NBA's established powers face uncertainties, improved foes. Atlanta among frisky, young teams closing league's talent gap

This has not been, I repeat, has not been, a highly predictable National Basketball Association season so far. For example, the defending champion Boston Celtics may hold on to their division title, but they are probably not going to win 67 regular-season games again. While the Philadelphia 76ers may miss center Moses Malone (traded to Washington), they have managed to stay reasonably close to Boston so far.

The Houston Rockets, everybody's heir apparent to the Celtics, haven't played anywhere near their potential - partly, at least, because of injuries. The Milwaukee Bucks, thanks to the overnight maturity of the Atlanta Hawks, no longer have a lock on their division. And the Los Angeles Lakers, if anything were to happen to center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would be better off sending out for pizza.

When reporters suggested to Red Auerbach that the indefinite loss of the injured Bill Walton might grind down Boston's center position by the playoffs, the Celtic president replied in his usual flip manner: ``We survived before Walton and we'll survive after him.''

League MVP Larry Bird, however, isn't sure it will be quite that simple. The man who makes Boston go admitted that the defending champions would have a tougher time defending their title without a rested Robert Parish and a fit Walton. ``We figure everybody else will maintain his game, but Parish and Walton are the keys for us in the playoffs,'' Bird said.

With nearly three-fourths of the season remaining, Houston still has plenty of time to atone for its slow start and get back into overdrive. But a repeat of its early season problems, when Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson were in the lineup together only three times, would probably be disastrous.

The team that opponents can't get out of their hair is Atlanta, which is threatening to end Milwaukee's six-year reign in the Central Division.

Although the Hawks don't have a floor leader with the flair of Bird, Magic Johnson, or Julius Erving, they do have one of the game's great offensive performers in Dominique Wilkins. Like Erving in his heyday and Chicago's Michael Jordan now, Dominique belongs to that rare breed of NBA player who takes his game into the stratosphere and keeps it there.

Joining Wilkins in Atlanta's front line are center Tree Rollins and forward Kevin Willis, with Cliff Levingston, a potential starter on many teams, providing help off the bench. Willis, who may be the most improved player in the league, uses his body like a tank and has suddenly acquired a Midas touch around the basket.

When it comes to power basketball, Atlanta doesn't have to back down to anyone. But the Hawks can also run and are at least five deep in reserves, that is, players good enough to come off the bench cold and get right into the flow of the game.

While Atlanta is probably still a year away from beating teams like Boston or Houston in the playoffs, the difference in talent this season is more like a gap than a crater.

The Lakers, because of a schedule that seldom has them playing any of the league's really tough teams, are a difficult organization to rate.

When Abdul-Jabbar is rested, James Worthy is going airborne to the basket, Byron Scott is hitting from outside, and Magic Johnson is pulling hats out of rabbits, L.A. can be awesome.

But with the exception of reserve guard-forward Michael Cooper, who has substantially increased his scoring this year without sacrificing any of his barbed-wire defense, the bench is not that consistent.

Help does sometimes appear in the form of rookie forward Billy Thompson, but basically the former Louisville All-American is still a year or two away from being a dependable contributor in close situations. And when coach Pat Riley has to go any deeper than this, it frequently spells trouble.

Most important, with only journeymen Frank Brickowski and Mike Smrek backing up Abdul-Jabbar, this is a team that often loses its warranty whenever its 39-year-old superstar leaves the court.

Indeed, many observers feel that unless the Lakers can acquire a better-than-average reserve center between now and March, their playoff hopes could end early.

Elsewhere in the NBA, former Washington and Chicago coach Dick Motta has now built Dallas's first dark horse contender. With high-scoring forward Mark Aguirre leading the way, the Mavericks shoot coming out of the dressing room. The way they are playing so far, they could win the Midwest Division if Houston continues to stumble. And with a more reliable center they could really pull off something big in the playoffs.

Among other teams that have improved their balance enough to cause trouble are Detroit, Denver, Golden State, Seattle, Utah, and Indiana. And the Cleveland Cavaliers probably have the league's top rookie at the moment in forward John (Hot Rod) Williams.

Finally, even though Hubie Brown of the New York Knicks was the first NBA coach to be fired this season, he won't be the last! Quotable quotes

Russian tennis player Andrei Chesnokov on the likelihood of seeing more Soviets on tour: ``I think if a Russian wins a Grand Slam tournament, they'll let more players out.''

Iowa football coach Hayden Fry on the unique advantage 6 ft. 8 in. quarterback Dan McGwire possesses: ``He can throw downhill.''

Singer Willie Nelson, when asked what par is on the Texas golf course he had built: ``Whatever I want it to be. For instance, today it was 108.''

Coach Dick Motta of pro basketball's Dallas Mavericks on the 7 ft. 4 in. Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz: ``I'm intimidated by him, and I'm 40 feet away on the bench.''

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