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To his credit, Costello thinks his two years out of the league helped him bridge a gap between NBA generations. "I've seen happy teams and unhappy teams," he says, "and I think I know what makes the happy teams happy." Abridging the monster playbook to six basic patterns was a step in the right direction.
The forwards will be Scott May and Mickey Johnson and Gilmore is set at center. However, backcourtmen John Mengelt and Van Lier are twisting slowly in the trade winds. "I'm always on the block," says Van Lier.
Costello was taking plenty of time evaluating his guards before choosing his starting combination. Rookie Reggie Theus, the No. 1 pick from Nevada-Las Vegas, is a strong candidate. The 6'6�" Theus gives the Bulls the big guard they haven't had since Jerry Sloan. Theus, who had knee surgery over the summer, will apparently start alongside Wilbur Holland, the 6' lefty "Dr. Junk," forcing the disconsolate Van Lier to the bench.
With the exception of Theus, the provisional starting five is essentially the same unit that won 20 of its last 24 games in 1976-77, but last season lost 19 of its last 30 after knee injuries to May and reserve Center Tom Boerwinkle. Gilmore comes off a super year—23 points, 13 rebounds per game—and May is now sound, but until Boerwinkle recovers from the surgery he underwent 10 months ago, former Celtic Jim Ard will back up Gilmore; and until the Bulls can find another forward, only Mark Landsberger, a 6'8" second-year player, provides relief for the cornermen.
If anyone in the NBA deserves to be a winner, it is Slick Leonard, Indiana's coach and general manager. He has begged and borrowed money, peddled tickets door to door and completely rebuilt his team for the second consecutive year to try to revitalize the Pacers, who were 31-51 last season. Only Guard Ricky Sobers, Forwards Mike Bantom and Steve Green and reserve Center Len Elmore began last season in Indianapolis, the nine other players coming via the draft, free agency and the kind of deals that earned Leonard his nickname. He traded the No. 1 pick in the college draft to Portland in exchange for the outstanding third-year Guard Johnny Davis and used his No. 3 pick to draft 6'10�" Rick Robey, Kentucky's All-America forward. In the second round he picked 6'3", 205-pound Indiana U. Guard Wayne Radford, described by his coach, Bobby Knight, as "a Quinn Buckner who can shoot." Leonard also dealt a future draft choice to Portland for Forward Corky Calhoun, who plays good D, traded Earl Tatum to Boston for its 1980 first-round draft choice, and signed Alex English, who was a free agent. Measured against his only loss. Forward Dan Round-field, who jumped to Atlanta, Slick came out well ahead.
Robey, a banger who can shoot the medium jumper and go up and down the floor well for his size, will start in one corner, Bantom in the other. English, who averaged 9.6 points on 54% shooting in Milwaukee last year, will come off the bench, as will Calhoun and 6'7" swingman Pop Carrington. The center is 7'1" James Edwards, who averaged 15.4 points for the Pacers after they acquired him from the Lakers in midseason. Davis and Sobers will start in the backcourt, with Kevin Stacom and Radford in reserve. This should be the Pacers' strongest team since George McGinnis left in 1975, and Leonard is sticking his neck out. "We're a playoff club," he says, "no question about it. I'm predicting we're going to win at least 40 games, maybe more. Baby, we're due."
Kansas City, which tied the Pacers for last place in the division last year, will be much better as well, owing to a new coach. Cotton Fitzsimmons, a new lead guard, Phil Ford, and a new starting center. Tommy Burleson. When the Kings chose Ford, the brilliant North Carolina playmaker, as the second pick in the college draft, K.C. General Manager Joe Axelson said, "Cotton has visions of handing Ford the ball and letting him run the show for the next 12 years. Ford and [Guard Otis] Birdsong should work like a ball and a glove." Birdsong averaged 24 points a game after he became a starter at the end of last season. Veteran Lucius Allen, second-year man John Kuester and rookies Marlon Redmond ( San Francisco) and Billy McKinney (Northwestern) are the backcourt reserves.
Fitzsimmons gave a full vote of confidence to Burleson at center and is backing him up with former Pacer-Net-Nugget Darnell Hillman and Sam Lacey, who was woeful last year. Bill Robinzine, the bruising power forward who has finally recovered from a broken ankle suffered two seasons ago, and smart, quick Scott Wedman, who chose to stay with the Kings rather than become a free agent, will start in the corners, with Richard Washington and Bob Nash in reserve.