Los Angeles — So far this has not been the kind of season the people who run the National Basketball Association hoped it would be, despite the drawing power of rookies Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets.
''You're correct if you say the NBA is actually two leagues right now - the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers in a class by themselves and then the rest of us,'' explained veteran Coach Gene Shue of the Washington Bullets. ''It's something we're all going to have to live with until the playoffs.
''The Celtics and the 76ers simply have too much depth and balance for everybody else in this league over an 82-game schedule,'' continued Shue, who recently became the third NBA coach to achieve 700 career victories.
''Of course, Boston and Philly could also dominate the playoffs. But in a short series, if your team plays well, doesn't make many mistakes, and gets a couple of breaks, it can sometimes eliminate an opponent with better personnel.''
Although the Celtics have been playing super basketball since the start of the season (a pace that projects to a 69-13 record overall), they might not be any better or perhaps as good as the 76ers. Even with guard Dennis Johnson scoring better than he did a year ago, Boston still looks a little thin in the backcourt.
Philadelphia, with 6 ft. 6 in., 265 lb. rookie forward Charles Barkley moving on to a front line that already includes Moses Malone and Julius Erving, has become more of a power team than ever. The 76ers don't lack for experienced reserves either in Bobby Jones and center-forward Clemon Johnson.
While Boston probably has the league's best overall player in Larry Bird and the game's best sixth man in Kevin McHale, Philadelphia's backcourt led by Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney is still better than the Celtics' in terms of depth, floor leadership, and shooting ability.
The real NBA finals this season probably will come when the Celtics and the 76ers meet in the Eastern Conference playoffs in early June.
While Coach Don Nelson has done a remarkable transition job with first-place Milwaukee in the NBA's Central Division after losing center Bob Lanier to retirement, nobody can be sure what the young Bucks will be like in the playoffs. But this is a team that has been getting an all-star year from forward Terry Cummings, who came over from the Los Angeles Clippers in a trade for Marques Johnson.
With way more than half the season remaining, there is still time for the highly-touted Detroit Pistons to catch and pass Milwaukee. Nevertheless, the Pistons, with six players scoring in double figures, need to start doing more things on defense, especially on the road.
In the Pacific Division, the Portland Trail Blazers so far have been a tremendous disappointment. They were supposed to mount a strong challenge to Los Angeles. Instead, the Lakers right now are more concerned with the Phoenix Suns, who don't appear that solid at center; who have yet to suit up injured Walter Davis; and who often rely on different starting combinations to get the job done.
However, the real dark horses in this division have been the Los Angeles Clippers, who have come from nowhere to a position of prominence by returning Bill Walton to center and tightening up their defense. They even did the job while their best scorer, Marques Johnson, was out with an injury.
In the Midwest Division, Denver Nuggets' Coach Doug Moe is fast losing his reputation as a man who thinks that ''de-fense'' is something two friends lean over when they talk.
Moe's new image stems from a controversial trade Denver made last June with Portland. At that time the Nuggets sent high-scoring forward Kiki Vandeweghe (not too sharp on defense) to the Blazers for forward Calvin Natt, guard Fat Lever, and center Wayne Cooper.
Since then Natt, Lever, and Cooper have been playing the best ball of their NBA careers and Denver, which allowed a league high of almost 125 points a game last season, has cut that down by almost 10 points.
The Nuggets' chief division rival at the moment is Houston. The Rockets boast Twin Towers in 6-10 center Akeem Olajuwon and 7-4 forward Ralph Sampson, who have made things miserable on both boards for their opponents this season. At this point either Olajuwon or Chicago's Jordan is probably going to be NBA Rookie of the Year.