Rookie Ewing in limelight, but Lakers, Celtics still class of NBA

Considering that the National Basketball Association's 40th season is barely under way, it is amazing how much space newspapers and magazines have already devoted to 7 ft., 240-lb. rookie center Patrick Aloysius Ewing. Granted that the former Georgetown University All-American, the first draft choice of the New York Knicks, has enormous potential, it isn't often that a player more noted for his defense than his offense gets this kind of treatment. For that he can probably thank former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, who first made fans aware that shot-blocking could be fun.

Nevertheless, Ewing cannot yet be considered a franchise player in the sense that his presence guarantees a division title for New York. But with him, the Knicks will be respectable, will probably make the playoffs, and have already sold nearly 11,000 season tickets. And of course Ewing will also be a marvelous draw on the road.

As for the season in general, the big question revolves around the Los Angeles Lakers and their prospects of repeating as NBA champions. Since Boston won back-to-back titles in 1968-69, 16 consecutive champs have known frustration the following season -- the Celtics having had to deal with this on four occasions (most recently last spring after having beaten LA for the title the year before), the Lakers three.

Los Angeles and Boston, already in a class by themselves when compared with the rest of the league, made additional moves during the off-season that should make them even stronger as they head for a probable third consecutive title showdown next June.

The Lakers, by adding veteran defensive specialist Maurice Lucas, have now become a team that can both run and muscle. Barring injuries to veteran center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, this is a team that should cakewalk to the Pacific Division title.

Meanwhile the Celtics, whose inability to contain Abdul-Jabbar, probably cost them last year's playoffs, have also helped themselves by trading with the LA Clippers for 6-11 center Bill Walton.

While Walton may no longer be the dominant force he was before missing three complete seasons and most of another in the late '70s and early '80s due to injuries, his size and strength up front could still be a vaulable asset -- particularly at playoff time. Also, Bill is the type of player that has always brought out the best in Celtics' president Red Auerbach, who still thinks and acts like a coach.

Even knowing how fragile sports predictions can become overnight, no one should be surprised if Los Angeles and Boston have already made their plane reservations for the finals.

As usual, however, several dark horses are also out there in the NBA carousel, chief among them Milwaukee, Houston, Denver, Philadelphia, and perhaps Washington and Detroit.

The Bucks' problem is that in a short series, like the playoffs, their weakness at center tends to make them vulnerable to opponents who go strongly to the basket. But no one should ever ignore a team that has both Terry Cummings and Sidney Moncrief in its starting lineup and plays such good defense.

The Rockets, a young club built around twin skyscrapers, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, probably have been together long enough now to win their division. That is, assuming that coach Bill Fitch and Sampson don't let their personal differences affect the club.

Fitch is a lot like baseball's Dick Williams -- great technically but with a personality and intensity that tend to grind their players into hamburger after three or four years on the job.

Last year the Nuggets traded for three fine defensive players, Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, and Wayne Cooper, and made the NBA's final four in the playoffs. But they are going to miss retired center Dan Issel, who always played a solid game, even if it was the kind that was never properly recognized in a box score.

While the 76ers lack height overall, talent counts too. Moses Malone is probably still the best rebounding center in the league. However, this may be the last time around for veterans Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks.

There are three new head coaches this season -- Matt Guokas with Philadelphia; Bernie Bickerstaff with Seattle; and Dave Wohl with New Jersey. In addition, Stan Albeck has moved from New Jersey to Chicago, and Don Chaney, an interim coach with the LA Clippers partway into last season, has been made permanent.

Once the Ewing hysteria dies down, fans are going to discover a number of other promising rookies this season. Indianapolis, which had the second overall choice after New York, made a wise selection in 6-9 Wayman Tisdale of the University of Oklahoma. Also not to be overlooked are 7-2 Benoit Benjamin from Creighton University, chosen by the Clippers, and Manute Bol, the 7-6 Dinka tribesman from the Sudan who played at Bridgeport University and in the United States Basketball League before being dr afted by the Bullets.

In addition to Ewing (who grew up in the Boston area but was born in Jamaica), three other foreign-born players were drafted in the first round, all by the Dallas Mavericks, who had acquired extra picks via trades. They are Detlef Schrempf and Uwe Blab, both from West Germany, and Bill Wennington, who was born in Canada. And the Phoenix Suns have received permission from the Bulgarian Basketball Federation to sign Georgi Glouckov, their seventh-round pick.

With these and dozens of other new players meshing into their respective systems, and with all the other imponderables of the long season, there are usually plenty of surprises by the time spring rolls around. From the way things look now, however, here's how the various division races shape up:

ATLANTIC DIVISION: Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, New Jersey.

CENTRAL DIVISION: Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Indiana.

MIDWEST DIVISION: Houston, Denver, Dallas, San Antonio, Utah, Sacramento (formerly Kansas City).

PACIFIC DIVISION: LA Lakers, Portland, Phoenix, LA Clippers, Seattle, Golden State.

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