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9.19.2008

1981-82 Season Preview

There are two NBA seasons, as everyone should know by now, and success in the one does not guarantee, or prevent, success in the other.

This discussion is about Season I, the 82-game regular season. Some teams, like Phoenix, are built for the long haul. Others, keying on a performer or two (try the 1981 Rockets),are capable of strong short-term play. When the Celtics won the 1981 championship, it was, amazingly, the first time since 1972 that the same team had managed to win Seasons I and II.

Keep this fact in mind, along with the realization that injury can have a stunning effect on certain teams.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

The Celtics and 76ers have battled down to the final weekend for this title in each of the last two seasons, and if each can escape the key injury (Bird and Archibald in Boston, Erving and Cheeks in Philly), they might duke it out a third time. Neither is impregnable, because the 76ers are aging up front (The Doc and Caldwell Jones are 31, and Steve Mix, the Lou Piniella of basketball, is soon to be 34) and the Celtics are growing older in the backcourt (Tiny Archibald is 33 now, and Chris Ford will be in January).

If Boston's frontcourt is basketball's No. 1, then Philly's is 1A. You can argue Bird vs. Erving until the wee hours. Did Boston win the famed 1981 playoff series or did Philly lose it? Intriguing barroom argument questions such as this one will again proliferate.

The Knicks still need that missing power forward, and one of these days, Red Holzman will realize that Marvin Webster, now one of the league's most underrated players (except at the pay window), not one-dimensional Bill Cartwright, should be the starting center. New York took out extra Ray Williams insurance in the persons of Mike Newlin and Randy Smith, and the gifted but errtatic backcourt man will not be missed. New Jersey might challenge New York for third, but despite the addition of Otis Birdsong and, presumably, Ray Williams (if the Knicks don't match and trade), plus the influx of nice rookies in Buck Williams and Ray Tolbert, the Nets will be stymied without a center.

The fallen Bullets, meanwhile, will soon know how the 1980-81 Cavaliers felt as they stumble around an empty Capital Centre this season.

CENTRAL DIVISION

The Bucks remain one of the NBA's elite on paper, but at this writing, Marques Johnson is salary-snitting it out in LA, Bob Lanier is "resting" his knees, Junior Bridgeman is recuperating from a knee injury and Don Nelson has become so desperate and irrational that he is giving consideration to signing Bob McAdoo.

The intriguing club here is Chicago, a strong 1980-81 finisher flattened by the Celtics in the playoffs, but nonetheless, a team on the rise. Should Ronnie Lester stay healthy, a longtime playmaking problem will have been solved. Atlanta will be a mystery guest until it is determined whether Tree Rollins (knees) and Eddie Johnson (psychiatric problems) can play. The faceless Pacers will win enough games to be a playoff contender because Jack McKinney can X-and-O with anyone. Cleveland can't help but be better (having added Scott Wedman, James Silas, Bob Wilkerson and James Edwards), and any team that can afford to employ 24-points-per-game man Mike Mitchell as a sixth man (Wedman and Kenny Carr will start) can't be all bad.

Detroit will creep toward respectability as Isiah Thomas does a nice Phil Ford imitation, providing such shooters as Greg Kelser, Phil Hubbard, Terry Tyler and John Long with shots they heretofore only dreamed of obtaining.

MIDWEST DIVISION

No offense, but this is Blahsville, baby, and you can be pardoned for not caring who wins it.

San Antonio probably will, although making up for James Silas' departed 17 ppg might be tough. The Iceman Cometh again, and he'll probably have to score 32-34 a game, which is no sweat for him. Along about Thanksgiving - well, maybe Christmas - Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone will have their first fistfight on the court as each attempts to set up low on the same side. Cotton Fitzsimmons will get the most out ofKansas City, but Mr. Ford is now sadly miscast with this collection of lumbering partners.

Denver will be fun, anyhow, as the Nuggets once again lead the league in scoring, points allowed and shortest practices. Dallas bagged three talented rookies in Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman and Jay Vincent, and the Mavericks could easily dislodge the woeful Jazz for fifth place. Incidentally, Red Auerbach wouldn't take the entire Utah team for Kevin McHale.

PACIFIC DIVISION

The Lakers could be a sociologist's delight, because a study on the effect of an insane amount of money on the behavior of professional athletes may well be in order. This team is very strong from players 1-6, and its only problem could be between the ears. Prediction: If the Lakers don't win, and by that you are to read "win the championship," Norm Nixon will be gone.

Seattle has been revived by the return of Lonnie Shelton (wrist) and Gus Williams (studying for his Ph.D in Slusherian economics). Should Paul Westphal make it all the way back, the Sonics could very well go from last in the Pac-6 to first in the universe. Phoenix, even if it should manage an 82-0 regular season, would still need to kidnap about six other teams in order to have a shot at the title. Both Portland (once again a crisp Jack Ramsay-type team) and Golden State (scoring punch provided by Messrs. Free and King and the inside play of young studs Smith, assuming he settles his contract beef, and Carroll) is capable of anywhere from 38 to 44 wins, leaving San Diego off by itself in the division. Paul Silas will soon wonder what he did in another life to merit such abuse in this one.

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