Atlanta may be chief threat to break NBA's Lakers-Celtics monopoly. Addition of Moses Malone and Reggie Theus gives Hawks an improved look

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In a year when the National Basketball Association is bound to be criticized for the way it has stocked expansion franchises in Miami and Charlotte, N.C., with mostly garage-sale players, it also has a tremendous plus going for it. For the first time since Jimmy Carter occupied the White House, the season, which begins Friday, hasn't already been deeded over to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.

Six other clubs that won 50 or more games last year are also being considered as potential champions.

Pedestal-high, at the moment, along with L.A. and Boston, are the Detroit Pistons (54-28), Denver Nuggets (54-28), Portland Trail Blazers (53-29), Dallas Mavericks (53-29), Atlanta Hawks (50-32), and Chicago Bulls (50-32).

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In addition, there are probably at least three other franchises that deserve some playoff consideration, specifically the New York Knicks, the Utah Jazz, and the Houston Rockets.

History shows that NBA championships have usually been won when teams have had an outstanding center and a superior playmaking guard.

That was as true when George Mikan and Slater Martin led the Minneapolis Lakers to several championships in the early '50s as when Bill Russell and Bob Cousy were cornerstones of a Celtics dynasty in the '50s and '60s. And the pattern has continued with the Los Angeles Lakers, who last season became the first team in two decades to repeat as champions, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as central figures.

That is an oversimplification, of course, because the supporting cast must also be talented and able to manufacture the kind of mental chemistry that translates into a constant team effort. In addition, championship teams must find ways to win on the road and be willing to play through injuries.

Maybe the league's three best centers at this time are Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, Moses Malone of the Atlanta Hawks, and Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. Not many experts, however, are going to pick Houston or New York ahead of the Lakers or the Detroit Pistons.

Even allowing for the fact that the Rockets have added Otis Thorpe, one of the league's best rebounders, and free-agent guard Mike Woodson, a dozen teams played better defense last year than Houston, and eight had better road records.

Much more believable as heir to the Lakers' crown (and L.A. isn't buying any of this) is Atlanta, which signed Malone as a free agent and traded with Sacramento for high-scoring guard Reggie Theus. On paper, the Hawks are probably the team with the best chance to win it all.

The Pistons, who bought themselves millions of TV fans when they took the Lakers to seven games in last year's NBA finals, have the ability to play with anybody during the regular season. But they might not have enough versatility in journeyman centers Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards to handle the pressure of four playoff rounds.

Though Ewing came on strong for New York last season, when the team's drop draft choice, guard Mark Jackson, was the league's Rookie of the Year, the Knicks aren't deep enough to challenge for a playoff title. They did, however, increase their rebounding power over the summer by acquiring forward Charles Oakley in a trade that sent backup center Bill Cartwright to Chicago.

While it would be a mistake to underestimate the Lakers, whose key players have been together a long time and who may have the best coach in the league in Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at 41, is a 7 ft. 2 in. question mark.

Abdul-Jabbar is a finesse player, as is his backup, Mychal Thompson, and though the Lakers might be able to hide their lack of power at this position during the regular season, doing so in the playoffs should be increasingly difficult.

Those who want to include Chicago as an NBA finalist because of superstar Michael Jordan are looking in the wrong stall.

While Jordan, the league's Most Valuable Player and leading scorer last season, with a 35-point-a-game average, has the ability to make baskets wearing a suit of armor or with his feet encased in cement, his supporting cast is not of championship quality.

The fun team among the NBA's darker than dark horses (meaning Dallas, Portland, Utah, and Denver) are the Nuggets of coach Doug Moe, who is a Santa Claus with quips. Moe generates and gives away more good lines, with the exception of Utah's Frank Layden, than any other coach in the league.

Although nobody knows who half of Moe's players are, and Doug has media arrows sticking out all over him for neglecting to pay any attention to defense, this man is a magician.

He could get orange juice out of an apple, Brahms out of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and 10 cents' change from a nickel. Denver won't win any playoff finals, because even Doug can't make one championship center out of three lesser players; but a lot of fans in this league would like to see him in the winner's circle.

Keeping the NBA's Jolly Green Giants together, let's go now to Utah's Layden, who can match Moe laugh for laugh. The Jazz, because they have the league's best shot blocker in center Mark Eaton, and probably the league's second-best playmaker in John Stockton, could be a big factor once the playoffs begin.

While Dallas and Portland are also teams that deserve playoff consideration, few scouts like their chances, because of a lack of consistency at center.

The league has seven new coaches, including two with expansion teams, Dick Harter of the Charlotte Hornets and Ron Rothstein of the Miami Heat.

Those with established clubs are Larry Brown at San Antonio, Don Chaney at Houston, Cotton Fitzsimmons at Phoenix, Don Nelson at Golden State, and Jimmy Rodgers at Boston.

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