There are two sure things in the Atlantic Division: Philadelphia will finish on top and the Nets at the bottom. It's the middle that's muddled. The Knicks might even climb over Boston into second place; that old Celtic magic is losing its zing. And in Buffalo the new owner is trying to do for the Braves what he did for fried chicken.
A current Philadelphia television commercial peddling 76er season tickets ends with Julius Erving saying, "We owe you one. We owe you one." The Dr. is not given to making idle promises, and if he is implying that he will be responsible for bringing the NBA title to Philadelphia, well, who is going to stop him? Now that the Sixers' tragicomic "almost" season is history, Erving's teammates should realize that they alone can stop Erving. The Dr.'s 30.3 average in the 4-2 final playoff series against Portland—40 points in the last game—proves that other teams cannot. So what can the 76ers do to mend their fractious ways? Given the brilliance of Guard Doug Collins, the steady control and defense of Henry Bibby, the muscle of Steve Mix, the amazing shooting and jumping of Lloyd Free—the finger falls on two men.
One is Forward George McGinnis, and he knows it. His quite understandable struggle with Erving for control of the team last year turned destructive. The Sixers became notorious for their junior high antics in practice, best symbolized by McGinnis sneaking cigarettes while the team ran fast-break drills. He half expected to be traded but, as Coach Gene Shue says, "Apparently there wasn't as much interest in our players as some of them thought." This year McGinnis reported to camp 11 pounds slimmer at 237, in shape for a change. If he concentrates on picking and rebounding and shooting in moderation—a lesson he may have learned after a thorough whipping by Portland's Maurice Lucas in the playoffs—the 76ers will be playing for another championship next spring.
The other main man is 20-year-old, 6'11" Darryl (Black Jack) Dawkins, with a clean-shaven scalp and a gold ring in his left ear. "I'm the black Kojak," he says. Dawkins took off 10 pounds—he is now a wispy 250—had his hair removed with "magic shaving powder" and has reasonable hopes of becoming the regular center, displacing Caldwell Jones and causing Harvey Catchings to be shifted to strong forward. Says General Manager Pat Williams, "If Darryl just whetted our palates last year, if he's ready to make that a night-to-night reality, that's the difference between being good and being great." Dawkins made his presence felt in preseason. He collided with Erving and put the Dr. out through the opening game with a strained knee. It could have been worse. "He could have fallen on me," said the Doc.
Late last season, after the Knicks' latest series of desperate moves had failed to get them into the playoffs. Red Holzman threw up his hands in disgust and said, "Maybe it's time for a new man to run this team." Was he implying that the newest savior, Bob McAdoo, was uncoachable? Was he tired of Spencer Haywood's eternal injuries? Did he think Jim McMillian's jumper was never coming back? Had he had enough of Walt Frazier's sulk act? Whatever, Holzman is gone and the problems belong to new Coach Willis Reed. Or most of them.
The Knicks' old captain bulled into the job declaring that the party was over. At training camp players roomed in pairs and ate team meals. They practiced twice a day and ran laps right into exhibition season. Then, after a summer-long search for a deal for Frazier, the Knicks found one. They signed 28-year-old free agent Guard Jim Cleamons, a superb playmaker and defender for five years at Cleveland, and sent 32-year-old Clyde to the Cavaliers as compensation. "I feel terrible for Clyde," said his Knick backcourt mate, Earl Monroe, "but I have to admit it will be good for the team." "I will not try to replace Frazier," said Cleamons solemnly.
But the very day old Clyde left, the new Clyde arrived: Guard Ray Williams from Minnesota, the first-round draft choice, who even looks like Frazier did as a rookie. Williams is 6'3" and super-quick. In his first exhibition games Williams scored 16 points against Boston, then 22 against the Nets. He should make the Garden crowd forget Eugene Short, Mel Davis and Tom Riker, who happen to be the Knicks' last three first-round draftees. With Williams, Cleamons and Monroe—who ages like fine wine—plus the steady Butch Beard, the Knicks' backcourt may be as strong as it was in those magical years of 1970 and 1973.
Reed's very presence should go a long way toward convincing McAdoo and Haywood, now healthy, to learn to play forward and maybe even some defense, and he can at least hope that McMillian finds his shot. Second-year Center Lonnie Shelton played in all 82 games last year and is Reed's personal prot�g�. There is plenty of depth up front with Tom McMillen, the practically ageless Phil Jackson and rookies Toby Knight of Notre Dame and Glen Gondrezik of UNLV. Says Jackson, "It's rather odd. We've got a lot of hungry players here."
Boston waited until opening night to resign Sidney Wicks, but even with Wicks impersonating a Celtic strong forward, this team is still weak, lacking an adequate backup center and sufficient help in the corners. Dave Cowens once looked left and right and saw Paul Silas, or Don Nelson, or a vibrant John Havlicek. Now he sees Wicks, or Curtis Rowe, or Fred Saunders, or Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell. Can you imagine Cowens, fire in his eyes, yelling, "Watch the pick, Cornbread!"