This is the division in which Denver always runs off with the title, Chicago and Milwaukee surprise everyone by being either terrific or awful, Indiana stages a telethon to stay alive and Kansas City finishes sixth in the Continental League. But this year things should be different. All five teams are capable of making a run at the playoffs.
Denver, in fact, can be a contender for the NBA championship provided Coach Larry Brown's "chemistry" does not blow up in his face, the two volatile agents added to the delicate mixture being George McGinnis and Charlie Scott. "Exactly what we needed to complete the puzzle," says Brown, which is, in effect, what he said upon the arrival of Paul Silas (1976) and Brian Taylor (1977), both of whom soon departed. What makes Brown think McGinnis and Scott will blend in? "They've both been misunderstood. They haven't had a lot of love," he says.
Truly the mind boggles at the prospect of those two playing up to their potential in Brown's passing-game offense and deny-the-ball defense: the 6'8", 235-pound McGinnis pounding the boards and, along with Center Dan Issel, closing down the basket area to all comers; the 6'6" Scott running the offense and taking turns attacking the hoop with David Thompson; all this while second-year man Anthony (Woosie) Roberts leads the fast break.
But McGinnis had Brown pacing the halls of his hotel during training camp, mainly because Brown had to give up defensive whiz Bobby Jones to get him from Philadelphia. "I'd have long talks with George," says Brown, "tell him how much we need him and what he needs to do, and he'd say, 'Perfect, coach.' Then in practice he'd be the last in everything, pulling up for that trashy jumper, forgetting what we talked about." At times during the exhibition season, McGinnis seemed to be paying attention. At other times, he left Brown wondering.
On the day that Denver traded Ron Boone to Los Angeles for Scott, GM Carl Scheer declared, "This is one of the most significant days in the history of the franchise. Charlie Scott's reputation precedes him." Indeed it did, and fans were thinking more of his tag as a troublemaker in Phoenix, Boston and L.A. than his lofty credentials as a player. "Charles is Charles," says Brown of his fellow North Carolina alumnus. "He'll drive us all crazy at times, but he wants to be accepted."
There are no doubts about Issel, who is coming off the best year of his career, or Thompson, who finished the regular season by scoring 73 points against Detroit to fatten his NBA career average to 26.5. And this year the Nuggets have unprecedented depth. The backcourt has 6'7" Bobby Wilkerson and 5'11" Robert Smith, and rookie Hollis Copeland, a 6'5" showstopper from Rutgers, has been used as a swingman. Kim Hughes will back up Issel, while 6' 9" Tom Boswell, who never got a fair shot in Boston; Geff Crompton, a 6'11", 282-pound hulk who barely played at North Carolina; and 6'7" Phil Hicks more than make up for the failures of No. 1 draft pick Rod Griffin from Wake Forest and second-year man Bo Ellis.
After their meteoric rise last season on the shoulders of rookie Forward Marques Johnson, the Milwaukee Bucks have done nothing to improve themselves, except to grow a year older. Now if they can get Kent Benson to grow into an NBA center, they will do even more damage in the playoffs than they did last year, when they upset Phoenix and took Denver to seven games. Coach Don Nelson flew to Indianapolis early in the summer to have a heart-to-heart talk with Benson. "We hit about all there was to hit," says Nelson, who then sent Benson to the Southern California Summer League, in which he was named MVP. He reported .to training camp 15 pounds under his 245-pound playing weight of last season, and in excellent shape.
Nelson still will start John Gianelli, who did a solid job with the Bucks last year. "But it is not inconceivable that Bennie will be my center before long if he keeps progressing," says Nelson. Alas, that appears to be wishful thinking. As for Johnson, although Phoenix' Walter Davis beat him out for Rookie of the Year honors, he thoroughly outplayed Davis in the playoffs, averaging 24 points and 12.4 rebounds. Johnson and David Meyers are back in the corners with a bit more pressure on them since Milwaukee lost Alex English, its fifth-leading scorer, to Indiana. There's a scramble for the backup forward jobs among 6'6" Ernie Grunfeld, 6'10" Kevin Restani, and rookies Otis Howard (6'7") out of Austin Peay and George Johnson (6'7") out of St. John's.
The backcourt is settled, getting direction from Quinn Buckner, deadeye shooting from Brian Winters and relief from Junior Bridgeman and peppery Lloyd Walton.
Chicago is bringing back Larry Costello, known in his Milwaukee coaching days for his short hair and 400-pound playbook. Surely the stern and humorless Costello would have trouble relating to the likes of Norm Van Lier and Artis Gilmore. "There are no problems," says Bulls Managing Partner Jonathan Kovler.