The NBA has quickly become a have and have-not league this season, and nobody is sure why. The list of legitimate championship contenders is brief.
Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Los Angeles (assuming that Magic Johnson has fully recovered from knee surgery by playoff time) are the unquestioned best bets this season. Boston heads a second group, but the feeling is universal that the Celtics are still a guard away from greatness, and that a failure to act on this matter will eventually result in playoff frustration for a second year.
A capsule look at the NBA as we reach the quarter pole:
1. PHILADELPHIA. You know what most impresses the professionals about this team? It's the fact that when Bobby Jones, Steve Mix and Lionel Hollins come into the game, the 76ers often really are a better club. Nobody can match this team in quality depth.
2. PHOENIX. They've Christine Jorgensened themselves from an effete finesse team into a sheer power club. If Alvan Adams avoids his annual injury, they'll be a serious title threat.
3. MILWAUKEE. Even without Lanier, they can beat anybody at home and most teams on the road. Their Ultimate Weapon isn't Marques Johnson, incidentally. It's Junior Bridgeman, the premier sixth man of his time and one of the toughest matchups in the league.
4. LOS ANGELES. The Word on the Coast was that, starting with the Big Fella, the Lakers were cruising, getting by on talent and reputation alone. The Magic injury might sober them up a bit, but it's got to hurt, nonetheless. They may have to start thinking about the playoffs now.Second tier
5. BOSTON. A fascinating team that disproves the theory that a running game necessitates great speed. With mobile big men who can pass, the Celtics are a unique club. And, hey, is Robert Parish making Fitch look good or what?
6. SAN ANTONIO. I haven't seen them, but I'm passing along the following observation of one NBA expert: "They have every big white guy in the world pounding the boards so that Iceman and Silas can get it and score." I've got to believe Stan Albeck can coach.
7. NEW YORK. Richardson and Williams are the definite All-Talent backcourt. Cartwright has shed the lard. Sly is proving he can play, as we New England college fans always knew.This is the fun team of the year.Third tier
8. GOLDEN STATE. They wanted a new look, and they've got it. Free is calmed down some, but the key man is Bernard King. Don't look for them to be this high at the end, however.
9. INDIANA. The Power of Positive Coaching. The mere subtitution of Jack McKinney for Slick Leonard restored professionalism to this club. Now if they could just trade McGinnis for Alex English, they'd have something. P.S. Hey, Santa, couldn't you leave a Dudley Bradley in Boston's Christmas stocking?
10. UTAH. I keep hearing it over and over. "Nissalke is using Griffith right. Nissalke is using Wayne Cooper right. Nissalke is using Bristow right. Etc. etc." Coaching really does matter in this league.
11. SEATTLE. They're really struggling now, but they'll improve when Westphal comes back. They say Sikma is at the peak of his game, but that James Bailey has been a big disappointment. There are fears that Sam Schulman is preparing to write off this season now that Shelton is out.
12. KANSAS CITY. Not what they were two years ago, because Lacey has slipped and Leon Douglas is no starting center. Birdsong, Ford and Wedman are all first-rate players, so they'll win a lot of games, anyway.
13. CHICAGO. Talk about Monsters of the Midway! This is the biggest overall team of all-time, and far from the least talented. A healthy Ronnie Lester could take this team somewhere.
14. NEW JERSEY. There are a lot of parts here, but they don't fit together yet. They goofed by letting George (Fly Swatter) Johnson go, and they know it. Mike O'Koren was born to play with Larry Bird. Too bad we can't arrange it.
15. HOUSTON. It's getting close to overhaul time. Malone, Robert Reid and Murphy (as an off-the-bench sparkplug) may be all that's worth saving. A .500 record is their maximum potential.
16. ATLANTA. Bad health, and little else, is responsible for their current plight. Hubie is still searching for the right guard to pair with Eddie Johnson, but when and if he gets a healthy Tree Rollins, the Hawks' record will improve.
17. DENVER. David Thompson is back, they say. That's nice, but the only two players even near his level on this team are Alex English and Dan Issel. The Nuggets are a long way from being truly competitive, but with Thompson cooking they're at least a decent show.
18. PORTLAND. On paper, this doesn't appear to be a bad team at all, and you know Dr. Jack can coach. But why are they such impotent fellows on the road? And whatever happened to Ron Brewer? Fortunately, those 12,666 keep coming every night.
19. WASHINGTON. Not since Norm Van Lier ran fast breaks by himself in the Chicago Stadium has a guard been so miscast as Whippet Wes Matthews. The Bullets' frontcourt can't do it anymore, and, worse, they're all untradeable. Once in a while they start off hot and thus stay interested in the game, but this is basically a mentally whipped club.Fourth tier
20. SAN DIEGO. Michael Brooks is an asset. Brian Taylor is an asset. Phil Smith may still be an asset. Everyone else either doesn't belong in the NBA or is expendable. By getting client Paul Silas a three-year contract, Larry Fleisher has once again demonstrated the value of having a smart agent.
21. CLEVELAND. They're all trying to steal Mike Mitchell, and Randy Smith - God Bless 'Im - can still play. Surprisingly, Bill Laimbeer is much better than his critics thought. Roger Phegley is a good eighth or ninth man as a shooting specialist. If they develop a little more mental toughness, they'll sneak up on people and win some games.
22. DETROIT. Hustle has taken them this far, so you can see what the talent is really like. They share with Cleveland the problem of playing before friends and relatives in a monster building, thus negating the potential of a home court advantage. The best thing that could happen to them, aside from signing Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas and Albert King, would be a move back downtown to Joe Louis Arena.
23. DALLAS. So who's surprised? An expansion team is an expansion team is an expansion team. But I hear Dick Motta is coaching his fanny off after taking it easy in Washington last year.
Not to mention . . .
Player of the Quarter-season - Magic Johnson.
Rookie of the Quarter-season - Darrell Griffith.
Surprise Team of the Quarter-season - San Antonio.