russell, hook 'em in on behalf of Ma Bell and L-O-N-G D-I-S-T-A-N-C-E.
The Pacific is once again the strongest division in the NBA and surely the place to be when the game's most exhilarating individual matchup—the Trail Blazers' Bill Walton versus the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—continues this season. While L.A. Coach Jerry West cleaned house and swept all the spear carriers out of the Forum except Jack Nicholson. Portland's Jack Ramsay decided to stick with a pat hand. "You win or lose with your basic game," he says. "We have the people who established our basic game." Cornerman Bob Gross and Guard Dave Twardzik have exchanged hairstyles—Twardzik's sandy-colored perm curls already have earned him the monicker "Polish Orphan Annie"—but otherwise the champions appear to be the same crew that withstood Walton's absence in 17 regular-season contests and went on to sweep through four playoff series with the loss of only five games. Maurice Lucas is back to frighten the women and children and strengthen his position as the best power forward in the league; Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis return to run their relay races past opposing back-court men; and the firm of Neal and Steele (Lloyd and Larry) provide support off the bench. Backup Center Tom Owens and rookie Guard T. R. Dunn are the only newcomers to a lineup so secure that when first-round draft choice Richie Laurel demanded a no-cut contract, Ramsay suggested he get lost. Showing spectacular vision for a rookie, Laurel ended up in Atlanta, which is approximately the same thing. A recurring problem hit the Blazers early in preseason when Walton's back vertebrae acted up, the result of (wouldn't you know it?) some wood chopping. The tall lumberjack missed most of the exhibition season and was in traction for a few days while doctors labeled the injury "not serious." Ramsay said, "Anything that keeps him from playing is serious to me." The coach also said, "We're just not as good when Bill isn't in there." Really, Jack?
Additional health disorders exist in Southern California, where Abdul-Jabbar now must wait for his finger to heal before attempting to take command as he did last season, when he won 53 games almost single-handedly as well as his fifth MVP award. However his 319 assists (compared to league leader Don Buse's 685 in less playing time) showed how poorly the Lakers took advantage of the quadruple-teaming their center was subject to. Moreover, the Lakers were almost paranoid in the face of tenacious defensive pressure on their guards, a concern that became justified when Portland's road-runners stripped bare the helpless Laker backcourt in the playoffs. To alleviate the team's shooting weaknesses, the Lakers picked up Golden State free agent Jamaal Wilkes and Atlanta oldtimer Lou Hudson. To add some much-needed speed at guard, West drafted burners Norm Nixon and Brad Davis as well as Forward Kenny Carr who promptly fractured his foot in the final exhibition game. To lead this congregation, West longed for the Knicks' Walt Frazier, but owner Jack Kent Cooke opted for Buffalo's Ernie DiGregorio (thus infuriating the coach). Strongman Kermit Washington has recovered from a knee injury that forced him to miss the playoffs, but the other Laker veterans may never recover from West's recycling program: starters Don Ford and Don Chaney are on the bench while Cazzie Russell was waived after prophetically practicing one day with golf tees and ball markers in his pocket. Wilkes, an errorless, consistent forward at both ends of the court, is the crucial man in the mother lode of talent the Lakers have stockpiled. "We have so much more ability than last year I can't believe it," says West. But the Lakers also have people who do not sit well—namely pogo stick Earl Tatum, the sulking Carr and little Ernie D. As the coach attempts to parcel out playing time, he may find that too much Cooke does indeed spoil the broth.
All-Star Guard Paul Westphal of Phoenix calls his team's effort last winter a "non-season," and who could blame him after injuries struck down so many of the Suns for so much of the time, causing the team to play all but six games with a patchwork lineup consisting of somebody—anybody—other than the regular starters. As a result the Suns, who had startled the NBA by reaching the championship finals the previous spring, won only 34 games and finished last in the division. The team did strange things like lose 18 games by four points or less and finish 19 games out of first place while still outscoring their opponents over the season.
General Manager Jerry Colangelo and Coaches John MacLeod and Al Bianchi must have figured that standing around and mixing it up caused bruising and bleeding as well as the heartbreak of psoriasis. They have restructured the team with the accent on speed and a fast-break attack. Center Alvan Adams is in Cowens' league as a runner and Walton's league as a passer; Westphal is in his own league as a shooter off the break. What the Suns needed was a middleman to coordinate this activity. Ba—oom! Enter Buse from Indiana, he of the monster assist and steal numbers, in a trade for Ricky Sobers. "Ricky was a pounder," says Colangelo. "Buse doesn't have to set up to be effective." Buse's job will be to give the other Suns the ball in good position and show them the value of playing with someone who makes a mistake about once a month. Buse even consented to play third guard so that the Tasmanian devil himself, Ron Lee, could start rather than pout. The ferocious Lee was the only Sun to play in all 82 games last season. Smooth rookie cornerman Walter Davis, already into wearing turquoise jewelry like every other Arizonan, is so fast and so good he is forcing veterans Garfield Heard and Curtis Perry to share time in the other corner where they can concentrate on helping Adams on the boards. While another rookie, Greg Griffin is Davis' mirror image, the great Phoenix Christian movement turned out only semiglorious: of the Suns' charmingly named recruits from Athletes in Action, Bayard Forrest made it. Freeman Blade did not.
Meanwhile there is thunder 'cross the Bay: Rick Barry came back from a summer of telecasting golf tournaments and Calgary stampedes and of switching from hair weaving to hair transplants to announce that the Golden State Warriors' "attitudes had slipped into gradual decline. We needed a shakeup." The departed Wilkes countered that the attitude problem was Barry's. "I haven't figured out why we went sour," said Wilkes, "but the guys got tired of Rick's making 20 times as much and bossing all of us around, including the coach." Somehow the 33-year-old Barry found a way to climax another wondrous season by carrying the Warriors in their thrilling seven-game losing playoff series with the Lakers. The question is how much longer can he keep doing this?
By necessity the Warriors have won in the past from the outside, but Coach Al Attles plans to go low now that Center Robert Parrish has shown how impressive he can be there. Parrish will have to increase his rookie averages of nine points, seven rebounds and 18 minutes of playing time, but erstwhile starting pivotman Clifford Ray promises to cooperate. "If Robert makes it big, we all make it big," Ray says. Golden State might have another budding star in Forward Sonny Parker, and defensive specialist E. C. Coleman has arrived from New Orleans to replace Wilkes. A skilled, if enigmatic, back-court remains in Phil Smith, Charles Dudley and Charles Johnson, with all eyes on the on-again, off-again Smith. "I don't want to put Phil under the gun," says Attles. "He tries too hard to be brilliant." Still, a couple of freshmen may have to come through for the Warriors to contend. In that regard, Wes Cox came to camp overweight and Rickey Green came overrated; only the little-known 6'3" Ricky Marsh, out of Manhattan, impressed the Warrior veterans. "Marsh is a real player," says Barry. "He could be the stabilizer we need."