If the Milwaukee Bucks, who seem certain to win their division, should also make it all the way into the National Basketball Association playoff finals this season, it would probably be as much a coaching triumph as one of the personnel.
Not that Milwaukee doesn't have a forest of excellent players, all capable of conforming to specific roles. It's just that 6 ft. 11 in., 250-pound Bob Lanier , who has the maximum number of injured knees, has become part of a coaching plan that restricts him to 30 minutes of action a game.
The result is that the veteran center can be very much more of an intimidator on offense and defense than if he were asked to push himself to play the 40 to 45 minutes a game he did when he was younger. And when he is resting, Coach Don Nelson has just the right kind of personnel to fill in.
Defensively Lanier helps to jam up the middle, rebounds well, and gets the ball out quickly on the break.
Offensively he opens things up for Marques Johnson and Mickey Johnson just by being there. IT happens because rival centers no longer dare to help out against the two forwards and leave a shooter as good as Bob unguarded near the basket.
"When we got Lanier in a trade with the Detroit Pistons late last season, he was just what we needed to stabilize this club," Nelson explained. "We went 20- 6 with Bob, and the man didn't ever have the benefit of a break-in period with his new teammates. I think the fact that we all know each other now may be the reason we have played so well on the road [12-1] this season."
The idea to handle Lanier like an endangered species was made only after talking with Bob, getting his thoughts and approval, and agreeing on how the 30 minutes could best be chopped up.
Aside from starting, there are no hard and fast rules for the first three periods. But in the fourth period Bob is always on the floor with the rest of Nelson's regulars for the last six or eight minutes.
When Lanier isn't playing, his time is usually divided between Harvey Catchings (tough defense, little offense) and Len Elmore, who always seems to have a high percentage of rebounds for minutes played.
Basically Milwaukee is an overpowering team that makes the most of its physical edge and plays a great transitional game -- meaning it goes from defense to offense with almost no wasted motion. One reason is that starting guards Quinn Buckner and Brian Winters provide both leadership and speed.
Nelson also has two reserves in Junior Bridgeman (who plays both guard and forward) and Sidney Moncrief, who could probably start for most NBA teams.
Bridgeman is the best thing to happen to the league since John Havlicek; he actually plays more minutes than most of Milwaukee's starters and is as tough on defense as he is fluid on offense. Moncrief, although less talented defensively , probably shoots as well as any backup guard in the league.
Nelson, who was a major cog on five world championship teams in Boston, runs basically the same kind of offense that Red Auerbach did when Bill Russell was there.
"Of course the years I spent with Boston have a lot to do with my philosophy as a coach," Don admitted. "Offensively we use only eight plays with options; we work hard to get the ball upcourt as fast as we can; and we make our opponents pay a price in time and stamina for every basket."
Whether he is playing possum or simply being realistic, Nelson says that right now Philadelphia is a better team than the Bucks, mainly because of experience.
"If we continue to improve, and I think we will, then perhaps we can catch them in the playoffs," Don said.