The frequently voiced opinion that champions don't repeat anymore in the National Basketball Association has a plastic ring to the Boston Celtics, last season's playoff winners. But to the rest of the NBA's 22 franchises, this feeling is reinforced by the fact that the league's last 17 champions have all come unglued the following season.
The Celtics' front office, however, is so sure its team can duplicate 1985-86 that it added only one new face during the off-season, acquiring 6 ft. 10 in. backup forward Fred Roberts from the Utah Jazz.
Yet if Boston wins again, it won't be because of Roberts, but because Larry Bird, the regular-season and playoff MVP, along with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton, are all able to play somewhere between 70 and 82 games this season. The timetable is already off somewhat, though, with Walton, starter Danny Ainge, and reserve Scott Wedman all out of action early because of injuries.
Actually, because of so much off-season trade activity by the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics are going to be tested immediately in their own division, long before the playoffs begin in late April.
Convinced that Philadelphia wasn't going to catch Boston without making some major changes, the 76ers swapped three-time MVP Moses Malone and Terry Catledge to the Washington Bullets for center Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson.
Earlier the Atlantic Division runner-up 76ers exchanged their No. 1 pick in the draft with the Cleveland Cavaliers for power forward Roy Hinson and cash. The only problem is that while Philly starters Charles Barkley and Julius Erving are playing, Hinson and Robinson have to sit - that is, unless Erving makes the permanent switch to guard.
Elsewhere in the division, the Bullets and the New Jersey Nets should spend the winter slipping in and out of third place. As for the New York Knicks, even if center Patrick Ewing avoids the injuries that limited his playing time last season, 30 wins might set off a ticker-tape parade.
There is no reason the Milwaukee Bucks, coming off their seventh consecutive Central Division title, shouldn't make it eight, especially after adding seven-time all-star Jack Sikma from the Seattle SuperSonics.
``Getting Sikma keeps us within striking distance of the NBA championship, ``Milwaukee coach Don Nelson explained. ``It puts us in a position where if Boston or Houston breaks down or lets down, we've got a chance.''
If dispositions are burning in Atlanta, it's because the Hawks are tired of reading how last year's 50-win season was a fluke. And now that the Detroit Pistons have acquired former league scoring champion Adrian Dantley from Utah, some polls even forecast a Hawks drop to third.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a new coach in former Seattle general manager Lenny Wilkens; perhaps the league's top rookie in center-forward Brad Daugherty; and a much more aggressive style on defense. Although he would never admit it publicly, Wilkens would settle for anything close to a .500 season.
New coaches also are directing the Chicago Bulls (ex Philly guard Doug Collins) and the Indiana Pacers (ex-Portland boss Jack Ramsay). Collins is taking over a team that didn't win back-to-back road games all last season. Ramsay, who used to spend 75 percent of his time instructing his troops on the wonders of the trap-zone defense, now has an excuse to increase that to 95. Actually, the Pacers could be a fairly respectable team by the All-Star break.
In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Lakers are favored to retain first place, though hardly with anything like the 22-game margin they enjoyed last season.
Said coach Pat Riley: ``Once we had a big enough talent margin over our opponents where we could tolerate complacency and still win. But that ended when Houston overtook us last year in the playoffs. For the Lakers to make the NBA finals again, some of our players are going to have to adjust to the fact that we can't just turn things on and off whenever we feel like it.''
The Phoenix Suns should challenge the Portland Trail Blazers for the runner-up spot behind the Lakers.
The Trail Blazers, with a new head coach in former Milwaukee assistant Mike Schuler, will try to look like the Bucks on defense and the Celtics on offense. A large part of that assumption will depend on how well rookie Walter Berry, last season's College Player of the Year from St. John's, adjusts to the greater physical aspects of the NBA.
The Golden State Warriors, who last made the playoffs eight years ago, should improve under new coach George Karl, whose former Cleveland team had occasional 24-carat nights on offense. Still, there is no guarantee that Seattle, with many of the same pluses as the Warriors, won't continue to remain just a crack in the sidewalk ahead of Golden State.
The Los Angeles Clippers, easily their own worst enemies, have so many personnel and technical problems that coach Don Chaney will probably be gone by the first of the year, another victim of front-office stumble ball over which ``the Duck'' has no control. Clipper owner Don Sterling has consistently set goals equal to his dreams, rather than his team's talent.
Although there are three outstanding organizations in the NBA's Midwest Division, meaning Houston, Denver, and Dallas, it's hard not to concentrate exclusively on the Rockets, nearly everyone's choice as heirs apparent to the Boston Celtics. Houston's Twin Towers of Intimidation, 6-11 Akeem Olajuwan and 7-4 Ralph Sampson, are still growing, not up, but in the smarts department.
While the Rockets are having their first 60-win season, look for the Nuggets and the Mavericks to stage a mini-world war for runner-up honors.
After that should come the Utah Jazz, with newly acquired forwards Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson; the Sacramento Kings, who have added firepower by signing free agent Derek Smith; and the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio's new coach, former Mavericks assistant Bob Weiss, is not to be envied for a while. Weiss is inheriting a team that lost 21 of its final 25 games during the 1985-86 season.