October 1, 1980
NEW YORK - They're odd, the Celtics are, and it looks as though it will be a strange season.
Their collection of talented frontcourt men is bettered by no team in basketball. Bill Fitch will be able to employ endless combinations, according to the situation. If basketball were simply a matter of a three-on-three game involving men over 6-8, the Celtics could be conceded the championship right now.
But we all know that is not the case. Guard play is an important ingredient of basketball, and until the Celtics get Tiny Archibald back - or make the long awaited and much-discussed deal using one of their prized big men as the bait - this team will sputter. And even the return of Archibald will not alter the fact that the Celtics need some defensive help in the backcourt.
Bill Fitch announced on Thursday evening that he could cut his 15-man roster down to 11 right now, and that the team would include just three pure guards, plus M. L. Carr as a swingman. The guards are Chris Ford, Gerald Henderson and, almost undoubtedly, Ronnie Perry. Ronnie Perry as the third guard on a team harboring championship hopes? It's really hard to imagine, isn't it? Ronnie is good, and he can play with the big boys, but that type of responsibility would appear to be more than he can handle right now.
Chris Ford is as good as ever. At age 30, he is at his peak. The key man is Henderson, who has yet to prove he can run a ballclub. He has demonstrated scoring ability, but his job on offense involves much more than that. One of the keys to the team's great offensive success last season was Archibald's willingness to sacrifice his own scoring in favor of directing the offense. It does the team little good when its supposed floor leader has 14 points and no assists at the half, such as Henderson had against Milwaukee on Thursday. There have been stretches in which the likes of Cedric Maxwell and Larry Bird have been left out of the offense for long periods of time, which, of course, is criminal. The responsibility for that is Henderson's. Running a team is no easy task, and few guards understand what it entails. Gerald Henderson must learn that he could conceivably be the key man on the team in any given game without scoring a point. Bill Fitch had better show him some Tiny films from last season.
If and when Archibald returns, the roster question is whether Fitch would keep the fourth guard or Eric Fernsten. This would be an easier decision for Fitch to make if anybody could be sure how well Mr. Carr will work out at guard. But with the glut of players on the roster right now, Carr is one of the many veterans who isn't getting enough work.
The atmosphere on the team is one of concern. The players want to know why the Archibald thing can't be resolved. They wonder if there will be a trade, and, if so, involving whom? (Rick Robey is really laboring under great stress, for example). Like every fan and analyst from Buckfield Falls to Bridgeport, the players wonder how Fitch will manipulate the playing time for so many worthy frontcourt players. What it all comes down to is that they do not feel like a team that won 61 games a year ago. They feel confused, perhaps even alienated.
The scary thing is that fan expectations are so high that people may not appreciate how long it may take for this team to play anywhere near its potential. Things may eventually work out, but, believe me, it's not going to just happen. Red Auerbach and Bill Fitch have a lot of work to do.
You've got to feel for Toby Knight, who went into the corner for a loose ball last Tuesday night in Portland and, without any contact, tore up his knee for the season. This must rank among the more bizarre recent sports happenings. "I don't know how to describe it," Knight said. "It happened so fast. I wasn't concentrating on my legs, just the ball. It was a freaky thing." Indeed . . . Meanwhile, the Knicks have helped themselves by grabbing Campy Russell away from the befuddled Cavaliers in that three-way deal with Kansas City. Campy can score and pass. He's an indifferent defensive player, but at least in New York he won't stand out. Bill Fitch, who coached Campy to his best NBA season a few years back, was aghast when he got the news. "What I really think about that deal can't be printed in a family newspaper," he said. "He'll really help New York. He's always wanted to play there, and he'll really play to that crowd . . ."
The Bucks are poised for a big year, although they'll need more out of Mickey Johnson than they've been getting in the exhibitions. He was cautious and unsure of himself against Boston the other night. "That's the way he's played since he's come here," said Don Nelson. Nellie's other big concern will be to keep Bob Lanier healthy. "He generally misses 20 to 25 games a year," Nellie points out . . . The wondrous Cavaliers failed to break 90 points in their first three exhibition games. They're said to be walking the ball upcourt and squeezing the hell out of the 24-second clock, a la the old Bulls. "If they don't score any more than that," sniffed one Celtic, "they won't even win 10 games.". . . Long-time Knick publicist Jimmy Wergeles has been namd director of public relations for Madison Square Garden Television and the Hughes Television Network . . . Latest phrase to gain favor with NBA coaches and GMs is "downside risk," or sometimes just "downside." "Campy should be good for 20 a game. The downside is he might give up 40."
Bill Fitch whipped out his trusty stopwatch in Portland to time his team's fast break from defensive rebound to shot attempt. "We only hit seven seconds once all night," he said. "You've got to at least down five and a half.". . . The Cavaliers have retired Austin Carr's number 34. They will paint that number on the Richfield Coliseum floor, alongside those of Nate Thurmond (42) and Bingo Smith (7) . . . Don Nelson says that he gave Paul Silas just one piece of advice. "I told him not to try being a player-coach." Out of 45 players from the 1970 expansion Cavaliers, Trail Blazers and Braves, the only two still active are John Johnson and the aforementioned Bingo Smith . . . Bill Fitch on Kiki Vandeweghe's stated desire to play for either LA or New York: "He couldn't make either of those teams.". . . Quickie appraisal of Robert Parish: He suffers in artistic comparison to the more mobile Celtic big men such as Bird, Cowens, Robey and McHale. What he could do is give the team a George Johnson look, scaring away shots in the second and fourth period. But I must admit I'm having a hard time finding a rival GM or player who is enthused about the deal from a Boston. standpoint.