- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Perhaps the ultimate signal that the electronic revolution is upon us is the fact that Eddie Gottlieb, the 81-year-old patriarch who for 31 years single-handedly hammered out the NBA's schedule, is now a consultant to a computer. The irony is that the schedule's new format—a team will play each of its intraconference rivals six times and each interconference opponent only twice—is in no way the result of computer wizardry. Rather, it was the league's owners who decided to junk the old four-games-against-everyone system. It might've been a good move, but who knows? These are the same superbrains who decided that last year's big improvement, the third referee, was no improvement at all—inasmuch as it cost money.
While the new schedule might strike some fans as bad for competitive balance—will good teams like Washington and Philadelphia fall asleep against weaker Eastern competition, while the powerful Western teams keep each other sharp?—the change is more likely to evoke the good old pre-expansion days, when players saw so much of certain opponents that they could identify them by the feel of their elbows.
That's terrific news for fans on the Atlantic Coast who yearn to see more of the kind of hot competition that occurs when the top teams, Philly and Washington, get together. The 76ers have stood pat, but won't necessarily be unchanged. There's been "a maturity, an understanding, a growing up together, lessons learned from adversity," in the lofty words of Dr. Julius Erving. Washington has largely the same roster, too, which means it's in a race not only with Philadelphia, but also against time, the dawning of the basketball equivalent of senility being just over the horizon. After all, how long can the front line of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Bobby Dandridge, combined age pushing 99, keep on doing it?
The one change the Bullets made—reacquiring Kevin Porter, who led Washington to a 60-22 record in 1974-75—will no doubt improve the miserable guard play that allowed Seattle to run the Bullets off the floor in last spring's championship finals. Moreover, the addition of Porter gives the Bullets starting talent that is unequaled in the NBA. But balanced against the absence of backup Center-Forward Mitch Kupchak, Porter's arrival could amount to a net of zero. Kupchak missed the playoffs, had back surgery in July and could be out until January. If he returns in top form then, the Bullets will be fine. Some pluses are the re-signing of Kevin Grevey and the blossoming of muscular Greg Ballard into a first-rate frontcourt relief man. But Washington will be in a sorry state if much relief is needed, because until Kupchak comes back Ballard is the only reliable man in the bullpen.
"Last year there was a conflict over team objectives from Day 1," says Erving. "Our offense was confined. This year we'll have an offense with fewer controls." Erving would have you believe that it will be a Dr. J offense, and it could be that because Erving's knees feel better. Darryl Dawkins promises to be "more professional, you know, low profilin' " and says he will hold off his boxing career until after his retirement—say, about 1993—from the NBA. Caldwell Jones is now comfortable at the big forward spot, and Bobby Jones is content to come off the bench with Steve Mix and offer defense where needed. But the best news in Philly is that Doug Collins, who missed 35 games and all of the playoffs with a foot injury, is as good as new. He should give the 76ers a dazzling back-court tandem, with Maurice Cheeks, who matured into a top point guard last year. With Collins, the 76ers surely would have beaten San Antonio, probably Washington, and maybe even Seattle last year. If peace and good health endure in the Sixer camp, this could well be the promised year.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Nets continue their indefatigable climb from patsy to power. This quiet bunch of unknowns made the playoffs last season by playing the league's switchingest, scrappiest, toughest defense, as taught by Coach Kevin Loughery. Since then the Nets have used two first-round draft picks to haul in some genuine talent. From Northeast Louisiana comes small Forward 6'6" Calvin Natt, who was so impressive in exhibitions that the Nets traded high-scoring (21.6 points per game) Bernard King, Center John Gianelli and Guard Jim Boy-Ian to Utah for Center Rich Kelley, the second-leading rebounder in the league last season. From USC comes 6'9" Cliff Robinson, a classically built power forward. In reserve up front, Loughery has 6'10" Bob Elliott, coming off a knee injury, and 6'11" shot-blocker George Johnson.
The ball will ride with Fast Eddie Jordan, but it will fly from howitzers who should fittingly make the Nets leaders in the new ABA style, three-point field goals. Not only are gunners John Williamson and Ralph Simpson still around, but New Jersey has acquired the services of the alltime champion three-point shooter and last active ABA original, Louie Dampier. Dampier, 34, hit 794 "home runs" in nine years, pumping away at a .358 clip, so when the Nets are behind this year, don't head for the parking lot too soon.
Despite what Bill Fitch says, "the green shoes" are not the toughest adjustment the new coach of the Celtics has had to make. First of all, the former Cleveland coach is the first "outsider" to lead the Celtics in 29 years. He is coaching his predecessor, Dave Cowens, who is more fit and enthusiastic than he's been in years. And he has the league's most-touted rookie, Larry Bird. All of which is nearly enough to get Celtic fans thinking that championship banner No. 14 will shortly be hanging from the rafters of Boston Garden. It won't happen this year, but the Celtics, a 29-53 team in 1978-79, certainly have taken a strong forward step. As for this season, Cowens spent the summer working out on a Nautilus machine and came in looking like a cross between Darryl Dawkins and the World Trade Center. Boston has four superb passers in its starting lineup in Bird and Cowens and guards Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford, with free agent Forward M. L. Carr in reserve. Scoring could be a problem. Though Bird is expected to lend a hand, most of the point-production burden will fall on Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, the NBA's leading percentage shooter last year. But Fitch has been after him for more defense.
The Knicks have tried just about every option open to a team with endless corporate millions behind it—except for exercising intelligence and patience. Last year's instant savior, Center Marvin Webster, became a bust, partly because of a knee injury, partly because he was blown away by pressure from management, media and fans. With the knee still bothering him, Webster has lost his job to 7'1" rookie Bill Cartwright of San Francisco. Cartwright has looked so good that New York—if it decides to try to build a team, instead of buy one—might want to make him the cornerstone, but the Knicks' other two first-rounders, forwards Larry Demic ( Arizona) and Sly Williams ( Rhode Island) are question marks. That leaves Toby Knight as the only experienced cornerman. In the backcourt, Ray Williams is still prone to lose control of his considerable talent. Earl Monroe, 34, still belongs in the NBA, but—please—not on the Knicks.