Los Angeles — As the National Basketball Association gears up for campaign No. 39, it hardly seems necessary to remind anyone that no NBA team has won back-to-back championships since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics. And Boston, despite the presence of MVP Larry Bird, is no guarantee to repeat last season's playoff title.
The Celtic guards are still suspect after Dennis Johnson, even though Danny Ainge, strictly on his own initiative, spent part of the off-season improving his game in California's summer pro league.
Meanwhile '83 champion Philadelphia, with a healthy Moses Malone back at center and more structured playing time planned for Julius Erving, looks like a team capable of playing .700-plus ball. In fact, the 76ers have two rookies whose names you might want to memorize - 6 ft. 6 in. Olympic guard Leon Wood, and 6-7, 270-pound rebounder Charles Barkley.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic Division, the race for third place among New York, New Jersey, and Washington could well end in a photo finish. The Bullets, by acquiring guard Gus Williams from Seattle and forward Cliff Robinson from Cleveland, probably have bought themselves at least 10 more victories this season.
There is tremendous fan interest in the Midwest Division where 7-foot rookie center Akeem Olajuwon will team with last season's NBA Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson, who has been moved to forward. While Olajuwon and the 7-4 Sampson probably can learn to play together, there are a lot of doubts that they can do it well enough to ever produce a division winner. Earlier speculation that within 48 months Sampson will be with either the Lakers or the Knicks has never quite gone away.
As for this year, if ever a division looked on paper as though every team might finish in a first-place tie (they won't, of course), this is it. Nobody seems to think that Utah can win 45 games again or that Dallas can survive an entire season without center Pat Cummings, who signed with the Knicks as a free agent.
So if Denver, Kansas City, and San Antonio improve the way they are supposed to, what you have is the grab bag division of pro basketball. Meanwhile, Jack McKinney will coach the Kings this season, Cotton Fitzsimmons the Spurs.
Midwest Division rookies worth watching include guard John Stockton of the Jazz; center Sam Perkins of the Mavericks; forward Otis Thorpe of the Kings; and guard Alvin Robertson of the Spurs.
While Los Angeles Head Coach Pat Riley insists that the Lakers are still on an upward spiral (even with 37-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center), the Portland Trail Blazers may actually be the team to beat in the Pacific Division. With 7-foot rookie Sam Bowie being groomed to replace Mychal Thompson at center, Portland will eventually have its best defensive pivotman since Bill Walton. And with forward Kiki Vandeweghe's offense up front added to that of guard Jim Paxson, the Trail Blazers should never lack for clutch points. What Portland has to hope is that the Lakers don't get too big a lead while all the new Blazers are getting acquainted.
After the Blazers and the Lakers, it will be a battle for third place between Phoenix and Seattle, even though Suns' guard Walter Davis is expected to miss the first 21 games because of injuries. Phoenix is also minus key forward Maurice Lucas at the moment because of a salary dispute. Last season neither the Suns or the SuperSonics (both with idential 10-31 won-lost records on the road), ever got their acts together.
If there is a dark horse in this division it's the Los Angeles (formerly San Diego) Clippers. The Clippers with a starting five of James Donaldson, Marques Johnson, Bill Walton, Norman Nixon, and Derek Smith match up well against almost all opponents. It's when they have to go to the bench that bad things start to happen.
As for Golden State (30-52 last season), it will probably be another year of building character; living with the many moods of center Joe Barry Carroll; and hoping the rookies who make the club are fast learners. Actually Carroll, a free agent, may sit out the entire season if he doesn't get the money he wants from either the Warriors or some other NBA franchise.
From Jan. 1, 1984, through the end of last season, Detroit played the best basketball of any team in the Central Division, finishing just one game behind first-place Milwaukee. With the acquisition of power forward Dan Roundfield and the re-signing of veterans Vinnie Johnson and Kelly Tripucka, plus the floor leadership of Isiah Thomas, no team in this division figures to stop the Pistons this season.
Although Milwaukee, because of so many younger players, will fastbreak more this year, it isn't apt to duplicate last season's 50-32 record. There will be no Bob Lanier around this time to steady things at center. Also, Marques Johnson , Junior Bridgeman, and Harvey Catchings have gone to the Clippers in a trade for Terry Cummings. The only sure thing the Bucks can count on this year is another all-star performance from guard Sidney Moncrief.
Atlanta after winning only nine of 41 road games last season, has decided on a number of major changes. Chief among them will be an emphasis on youth, speed, and the running game. That is why the Hawks were willing to trade Roundfield to Detroit for Antoine Carr, who played in Italy last year, and Cliff Levingston.
Whether the Chicago Bulls eventually become playoff contenders or not, they will have one of the league's top drawing cards this year in Michael Jordan, their No. 1 draft pick. Jordan, one of the stars of the unbeaten 1984 US Olympic basketball team, plays the game as though it had been invented for his benefit, and could very well be NBA Rookie of the Year. The Bulls have also helped their rebounding by getting Caldwell Jones from Houston.
Both Cleveland and Indiana have reached into their front offices for new head coaches this season. The Cavaliers will be run by former player director George Karl, the Pacers by former director of operations George Irvine. Cleveland will be relying on rookie Mel Turpin at center, Indiana on rookie Vern Fleming at one of its guard spots. Don't expect too much from either franchise.