When the Milwaukee Bucks obtained Bob Lanier from Detroit last year, their record was 29-27; after his arrival they went 20-6 and advanced to the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs before losing a dramatic seven-game series to Seattle. With Lanier on hand from the outset, and with the addition of talented Forward Mickey Johnson, the Bucks will win their division again, but because of realignment their championship will come in the Central, not the Midwest.
At 32 Lanier still has a most accurate jumper for a big man—he scored 19.2 points per game last year—and some muscle to throw around beneath the boards, but he's slow and injury-prone. Indeed, he started the season with a busted nose. Backup Center Harvey Catchings can expect to spot Lanier for 10 to 15 minutes every game. At one forward is Marques Johnson (21.7 points and seven rebounds a game), who may be the best all-around forward in the league. The other forward was to have been David Meyers, but he has retired to devote himself to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Bucks replaced him with Mickey Johnson, who last season led Indiana in scoring. But Coach Don Nelson didn't want Johnson for his 19.1-point average. Says Nelson, "We want Mickey crashing the boards and filling the lanes on the break."
The guards are sharpshooter Brian Winters (16.2 ppg) and playmaker Quinn Buckner. They're backed by the best pair of backcourt reserves in the league, Sidney Moncrief and 6'5" Junior Bridge-man (17.6 ppg), who also plays forward.
According to Coach Hubie Brown, Atlanta's preseason camp was "full of upsetting factors." Center Tree Rollins, 7'1", was making a slow recovery from knee surgery. His newly acquired backup, 7'4" Tom Burleson, broke his wrist in a bike accident even before he reported to camp. In addition, first-round draft pick Don Collins was late signing. But most unsettling—and unsettled—was the fate of Guard Eddie Johnson, the Hawks' second-leading scorer last season (18.5 ppg). During the summer Johnson was arrested twice: for cocaine possession and driving off with a Porsche. A psychiatrist has since diagnosed Johnson as a manic-depressive and prescribed lithium. His court date on the drug charge is set for Nov. 10. And yet, despite all this, Brown says Johnson is "playing exactly as he left off last season—which is to say he's really playing well."
Until Rollins or Burleson recovers, veteran Steve Hawes will be the center. Up front with him will be Dan Roundfield and John Drew. Drew may be the Hawks' leading scorer (19.5 ppg), but Brown is often displeased by his erratic shot selection, sluggish defense and dislike of practice.
The Hawks will again play the half-court and full-court zones and pressure man-to-man with which they led the league in defense last season, allowing a stingy 101.6 points a game.
Under new Coach Jack McKinney the Pacers are no longer a helter-skelter group impersonating a basketball team. McKinney has Indiana executing an offense and helping out on defense. He has put in the offense Portland used to win the 1977 NBA title when he was an assistant there: a 2-3 alignment with the center midway up the foul lane. It worked well with an adept passer like Bill Walton, but will it work with James Edwards? "So far, so good," said McKinney during the exhibition season. "Once James understands that his passing game shouldn't come at the expense of his scoring, he'll be fine." Edwards isn't a bad scorer (15.7 ppg), but at seven feet he should be able to do much better than last season's 7.0 rebounding average.
The Pacers have been disappointed in the play of George Johnson, obtained in the Mickey Johnson deal with Milwaukee. So that forward spot goes to veteran Mike Bantom, who's probably more valuable as a reserve than a starter. The other forward is George McGinnis, who reported to camp in excellent condition and then diligently cooperated in running McKinney's new offense.
A better scorer (15.9 ppg) than playmaker, speedy Johnny Davis is back at the point by default, with Billy Knight alongside. Knight, once an explosive point producer, has become so laid back he seems somnambulistic at times.
Chicago General Manager Rod Thorn has quietly assembled a talented cast that makes the Bulls a promising team—if. One "if is free-agent Forward Larry Kenon, late of San Antonio, a highly talented player with a shaky reputation as a "soloist" and "loafer." The other "if is rookie Guard Ronnie Lester. Quick, intelligent, poised and a deadly shooter, Lester is still favoring the right knee that he injured while playing for Iowa in last season's NCAA semifinals. Backing up Lester is another rookie, Sam Worthen, who is smooth as mink with the ball but sometimes over-handles it.