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Pro basketball at midseason: fans fewer and so are lustrous rookies

As the National Basketball Association plowed through the halfway mark of its 82-game regular season, attendance was down, two coaches had been fired, and rumors of drug abuse among players had not been entirely laid to rest.

The attendance drop has been attributed to everything from high ticket prices and the cost of gasoline to the length of the National Football League season, which concludes with the Super Bowl Jan. 25. But part of it is because no current rookie has been even remotely in the class of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, last season's top newcomers.

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Denver and New Jersey, two teams going nowhere, have undergone coaching shuffles.The Nuggets replaced Donnie Walsh with Doug Moe, while the Nets hired Bob Mckinnon after Kevin Loughery resigned. What both teams really need, however, is an intimidating scorer-rebounder.

Although Commissioner Larry O'Brien agrees that drug abuse is a serious problem in our society, he has flatly rejected as irresponsible recent stories speculating that there is widespread abuse among NBA players -- between 40 and 75 percent.

However, I found it relatively easy to get players and trainers to comment off the record on the league's drug problem, and all seem to feel that there are users on all 23 NBA teams.

Looking ahead to the playoffs, which don't begin until April, five teams are considered well balanced enough to have a shot at the title. They are, in alphabetical order, Boston, defending champion Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.

Boston, which was overpowered physically by Philadelphia in last season's Eastern Conference finals, is no longer so small up front. The Celtics start 7 -foot Robert Parish between 6-9 Larry Bird and 6-8 Cedric Maxwell, and have a young bull coming off the bench in 6-11 rookie Kevin McHale.

But in a short series it's doubtful if the starting backcourt of Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford (plus reserves M. L. Carr, who's out with an injury, and Gerald Henderson) has enough firepower to win a title.

Los Angeles often looks like the best team in pro basketball with Magic Johnson in the lineup, but is subject to the uneven play of center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he isn't. If Johnson (out since November after leg surgery) returns in time to tune his game, L.A. could win again.

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Milwaukee is two deep everywhere except at center, where Bob Lanier's ancient knees continue to be a problem. Thirty-five minutes of floor time a game is just about right for Lanier these days. This has worked well during the season, where Bob has been able to pace himself and get backup help from Harvey Catchings. But with the playoffs calling for an extraordinary number of games in a short period of time, any more floor time would be like asking Lanier to run a marathon.

On paper Philadelphia should win it all, except that the 76ers have been there before and somehow found a way to lose. But with six players consistently scoring in double figures, Caldwell Jones and Julius Erving approaching 900 rebounds between them,; and the 76ers playing the best defense in the league, it is hard to pick against them.

Phoenix, restructed rather than rebuilt, can now win with power as well as finesse. With Walter Davis having mastered the switch from forward to guard, Rick Kelley providing Alvan Adams with rest at center, and Jeff Cook Sweeping both boards, the Suns may have a good shot.

Of the potential division champions, San Antonio (Midwest) is the weakest and may eventually be hard pressed by Kansas City. Right now the job Jack McKinney has done with Indiana should make him Coach of the Year, although Al Attles of golden State is also a possibility.

At this point, there is no clear-cut Rookie of the Year candidate. Darrell Griffith has helped Utah with his scoring and Joe Barry Carroll the Warriors with his rebounding, but San Diego's Michael Brooks or Boston's McHale may outdistance them both.

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