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Last season the Kansas City Kings finished only two games behind Milwaukee in the Midwest Division. Now, with the Bucks reassigned to the Central Division, the Kings should easily regain the title they won in 1979. Leading K.C. are Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong, the best pair of guards in the NBA. Ford is a quick, fluid and controlled penetrator who had 7.4 assists a game. He likes to go in low and dish the ball off to Birdsong, who scored 22.7 points a game.
Up front the forwards are 225-pound Reggie King, whose skills are abundant but often misplaced, and 6'7" swingman Scott Wedman, a radar (51.2%) perimeter shooter.
The Kings' regular center is Sam Lacey, a good passer and an occasional big scorer. But Lacey is 32 and slow, and he couldn't intimidate on defense with a chair and whip. Realizing this, the Kings gave up $100,000 and a No. 1 draft pick to obtain 6'10" Leon Douglas from Detroit, and they got a 6'10" Joe C. Meriweather in a three-way deal with Cleveland and New York. Neither will make anyone forget Bill Russell, but even without superior center play, the Kings will dominate the NBA's weakest division.
San Antonio may be the only team capable of giving the Kings a strong challenge. The Spurs have a new coach, Stan Albeck, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and pretty much a new team. This is not the same band of running and gunning outlaws who led the NBA in offense with a whopping 119.4 points per game last year and trailed everyone on defense by giving up an equally whopping 119.7. To be sure, the Spurs are still running, but now the fast break is more disciplined. There is also a greater emphasis on team play, and Albeck spent the preseason stressing defense with evangelical fervor. He may have made some progress, too; in one exhibition game George Gervin was actually seen bent over and moving his hands and feet when the other team had the ball.
Of course, offense remains Gervin's game. The Ice Man won his third consecutive scoring title last season (33.1 ppg), and his running mate is James Silas, who also possesses a quick trigger and an arsenal of offensive moves. Silas used to spend a lot of time last season arguing with now-deposed Coach Doug Moe, but his relationship with Albeck is so much better that his spirit and game seem rejuvenated.
Last season's third big gun, Forward Larry Kenon, has moved on to Chicago. John Shumate will replace him, while massive Mark Oldberding will be at the other forward spot. The center is former Net George Johnson, who can't throw a ball through a Hula-Hoop but can certainly block shots.
Houston Coach Del Harris thinks a lot of the Rockets' problems of 1979-80 may have been solved by the process of elimination. For one thing, perennial All-Star Rick Barry, a brooding liability last season, has finally traded in his sweat bands for an occasional seat next to Brent Musburger and Hot Rod Hundley. For another thing, Guard Tom Henderson seems to have a much better relationship with Harris this season than he had last. So, as the season began, Harris was optimistic. "We had a great training camp. I think we're ready."
Center Moses Malone, who appeared in all 82 games last season, is always ready. Malone, who averaged 14.5 rebounds a game, second in the league, may be the finest offensive board man in history. Flanking Malone are underrated Robert Reid and veteran Rudy Tomjanovich. Rudy T. has always managed to score around 17 points a game, but he must improve his average of five rebounds. Houston's depth at forward is young and inexperienced. John Stroud and Lee Johnson are both rookies, though Johnson, the Rockets' No. 1 pick in 1979, could be something of a sleeper. Johnson spent last year in Italy and, according to Harris, he had "a great summer-league performance and an equally great preseason." Backing Malone is 6'11" Billy Paultz, the Whopper, whose main job will be seeing to it that Malone doesn't burn out before the playoffs.
With Henderson back in stride, Houston will once again have the offensive direction it had when winning the Central in 1976-77 but lacked last season. Henderson's running mate, 5'9" Calvin Murphy, had 20 points a game in 1979-80.
The Denver Nuggets last year had a 30-52 record and missed the NBA playoffs for the first time since entering the NBA in 1976-77. This season could be worse. Especially if anything bad happens to Center Dan Issel. Without Issel, the Nuggets were humiliated 122-98 in the preseason by the expansion Dallas Marvericks, of all teams. "If we lose Dan, we're in for a long, a very long season," says Coach Donnie Walsh. Perhaps to insure himself against injury, the 32-year-old Issel reported to camp at the lowest weight (230 pounds) he has been in years. That should mean another season of 20 or more points and eight or nine rebounds a game. But Issel is still only 6'9", and that's a problem for the Nuggets against the big boys. Walsh would like to start 6'8", 215-pound rookie James Ray at power forward, but Ray is recovering from a knee injury. Ray was drafted strictly for his rebounding capabilities, but, says Walsh, "If there's one thing about him that's consistent, it's his shooting. He's a great shooter with great range." Ray can't play until Oct. 21; meanwhile mobile Alex English and Kim Hughes will attempt to take up the slack in the front court.