Pro basketball preview: all eyes on 76ers' Malone, fortified Lakers

If the National Basketball Association could be held up to the light and viewed like a glass paperweight after the flakes in its snow scene had stopped swirling, the biggest change this year would be the arrival of center Moses Malone in Philadelphia.

Malone, the league's Most Valuable Player, leading rebounder, and second-highest scorer last season with Houston, is supposed to combine with Julius Erving to bring the 76ers their first playoff title since 1966-67. But does anyone have to be reminded that the Los Angeles Lakers never won a champion-ship when they had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West in uniform at the same time?

Anyway, here are the scouting reports:

ATLANTIC DIVISION: In order to get Malone, Philadelphia gave up Caldwell Jones, one of the best rebounders and defensive players in the league. Frontcourt depth could be a problem for the 76ers unless rookies Mark McNamara and Mitchell Anderson or free agent Marc Iavaroni come through in a hurry. TheBoston Celtics, after acquiring guard Quinn Buckner from Milwaukee for Dave Cowens, who is ending a two-year, self-enforced retirement, may still be the better balanced team. The spoiler in this division could be the New Jersey Nets, who have added center Darryl Dawkins, guard Phil Ford, and rookies Sleepy Floyd and Eddie Phillips to an already formidable cast. If NewYork had gotten All-NBA second-team forward Bernard King from Golden State sooner, instead of so late in the exhibition schedule, there would be good reason to rank the Knicks with the Nets. But with two new forwards in Truck Robinson and King, plus a new coach in Hubie Brown, it may take New York a while to get rolling. The Washington Bullets have a chance to be the best last-place team in the NBA. They simply didn't do enough in the off-season to earn the right to be called contenders.

CENTRAL DIVISION: The Milwaukee Bucks, who know they can only go as far as center Bob Lanier's knees carry them, are gambling that 34-year-old Dave Cowens can come back and make life easier for Lanier on the boards. If the talent is still there, no one doubts that Cowens will find it. But it has been 10 years since Dave won his MVP award. The Atlanta Hawks were the best defensive team in the NBA last season, a fact that should not be taken lightly. Since then the Hawks have traded John Drew and Freeman Williams, two of their top scorers, to Utah for 6 ft. 7 in. rookie Dominique Wilkens, who was such a crowd pleaser at Georgia. If you like longshots, this is a team that has it all. The Detroit Pistons, who went 21-17 last year after the All-Star break, have two of the best young players in the league in Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka. But to finish higher than third, they'll need to improve defensively. Indiana coach Jack McKinney, says that the Pacers may have stressed defense too much last season. So this year McKinney has decided to go for more rebounding and scoring. Former Laker coach Paul Westhead, after a year away from the pros, returns to run the Chicago Bulls. Westhead won't have Artis Gilmore to play center for him, but he will have more mobility up front in newly acquired center Dave Corzine and forward Mark Olberding. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who started their training camp with Bill Musselman as coach, have already switched to Tom Nissalke. The Cavaliers are simply a terrible team that won only 15 games last season and are in for another struggle.

MIDWEST DIVISION: ''The trade we made with Chicago for center Artis Gilmore should take us further as a team than we've ever gone before,'' said coach Stan Albeck of the San Antonio Spurs. ''Our offense is predicated on George Gervin getting 25 to 30 shots a game, with additional scoring help from Gilmore and Mike Mitchell. To win our division again, all we have to do is play better defensively.'' Last year a 12-game winning streak near the end of the season turned the Denver Nuggets from a .500 team to one with a future. But it will remain a limited future until they can hold opposing shooters in check. Having traded Moses Malone to Philadelphia, coach Del Harris of Houston is going to have to get more people involved in the Rockets' offense to compensate for the loss of Malone's 31-point scoring average. The Kansas City Kings are a youth-oriented team whose progress is tied to players like Mike Woodson, Larry Drew, and Steve Johnson. The Kings added some backcourt firepower when they got Ray Williams from New Jersey. It may be time for the Dallas Mavericks, who had 49 of their 82 games last year decided by eight points or less, to start thinking .500 basketball. Coach Frank Layden of the Utah Jazz says that his team needs to improve itself in the following areas - defense, rebounding, shot blocking and aggressiveness. Translation: don't look for much improvement over last year's 25 victories.

PACIFIC DIVISION: Despite a mediocre exhibition season, the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, with the addition of rookie forward James Worthy, almost have to be better than last season. The Lakers' main opposition will come from the Seattle SuperSonics, a veteran team that has added a new dimension in skywalker David Thompson, who was acquired from Denver. Phoenix coach John MacLeod says that the Suns did not play to their potential last season, that the chemistry was all wrong. So the Suns went out and traded for forward Maurice Lucas, who's a terror on the boards. For the first time in six years, the Portland Trail Blazers failed to make the playoffs last season. ''We need more rebounding,'' says coach Jack Ramsay, ''and we're going to get it from Wayne Cooper and Kenny Carr. I also like our defense.'' The San Diego Clippers, who are for sale, are lacking in so many areas that you have to wonder if they can match last year's 17 wins. At the moment, controversial center Bill Walton plans to play one game a week with the Clippers, increasing his appearances if he has no more ankle problems.

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