As the National Basketball Association approaches the halfway point in its 82-game, regular-season schedule, what was true back in October remains true in January. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and last year's playoff runner-up Boston Celtics are still the two best teams. In fact, these clubs are so strong and so deep that they probably belong in a league by themselves.
Except on those rare occasions when the Lakers and Celtics bring their bodies but not their minds to games (and are upset by some weaker team), no other club appears capable of horning into their exclusive territory at the top. Indeed, only a form reversal of major proportions will stop them from conducting their own private war in the championship finals this spring, for the third year in a row.
Simply by adding Bill Walton as their backup center, the Celtics have become even more formidable on the boards. Meanwhile, the talent-rich Lakers, who may just have the 1985-86 MVP in 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also got themselves one of this season's top rookies in 6 ft. 9 in. forward A. C. Green of Oregon State.
But don't look for Green among the NBA leaders in minutes played, points scored, or rebounds grabbed, or you will be disappointed. No first-year player is apt to do that on a championship team.
What makes A. C. such a prize is that nobody has had to teach him much about fundamentals, an albatross for many NBA rookies. Had Green come into the league with any one of half a dozen other teams, he would be starting by now.
Of course Green won't push center Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks for Rookie of the Year honors, since obviously Ewing shoulders far greater responsibilities.
While Patrick hasn't been able to turn the Knicks around, he's given them the offense (20 points per game) and the board strength (10 rebounds per game) that they expected from him.
But to really take advantage of his still developing talent, the Knicks are going to have to surround him with a better supporting cast. That was the chief reason that New York's ownership recently slam-dunked general manager Dave DeBusschere and replaced him with Scotty Stirling, who had been working as the NBA's vice-president in charge of operations. Stirling has already opened trade talks with the Los Angeles Clippers in hopes of landing guard Norm Nixon.
The Milwaukee Bucks, who won the Central Division last season by successfully rotating three centers, never seem to get proper credit for their creative defense. But almost any night the Bucks get normal point production from all-star guard Sidney Moncrief and forward Terry Cummings, along with that defense, few teams can stop them.
The Detroit Pistons, who were supposed to mount a legitimate challenge to Milwaukee this season, simply have too many counterfeit rebounders to bank the 55 or so wins they would need to unseat the Bucks. Instead, the surprise team in that division has been the Atlanta Hawks, who are steel at home but still plastic on the road.
The Houston Rockets, the team with Twin Towers Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson and a head coach (Bill Fitch) who has more one-liners than Bob Hope, bend at home but almost never break, having won 20 consecutive home games before finally losing to the Utah Jazz this week.
While the Rockets continue to remain ahead of both Denver (last year's Midwest Division champion) and improved San Antonio, batteries are not often included in Houston's back-to-back games. And their inability to win consistently on the road has enabled their pursuers to remain within striking distance.
The Spurs were described in one preseason forecast as less a symphony than a collection of individual woodwinds. Since then San Antonio has added a list of victory marches to its repertoire. But rumor has it that coach Cotton Fitzsimmons plans to run straight to either the New York Knicks or the Sacramento Kings at the end of the season.
No Pacific Division rival has has been able to stay close to the Lakers, who have been playing at an above-.800 clip all season. In the Atlantic Division, both Philadelphia and New Jersey continue to play at .600 or better, but still, all that gets them is a footnote to the Celtics.
The 76ers moved to bolster their playoff chances recently, however, by signing Bob McAdoo, the former three-time scoring champion who played such a key role coming off the bench for the Lakers during the last four seasons.
Finally, although no doubt you have heard this before, there are still a lot of NBA people (meaning scouts, opposing players, and front-office personnel) who believe Ralph Sampson will one day wear a Laker uniform.
The Houston star, who becomes a free agent at the end of the 1987-88 season, will then be able to sell his services to the highest bidder. With L.A.'s Abdul-Jabbar scheduled to retire at that time, the only franchises with enough money to sign Ralph would probably be Los Angeles, New York, and perhaps Boston.
Well, you can forget the Knicks, who have already committed millions to Ewing. And if you know the spending habits of Laker owner Jerry Buss, it's hard to imagine Boston's outbidding its West Coast rivals in this situation.