Celtics, Lakers roll toward titles; other NBA races up for grabs
A little more than halfway through the season, two of the four National Basketball Association division races - the Midwest and Central - are still very much up for grabs. In the Atlantic and Pacific Divisions, however, the leaders appear no more apt to change than Bob Hope's theme song, Elton John's taste in clothes, or Julia Child's voice. Here's how things stand with most teams having played close to 50 of their 82 regular-season games. Atlantic Division
Even though the Boston Celtics have a comfortable lead over the Philadelphia 76ers, coach K.C. Jones continues to play his regulars 35 and 40 minutes a game. Critics of this policy say it risks burning out key people for the playoffs, but Jones did the same thing last year and the Celtics still became world champions.
Boston does have to be concerned about its lack of depth this time around, however. Backup center Bill Walton has been injured and hasn't played yet, and reserve forward Scott Wedman, who has logged only 78 minutes, is now out for the season.
A lot depends on whether Walton can come back and play the last 20 or 25 games of the season. Most people figure Bill would need at least that many games to get in shape - and that without him the Celtics would have a tough time going all the way again.
While Boston should win its division easily, it would be a mistake to underrate the 76ers in the playoffs, provided center Jeff Ruland (who has been injured) can work at maximum efficiency.
If any team other than the Los Angeles Lakers can dethrone the Celtics, it could be Philadelphia, with its ``Round Mound of Rebound'' in Charles Barkley, the super playmaking of Maurice Cheeks, and the inspiration of Julius Erving as he takes the final bows of his 16-year career.
The Washington Bullets are a pretty fair team when former league MVP Moses Malone doesn't have to play back-to-back games on successive nights, and wallpaper when he does have to. Still renting basement apartments in this division are the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets, two of the most soft-bitten teams in basketball. Pacific Division
The Los Angeles Lakers, who enjoy a substantial lead as usual, basically have no real competition within their division. Coach Pat Riley's biggest job is just getting his players mentally ready game after game. And if general manager Jerry West is able to pry center Mychal Thompson away from the San Antonio Spurs as a backup for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers' playoff stock will go off the board.
Abdul-Jabbar is still a dominant force, of course, but these Lakers of the late 1980s have really become Magic Johnson's team as far as direction and leadership are concerned. Best of all, it has been a gradual takeover - one that Kareem now supports as he moves through the twilight of his illustrious career, but that he might not have accepted so willingly a couple of years ago.
The race in this division is for second place among Portland, Seattle, and Golden State, all improved teams. Although the Phoenix Suns would also like to think that they belong with this group, they don't.
The Los Angeles Clippers, who hold a fire sale every other week, somehow managed to clinch last place on opening day. Midwest Division
Even before Houston guards Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins tested positive for drugs in January and got themselves thrown out of the NBA, the Rockets had been beset by major problems.
Center Akeem Olajuwon had hardly grabbed his first rebound before the defending Western Conference champions became a very tenuous contender, with injuries to several key players, including Ralph Sampson, Robert Reid, and eventually Olajuwon himself. There were also reports of turbulence both among the players and between some of them and coach Bill Fitch.
Nobody really expected Houston to bounce back from all this, but it began showing new signs of life after acquiring veteran forward Cedric Maxwell from the Clippers and re-signing guard Allen Leavell,who had been let go. After struggling with a sub-.500 record, the Rockets began to play decently, if not brilliantly, on occasion, but then Sampson was injured again and is now possibly lost for the season.
In the meantime, the Dallas Mavericks, with 7 ft. 2 in. center James Donaldson playing more consistently than in the past, have matured into a team that can beat any opponent on a given night, including the Celtics and Lakers.
Partly because of an improved bench, Dallas has been averaging 117 points a game and is probably going to win its division, ahead of both Utah and Houston. While the Jazz often do great things on their home court, they seem to have a limited warranty on the road.
The division's other three teams, Denver, San Antonio, and Sacramento, are merely playing out the season. Central Division
Because the talented Detroit Pistons (who could still use more quickness) don't always do the things they are supposed to do, this division is still a three-team battle. In fact, the feeling here is that the Pistons have lost too many games they should have won.
Earlier in the season, the Atlanta Hawks tried to take control of the Central, and did so until they forgot how to win on the road. The Hawks are also quite beatable whenever their outside shooting is left in the refrigerator.
The Milwaukee Bucks, who lost all-star guard Sidney Moncrief for the season early with injuries, have never really been in sync. Somehow they've still managed to stay within striking distance of the top pair, but after winning six consecutive division titles (without ever making the playoff finals), the Bucks probably won't rise any higher than third in their own neighborhood this time.
There's at least one bright spot for every other team in the division. The Chicago Bulls will probably have the league's scoring champion in Michael Jordan; the Indiana Pacers, the NBA Coach of the Year in Jack Ramsay; and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in Ron Harper.