The world champion Washington Bullets won't have the Central Division to kick around anymore, which should make life more agreeable this season in Cleveland and San Antonio, and especially so in Houston.
Detroit replaces the Bullets, who moved to the Atlantic, but this change will not affect the remaining balance of power, as the Pistons essentially run on one cylinder, Center Bob Lanier. However, Rick Barry, who signed with Houston as a free agent, is capable of turning the more talent-laden Rockets around. Houston was in the basement almost from the first tip-off last season, even though the Rockets were expected to repeat as Central champions. The only category in which Houston led the league was injuries, nine players missing a total of 221 games. The most devastating loss was that of Rudy Tomjanovich, whose face was fractured by a punch delivered by then-Laker Kermit Washington on Dec. 9. Without him the Rockets dropped 41 games, while winning 18. Moreover, for 23 of those games Center Moses Malone was sidelined with a stress fracture in his right foot. Nonetheless, he led the NBA in offensive rebounds for the second straight year. Now that Malone and Tomjanovich are fully recovered, and Barry has arrived, the Rockets should reclaim the title they won in 1976-77. Among his other heartening statistics, in eight NBA seasons Barry has missed only 14 games.
At Golden State, teammates accused Barry of bossing them around, but he now seems prepared to accept whatever role the Rockets ask him to play. "He will complement me by his willingness to work with the ball," says Tomjanovich, who has sensed a mellowing in his new teammate.
"I have nothing to prove. I don't care if I score six points a game," says Barry, who has a career scoring average of 25.6. "I know I'll be able to give the ball to our shooters enough that they'll be happy as pigs in slop. But the key to the Rockets' success is Moses Malone."
The 24-year-old, 6'10" Malone is rapidly becoming one of the league's dominant centers. He has gained nearly 20 pounds, now weighing in at 230, and as trainer Dick Vandervoort says, "He's starting to walk like Wilt Chamberlain." The Rockets, who lost their smooth playmaker, John Lucas, to Golden State as compensation for Barry, acquired Slick Watts from New Orleans for backcourt depth. He will play alongside either Calvin Murphy or Robert Reid, a 6'8" second-year man from St. Mary's ( Texas), who has been shifted from forward. Watts, who led the league in steals and assists in 1975-76, gives Coach Tom Nissalke defense and speed, Murphy gives him scoring (25.6) and Reid may give him all of the above plus rebounding.
But the injury curse hasn't lost its potency. Guard Mike Newlin caught a finger in Reid's jersey during a scrimmage and wound up with a fractured finger and a seat on the bench. That same afternoon Murphy caught a calf in the mouth of a German shepherd and wound up with a couple of teeth marks.
Like the German shepherd, San Antonio will be snapping at Houston's heels. The only time the Spurs collapse is in the playoffs, but Coach Doug Moe isn't panicking. He has made no major changes and has no plans to alter the running and passing game that last season produced a club-record 52 wins.
"We run the opposition down and then we shoot them down," says reserve Forward Allan Bristow. Indeed, last year only the 76ers outscored the Spurs, who averaged 114.5 points per game. "We have the ability to move the ball around, and no matter who gets it we can score," says Center Billy Paultz, who averaged 15.8 points a game last season. But the Spurs' key man is George Gervin, who led the league in scoring with a 27.22 average and makes the Spurs' offense go. That being so, the Spurs are expecting to roll smoothly until 1984. After lengthy see-saw talks, San Antonio agreed to renegotiate Gervin's $150,000 contract, giving him a reported $300,000 a year for six years.
Either Mike Gale or James Silas, whose injured knee has kept him off the court for most of the last two seasons, will play in the backcourt with Gervin. In the frontcourt, reliable Larry Kenon does the scoring (20.6), and Coby Dietrick and muscleman Mark Olberding (6'8", 230) assist Paultz inside.
"Our strength is that the same basic group of players have been together for four years," says Assistant Coach Bob Bass. But the Spurs have been bullied about for years by bigger teams. More than any other club, San Antonio should benefit from the rule change that prohibits hand-checking. And the Spurs excel at the foul line, where they led the league with 80% accuracy. However, this can't make up for the Spurs' lack of rebounding. Their 1,030 offensive boards in 1977-78 earned them the league's booby prize.