National Basketball Association players keep getting taller, more agile, and more talented. Seven-footers are commonplace. Meanwhile, guards like 6 ft. 9 in. Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, last season's MVP, often shift to forward with no loss of efficiency. Basically, all this makes for a better game, albeit one that still gets a bit rougher than called for in the 16-foot-wide lane directly under the basket.
That area has become Elbow Alley. It also points up the fact that nobody wins titles now without shooters who can also rebound in the clutch. This is true of both the defending champion Lakers and the Boston Celtics, who are expected to meet in playoff finals again next spring.
But to use a baseball analogy, another surprising collection of Minnesota Twins could be lurking in the bushes by the time this season's playoffs roll around.
Here are the scouting reports for the regular season, which begins Nov. 6. Atlantic Division
Boston probably has as good a starting five as there is in the NBA, but will have to wait a month or two for Kevin McHale, who is still recovering from offseason surgery. And with Bill Walton sitting this one out altogether, the bench needs improvement, too. The Celtics should still win their division race, but are far from invincible.
The fight for runner-up honors should be between Washington and Philadelphia. A lot depends on the Bullets' M&M boys, Moses and Jeff Malone (no relation). Moses was the NBA's top offensive rebounder last season, while Jeff is one of those shooters who gets his points no matter who is guarding him.
Philadelphia would be more believable as a contender if it hadn't lost Julius Erving to retirement. Forward Charles Barkley returns, though, and expect another great season from him.
New York has a new coach in Rick Pitino, who led Providence into last season's NCAA Final Four. Many of the Knicks' old problems remain, however, including weak passing and rebounding, plus inconsistent effort by center Patrick Ewing.
New Jersey has an all-star forward in Buck Williams and a promising rookie in Dennis Hopson of Ohio State, the nation's second-leading collegiate scorer last year, but the rest of the cast would play better in summer stock. Central Division
The Atlanta Hawks, who won a franchise-record 57 games last season, got sidetracked by the Detroit Pistons in last season's playoffs. This could happen again, but probably won't, since the Hawks are a marvelous blend of youth and experience.
Last season the Pistons extended Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, which proves they are dangerous. Continued improvement will depend upon the progress of young Pistons like John Salley and Dennis Rodman.
Del Harris, who took Houston to the NBA finals six years ago, is the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, who have strung together seven consecutive 50-win seasons, but are beginning to leak oil.
The surprising Indiana Pacers were the most improved team in the NBA last season with 15 additional wins, a 41-41 record, and Rookie of the Year Chuck Person. ``This year we want to a take our record to 50 victories,'' said coach Jack Ramsay. Possible? Not quite.
The Chicago Bulls should again have the game's fastest gun in guard Michael Jordan, the NBA's top scorer last season with a 37.1-point average. The Bulls also have a future all-star forward in Charles Oakley, who grabbed a league high 1,074 rebounds. The problem is that the Bulls keep blowing their lines on the road.
When coach Lenny Wilkens of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks about establishing ``attainable goals'' for his young team, what he really means is that he is hoping for a .500 record. Midwest Division
The Dallas Mavericks, coming off their first division title ever, have hired long-time Phoenix coach John MacLeod as the team's new boss. His stated goal is to get the Mavs past the first round of the playoffs, where they were upset last year by Seattle.
If George Steinbrenner owned an NBA franchise, the first thing he'd probably try to buy is the Houston Rockets' front line of Akeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, and Rodney McCray. This trio ranks with those of the Celtics and Lakers. The question is whether coach Bill Fitch can get enough out of his guards to finish first, second, or third.
Center Darryl Dawkins, formerly with Philadelphia and New Jersey, is the latest reclamation project of Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden. Between them they've got enough material to open a Comedy Store. But where the Jazz finish in this division is probably going to depend more on the continued progress of power forward Karl Malone.
The Denver Nuggets, who can just barely spell defense, have no problems when it comes to scoring and will benefit from Calvin Natt's return. They will win some and lose some and probably look like a playoff possibility in home games.
Just a reminder that ex-Celtics great, Bill Russell, the new coach of the Sacramento Kings, was at his best during seven previous years of coaching when he had himself as a player. That won't be the case this time, and the Kings should continue to struggle.
The San Antonio Spurs got the best player available in last June's draft. Unfortunately, Navy center David Robinson has a two-year service commitment. In the meantime, the Spurs will continue to build around guard Alvin Robertson and forward Walter Berry. Pacific Division
On paper, nobody can beat the Lakers in this division. They have too much of everything, including a talented backup center in Mychal Thompson, who is more suited to the the team's running game than 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Coach Pat Riley and MVP Magic Johnson have promised not to let this team get a big head or become complacent.
The Portland Trail Blazers responded so well to the touch of new coach Mike Schuler last season that they surprised nearly everyone with their 49-33 won-lost record. Against Houston's towering front line, however, the Blazers' inside game disappeared in the playoffs, and that could happen again.
The Golden State Warriors, under new coach George Karl, made the NBA playoffs last season for the first time in 10 years. The Warriors did it with a combination of team play, defense, and rebounding. According to Karl, Golden State will go with the same formula this season, only with more intensity.
The Seattle SuperSonics did not look like a fourth place team in last season's playoffs, where they upset both Dallas and Houston and made the Lakers work extremely hard. This is a team that revolves around the shooting of forwards Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel and guard Dale Ellis. If the Sonics improve on the road, they've got a shot at second.
Last year was a disaster for the Phoenix Suns, who couldn't win on the road, who had three players named in drug indictments, and had all-star guard Walter Davis begin treatment a second time for chemical dependency. The new coach is former Phoenix assistant John Wetzel, who at least knows the personnel.
Gene Shue, the new coach of the hapless (12-70) Los Angeles Clippers has been there before. He took over the Philadelphia 76ers after they had won only nine games during the 1972-73 season, and coached them to 25 victories the following year. Shue's job with the Clippers will be easier if he can somehow motivate seven-foot center Benoit Benjamin, a million-dollar enigma wrapped in a riddle.