Teams that play well away from home during their regular season generally dominate the National Basketball Association playoffs, a fact that perhaps has never quite gotten the recognition it deserves.
Using that information as a yardstick, the six best road teams in the NBA last year were the Boston Celtics (the eventual world champs), Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Phoenix Suns.
Equally powerful on paper and joining these six among the preseason favorites are the Houston Rockets, who lost to the Celtics in last year's finals, and the San Antonio Spurs, who in 1980-81 were almost unbeatable on their home court.
Here are the scouting reports:
Phildelphia, the team with the best regular season record over the past five years, (273-137), is growing older but hopefully smarter. The problem is generally the uneven play of center Darryl Dawkins, whose mind does not always accompany his body. You probably won't see the real Boston Celtics until the playoffs. By that time rookie backup guards Charles Bradley and Tracy Jackson should be well-schooled in the art of role-playing. New York coach Red Holzman thinks he may have in power forward Maurice Lucas (obtained from the Nets) another Dave DeBusschere. The last time that happened the Knicks became the best team in the league. Look for improvement by New Jersey, which has a new coach in Larry Brown and seven new players with NBA ability, including All-Star guard Otis Birdsong. It is hard to see how Washington minus Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Mitch Kupchak, and Bobby Dandridge can do much more than get coach Gene Shue fired.
Milwaukee's chances seem to hinge mostly on how much time Bob Lanier (the maximum number of bad knees) can play and how soon rookie center Alton Lister of Arizona State can adjust to pro ball. Chicago should continue to improve, especially if guard Ronnie Lester can provide a lift coming off the bench. Jack McKinney of Indiana, one of the best coaches in the NBA, will again juggle his personnel and win more games than most people think he should. The Pacers have a new center this year in Tom Owens, obtained from Portland. It is quite possible that Atlanta, once it gets its act together under new coach Kevin Loughery, will play more like a first-place team than a fourth-place one. Detroit has two of the top rookies in the league in guard Isiah Thomas of Indiana and forward Kelly Tripucka of Notre Dame. The Pistons, on their good nights, are going to make a lot of opponents unhappy. With seven new players and a relatively new NBA coach in Don Delaney (he took over late last season) Cleveland hopes to improve in a hurry. But with James Edwards, a notoriously weak rebounder at center, that isn't probable.
Houston, which became a quality team during last year's playoffs after finishing below .500 during the regular season, is now one of the toughest teams in the NBA. As a finishing touch, the Rockets acquired high-scoring Elvin Hayes from Washington during the summer. San Antonio is a tough rebounding team that almost never loses at home. What coach Stan Albeck needs is to get more production in road games. Kansas City, which lost both guard Otis Birdsong and forward Scott Wedman in the free agent draft, has a lot of rebuilding to do and will be hard pressed to make the playoffs. Denver will score a lot of points under coach Doug Moe, who has the quickest offense in the league. But until the Nuggets learn to play more defense, crowd pleasers are all they'll ever be. Two rookies, center Dan Schayes of Syracuse and Howard Wood of Tennessee, should help Utah take another step up the NBA ladder this season. Dallas, which won only 15 games in its expansion year, now has someone it can build around in All-America forward Mark Aguirre of DePaul. The Mavericks won't win many games, even with Aguirre, but they will look better losing.
If Coach Paul Westhead can get Los Angeles to play together, nobody should catch the Lakers. L.A.'s best off-season move was signing free agent Mitch Kupchack, an excellent rebounder who is also strong on defense. Phoenix probably won't be itself until high-scoring guard Walter Davis, who broke an elbow in preseason play, returns to the lineup. The Suns have their usual thin man problem at center. Seattle, with guard Gus Williams back after holding out for a year and forward Lonnie Shelton back after missing most of last season with injuries, could be the dark horse of this division. Portland, which has one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, played .679 ball after Dec. 2 last season. The Blazers' main problem seems to be too many guards and too few quality centers. Golden State, which has a nucleus of good players but very little depth , probably can't look forward to more than a .500 season. In San Diego, new owner Donald T. Sterling has promised to buy any available superstars who aren't nailed down no matter what the cost. Mr. Sterling should go shopping immediately.