NBA races take shape: Sixers roll; Blazers hound Lakers
Los Angeles — There is probably a good chance that the National Basketball Association, which has proven notably dynasty-proof since the Boston Celtics won back-to-back titles in 1968 and 1969, may break with tradition this season.
The breakers, of course, would be the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers, who began the current season by winning 20 of their first 25 games. Even though the 76ers aren't blowing teams out of games with their power offense the way they did a year ago, they still have the game's Most Valuable Player in center Moses Malone.
In fact, Philadelpia has so many money players in addition to Malone (Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and so forth), that not even the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, or Portland Trail Blazers stack up favorably.
Although Boston was supposed to have closed the backcourt gap that existed last year between itself and Philadelphia by getting guard Dennis Johnson from the Phoenix Suns, it hasn't happened yet. The Celtics still don't have anyone who can contain Toney when it counts or consistently nullify Malone on the boards.
Elsewhere in the NBA's Atlantic Division, the New York Knicks are improved but not great, the New Jersey Nets a disappointment so far. The Washington Bullets are playing over their heads, mostly because of the fine coaching of Gene Shue. Still the Bullets don't have the kind of depth that will scare anyone if they should make the playoffs.
While the Milwaukee Bucks continue to lead the league's Central Division and have two super players in Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson, center remains a problem. Bucks Coach Don Nelson knows he's in trouble anytime he looks at his stat sheet and sees that Moncrief (a guard) and not center Bob Lanier leads his team in rebounding.
Although both the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons figure to make a run at Milwaukee before the season is over, these are teams that flirt regularly with consistency while never really establishing a full-blown romance.
Among the remaining Central teams, the in-and-out Chicago Bulls still look considerably stronger than both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers.
In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Lakers, who started the season without two of last season's regulars (Kurt Rambis, who is injured, and Norm Nixon, who was traded to San Diego), have lost some games to so-so teams on the road.This obviously concerns Coach Pat Riley. But once Magic Johnson (injured finger) comes off the team's disabled list, things should begin to go smoothly again.
The team Los Angeles has to watch out for is Portland. Coach Jack Ramsay's precision offense and pressure defense is unlike any other in the league. If the Trail Blazers, who seldom lose at home, were to improve even 10 percent on the road, this race could go to the wire.
While Phoenix, Golden State, and Seattle are all good teams, none are apt to seriously challenge L.A. or Portland, and the San Diego Clippers, already 10 games under .500, are reportedly looking for a new coach.
In the Midwest Division, Frank Layden of the first-place Utah Jazz may already have a lock on NBA Coach of the Year honors. Layden has done a tremendous job with a center (Mark Eaton) nobody wanted, a forward (Adrian Dantley) who has been traded three times, and a guard (Darrell Griffith) who people said would never learn the value of court discipline.
Currently trailing Utah are the Dallas Mavericks, who have faded ingloriously after establishing themselves as front-runners in the early going. Dallas is still a solid team, though, and may be capable of another hot streak.
The San Antonio Spurs were the preseason favorites in this division, but thus far they've produced the kind of slapstick basketball you might expect of players carrying seltzer bottles and wearing oversized shoes. Even so, there is enough talent on the Spurs to mount a comeback.
Meanwhile the Kansas City Kings have managed to stay around the .500 mark and often play the role of spoilers against other teams. The Denver Nuggets, who are first in the league in scoring with an average of 124.6 points per game, are also last in defense. On Dec. 13, the Nuggets' Mickey Mouse defense gave up 186 points in a triple overtime loss to Detroit. The 186-184 final made it the highest scoring game in league history.
Even with 7 ft. 4 in. rookie center Ralph Sampson in their lineup, the Houston Rockets still have too much growing to do as a team to make the playoffs. While Sampson's newness is part of the problem, the Rockets are also having to adjust to a new coach (Bill Fitch) and a new system, which involves a lot more running than Houston has done in the past.