Los Angeles — The National Basketball Association, which can easily be likened to power politics at any level, is always good for a few knocks. Except for occasional individual efforts, team defense this season has again been limited to the last two minutes of most games. Chances are the barbed-wire variety won't appear on the NBA's regular menu until the playoffs.
Someone already earning an estimated $600,000 a year (Utah's Adrian Dantley) demands that his contract either be extended or renegotiated. When the Jazz General Manager objects on the grounds that Dantley already has a valid agreement, the owner steps in and gives Adrian what he wants anyway.
By mid-November one head coach was already gone. Jack McKinney, who took over the Kansas City Kings only this season, lasted just nine games before deciding to pack it in. McKinney has been replaced by Utah assistant Phil Johnson, who was previously dismissed as Kings' coach during the 1977-78 season. However, Johnson was somehow able to get the security of a three-year contract.
Also at least one NBA team (give the Los Angeles Lakers credit) filed a formal protest with the league over a referee's decision that had no chance of being reversed. The last time the NBA upheld a protest, Abe Lincoln was ball boy for the Illinois Rail Splitters.
Worse yet, Boston's Larry Bird and Philadelphia's Julius Erving have already been ejected from a game for throwing elbows and punches at each other. But instead of imposing something like three-day suspensions in which they could contemplate their actions, NBA Commissioner David Stern contented himself with fining each player $7,500. For Bird and Erving, whose absence no doubt would have hurt the league's attendance figures, that's throwaway money.
What the NBA can be proud of are its three top picks in this year's college player draft. That would be 6 ft. 11 in. Akeem Olajuwon of Nigeria and the Houston Rockets; Sam Bowie of the Portland Trail Blazers; and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Right now Jordan is the best - maybe not the most valuable, but the best. Michael is a showman who has made a league attraction of the Bulls. His chances of scoring 50 points some night are not all that remote, especially late in the season when some NBA club going nowhere is content to swap baskets.
Those who wondered if Olajuwon could play in the same front court with 7-4 Ralph Sampson without ruining both of their games, now know that he can. While it is unrealistic to expect Houston to continue to win at its early .800 or so pace, it is now possible for the Rockets to talk seriously about the playoffs.
However, the real Sam Bowie, except for a power surge here and there on the boards, hasn't contributed that much yet to the growth of the Trail Blazers. Mostly the problem has been injuries, which cost the former Kentucky All-American a training camp with the club. But give Sam's game a year to mature under Coach Jack Ramsay, scouts say, and Portland really will be able to move current center Mychal Thompson permanently to forward.
Early on, the Phoenix Suns were a big surprise in the West, even minus holdout forward Maurice Lucas and the injured Walter Davis. But lately many of the Suns' old problems (they were 17th in defensive rebounding last year) have come back to haunt them.
Probably the best early-season team story is that of Milwaukee, which was expected to fall to the level of a team in transition after the retirement of veteran center Bob Lanier but has instead been dueling for its division lead so far.
The Bucks surprised a few people outside the city by trading Marques Johnson to the Los Angeles Clippers for forward Terry Cummings. But with Lanier gone, Coach Don Nelson was trying to buy himself more rebounds, and he gained almost 300 per year without giving up anything in the way of scoring by swapping Johnson for Cummings.
Although the Bucks don't have one center left capable of replacing Lanier, so far they have been doing it with numbers by starting 7-foot Alton Lister and rotating Randy Breuer and Paul Mokeski behind him.
''Years ago when I was with the Lakers, they got to the NBA finals several times by alternating Leroy Ellis and Gene Wiley at center,'' Nelson explained. ''Maybe we can do the same with Lister, Breuer, and Mokeski. Plus, with three centers we've got a lot more fouls that we can waste.''
The Detroit Pistons, who started the season figuring they were better than Milwaukee in their division and not that far behind the Lakers, 76ers, and Celtics, may be paying the price for too many guaranteed multi-year million-dollar contracts. The Lakers in recent years have had to deal occasionally with motivational problems on that level, and so have the 76ers.
On the social side of the NBA calendar, Jeannie Buss, daughter of Owner Jerry Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers, is dating all-star forward Kiki Vandeweghe of the Denver Nuggets. According to reports, Jeannie did not catch Vandeweghe on the rebound!