Scouting the pro basketball circuit

Drive as if you own the other car -- a great rule for the highway, but it will get you nowhere in the National Basketball Association, where success is often directly related to a team's aggressiveness.

With more and more talented big men coming into the league, the idea is to play hard at both ends of the floor and control the backboards. This is based on the fact that almost all NBA teams that can run and shoot.

Actually, it's how they play defense for 48 minutes that counts -- that and keeping injuries to key players to a minimum.

Based on that formula: Philadelphia will probably win the NBA's Atlantic Division; Milwaukee the Central; Kansas City the Midwest; and the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers the Pacific.

Here are the scouting reports: Atlantic Division.

Philadelphia -- The NBA has a new rule that players cannot wear jewelry on court. No one will be more affected than center Darryl Dawkins, who has a gold chain for every occasion, but unfortunately for the opposition it will only alter his appearance -- not his intimidating physical presence. On offense, starting guards Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins will be looking first for Julius Erving, but at least seven other 76ers are capable of double figures.

Boston -- How much the retirement of center Dave Cowens will hurt probably won't be determined until 20 to 30 games into the season. But it will be enough to keep the Celtics out of first place. It may also take a while before new center Robert Parish and last season's Rookie of the Year, Larry Bird, learn to blend their skills.

Somewhere behind the top two will come New Jersey, New York, and Washington, not necessarily in that order. The Nets' season will hinge on how quickly rookie center Mike Gminski cashes in on his potential. The Knicks' problems should again concern their defense. The Bullets, with a new coach in Gene Shue, have too many old faces for anyone to take seriously. Central Division

Milwaukee -- The Buck went 20-6 last season after acquiring center Bob Lanier from Detroit. More of the same this year, especially if Mickey Johnson can replace retired forward Dave Meyers and Marques Johnson continues to play like an All-Star.

Atlanta -- There are no superstars in Atlanta, just a bunch of role players who know their jobs and do them beautifully. This is a team that applies a lot of pressure on defense and makes the most of its offensive opportunities. The Hawks' problem is that they usually run out of gas by the playoffs.

Chicago -- If center Artis Gilmore can play a full schedule this season, instead of the mere 48 games he appeared in last year, the Bulls could probably win 10 more games. Add free agent forward Larry Kenon (20-point scoring average and 775 rebounds last year with San Antonio) to Gilmore, plus rookie guard Ronnie Lester, and one can understand why Coach Jerry Sloan is fantasizing a bit.

Back in the pack will be three teams with new head coaches: Indiana (Jack McKinney); Cleveland (Bill Musselman); and Detroit (Scotty Robertson). Midwest Division

Kansas City -- Best in what is basically a weak division, the King's only problem is at center, where Sam Lacey has never been known for his consistency. Lacey will get help this year from Joe Meriweather, acquired from the Knicks, and forward Leon Douglas, a strong rebounding free agent who played out his option with the Pistons.

Houston -- Although center Moses Malone comes close to being a one-man team, his supporting cast is made of less than championship material. The last time anyone looked, the Rockets still didn't have a guard taller than 6 ft. 3 in. Tom Henderson. However, with so many new kids on its roster Houston can no longer be called slow.

The No. 3 spot in this division should be decided by a season-long battle between San Antonio and Denver with Utah finishing fifth, and the expansion Dallas Mavericks looking good only when they have the ball. Pacific Division

Los Angeles -- Until rookie Magic Johnson joined the Lakers last year, center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar always seemed like a luxury automobile tht had somehow been built without an ignition. But Johnson, who knows how to start the Big Man, also has the same effect on all his teammates. This is a team that should improve on the road, while continuing to crush its opponents at home.

Seattle -- Only six of the 11 players who were with the SuperSonics when they won the NBA playoffs in 1978-79 are still with the club. What that means is that Seattle isn't as strong defensively as it used to be, but is still better than most teams. When Dennis Johnson couldn't get along with coach Lenny Wilkens, he was traded to Phoenix for guard Paul Westphal. The Sonics still haven't come to terms with Gus Williams, one of the best two-way guards in the league.

Phoenix -- The Suns are trying to become a muscle team by playing 6-10 Jeff Cook and 6-7 Truck Robinson on either side of center Alvan Adams. It may work. What may not work is starting ex-forward Walter Davis in the backcourt with Dennis Johnson.

Portland hopes to open things up more offensively this season and should have little trouble finishing fourth.

San Diego has a new head coach in Paul Silas and all the familiar problems that come with holding title to oft-injured center Bill Walton. Silas will be stressing defense and there is nothing wrong with that.

Golden State probably will continue to lose a lot of games this season, but never quietly. How Coach Al Attles handles showboating Lloyd Free from San Diego; trouble-prone Bernard King from Utah; and first draft pick Joe Barry Carroll of Purdue, for whom motivation is sometimes a problem, should make interesting reading.

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